CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) The Carolina Panthers return to the bayou on Sunday where their current franchise-record 15-game regular season win streak began last December.
They do so as a more confident bunch, an undefeated 11-0 team looking to clinch its third straight NFC South championship with a win over the New Orleans Saints. A team with a swagger, eager to take another step toward securing home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
It wasn't that way on Dec. 2, 2014.
The Panthers arrived at the Superdome that day with a 3-8-1 record and not having won a football game in more than two months.
Few could have predicted what would happen next.
The Panthers scored on the game's opening drive and rolled to a 41-10 victory over the Saints behind three touchdown passes from Cam Newton. For the Panthers, all of the struggles from previous weeks culminated in one near-perfect all-around performance.
Carolina hasn't lost a regular season game since, their only hiccup being an NFC divisional playoff loss at Seattle.
''That game kind of started this whole year of success we've had,'' Pro bowl tight end Greg Olsen said. ''That was the breakout moment to put us on this run. We have fond memories of the last time we went down there.''
While Olsen acknowledges he never could have envisioned the Panthers were about to start such an impressive win streak, he sensed that the team was on the verge of putting things together.
Despite the record, he said players hadn't give up on the season, in part because they knew they still were in the hunt in the weak NFC South, which they eventually won despite finishing with a 7-8-1 record.
''Did we believe in what we were doing? Yes,'' Olsen said. ''We believed in our processes and our preparation and we believed it was a matter of time before we caught our groove. And here we are.''
Panthers veteran safety Roman Harper credits coach Ron Rivera for keeping the team together through a tough two-month period that included a few closes losses and a difficult-to-swallow tie against the Cincinnati Bengals.
A reflective Harper said he felt Rivera was the only person who truly believed in the team last year.
''He continued to harp on it that, `Hey, we have a chance,''' Harper said. ''He would tell us every day, `Hey I believe in you guys.'''
When asked if he believed Rivera, Harper smiled and shook his head no.
''Hey, I'm just being honest,'' Harper said. ''I mean we went two months without a win, so I was like, `Hey, I hear you coach, but I want to see something.'''
Rivera said the inspirational talks with players were more than just coach-speak.
He'd notice every day that as many as 30 or 40 players would stay late after practice to work with assistant coaches on minor details of the game like hand placement to get off blocks, how to sharpen their route running or ways to strip a ball loose.
''You just felt that these guys really wanted it - and that it was just a matter of time,'' Rivera said.
Of course it helped that other NFC South teams kept losing, leaving the door open for the Panthers.
''We were like, `it's right there in front of us for the taking,''' Rivera said of the NFC South title.
This Sunday, it is there again.
The Panthers can wrap up their third straight NFC South title even before they step on the field. Carolina will clinch if Atlanta loses to Tampa Bay in the early game on Sunday.
There has been little talk in the locker room of securing a division title though.
With a two-game lead over Arizona in the NFC, it's pretty clear the Panthers have much bigger aspirations, including grabbing the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs for the first time and extending a win streak at the place where it all began.
NOTES: Cornerback Charles Tillman (knee) and defensive end Mario Addison (ankle) missed practice again Thursday, decreasing the likelihood they will play Sunday. Tillman has missed the last two games and the Panthers signed cornerback Cortland Finnegan earlier this week out of to add depth in the secondary. ... Team owner Jerry Richardson made a rare appearance at practice on Thursday.
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