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Panthers end surprising season by locking up NFC South, first-round bye

Cam Newton is headed to the playoffs for the first time. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Cam Newton is headed to the playoffs for the first time.

Before the season even started, their head coach was nearly fired. Their quarterback was trying to rebound from a subpar second season, there were question marks all along the offensive line and there were no assurances that their defense would be anything special. In addition, they were trying to compete in a division that was seen by many as the NFL's toughest.

America, say hello to the Carolina Panthers, your 2013 NFC South champions, and the current holder of the second seed in the NFC postseason food chain. And if the Seattle Seahawks lose to the St. Louis Rams, and the San Francisco 49ers beat the Arizona Cardinals, the road to the Super Bowl in that conference would go through Ron Rivera's team. Not bad for a coach who made it back for a third season by dint of a paper-thin vote of confidence from team owner Jerry Richardson.

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"It wasn't pretty, but it feels great," Rivera said after the Panthers beat the Atlanta Falcons 21-20 to move to 12-4 on the season. Since the franchise's inception in 1996, the Panthers have now won 12 games in a season three times (also in 1997 and 2008), and never more games than that.  It certainly wasn't expected this season, with the New Orleans Saints expected to rebound with Sean Payton's return and the Falcons coming off an NFC Championship Game appearance. But the Saints started to fade, the Falcons fell apart completely and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were never a threat.

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But that's not to minimize the Panthers' return to relevance, a turnaround that starts with quarterback Cam Newton. The first overall pick in 2011 followed a brilliant rookie season with a 2012 campaign in which forces both internal and external seemed to be arrayed against him. This sophomore slump did not affect Newton's mindset, however, because he knew change was on the way. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski took the Cleveland Browns' head coach position, and quarterbacks coach Mike Shula was promoted.

"Coach Chudzinski was a key to our success," Newton told me in May. "He obviously moved onward and upward, and Coach Shula is going to pick it up and make a success on his own by putting the offense in the best positions possible. So for us, we want to take what we've started here and make it easier for us to communicate, hone in on our communication skills, and make everyone play faster."

They certainly played better. Newton was well aware of the effects his sideline behavior had on his teammates, and he simply cut the crap and focused on the game, with Shula's able assistance. Outside of a three-pick disaster against the Arizona Cardinals on Oct. 6, he clearly showed week after week that he had a more comprehensive understanding of defensive complexities, and he didn't lose any of his dynamism as a pure runner. He finished the regular season with a career-high 24 touchdowns.

The Carolina defense has been an equally pleasant surprise. Not only have linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis each played like Defensive Players of the Year, but also the defensive front was enhanced by the draft selections of Utah's Star Lotulelei and Purdue's Kawann Short and the emergence of pass-rusher Greg Hardy. The latter, a sixth-round pick out of Ole Miss in 2010, amassed just seven total sacks in his first two NFL seasons, but raised that to 11 in 2012 and expanded that to 15 in '13. In his last three games alone, Hardy has eight quarterback takedowns. The secondary, once an obvious weakness, has played with more consistency of late, and it's easy to see the Panthers as the NFC's version of that one team nobody wants to face in the postseason.