FILE - In this Jan. 3, 2016, file photo, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) celebrates on the sidelines late in the second half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in Charlotte, N.C. Nearly every coach and every player head
Mike McCarn, File
January 07, 2016

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) The Carolina Panthers have battled through what coach Ron Rivera calls a ''soap opera'' season and still come out shining on the other side with the NFL's best record.

The Panthers have drawn criticism for a variety of reasons: posing for pictures as a group on the sideline while celebrating blowout wins; excessive ''dabbing'' after touchdowns that borders on taunting; even quarterback Cam Newton ripping down a sign supporting the visiting Green Bay Packers before a home game.

And then there was the Odell Beckham Jr. incident when unsourced media reports alleged some members of the Panthers taunted the New York Giants star wide receiver with a baseball bat and homophobic slurs - although the league never found any evidence of that actually happening.

Still, the NFL made the Panthers abstain from bringing baseball bats on the field - a symbol for ''making home run plays on defense,'' as Rivera would put it - and had officials lined up at midfield watching the team's every move during pregame warmups the following week against Atlanta.

''It has been a soap opera season, sheesh - too much soap,'' laughed cornerback Josh Norman, the team's resident trash talker, who found himself in a one-on-one scuffle with Beckham after nearly every play in Carolina's win over the Giants.

The feud would result in three personal fouls on Beckham and a one-game suspension by the league.

Through it all, the Panthers won their third straight NFC South championship and captured home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs for the first time in franchise history, with a record 10 Pro Bowl players. Newton is a strong candidate to win league MVP honors, and Norman is in discussion for Defensive Player of the Year.

But the Panthers won't finish unbeaten like offensive coordinator Mike Shula's father, Don, did with the 1972 Miami Dolphins.

Norman said the fallout from the Beckham fiasco might have cost the Panthers their only loss of the season. He noted it distracted the team in the days afterward as the Panthers were forced to defend themselves against false accusations. Taking away the team's use of the bat on the sideline prompted Rivera to call it the ''No Fun League.''

The Panthers would lose to the Falcons 20-13 in Week 16, but bounce back to ''regain their swagger'' and hammer Tampa Bay 38-10 last Sunday in the season finale to clinch the No. 1 seed.

''At the end of the day you have to have that in order to see what is the ultimate goal, what is the ultimate prize,'' Norman said. ''Sometimes you take your eyes off what really got you where you're at. Sometimes you have to take a step back and get yourself together and press forward. And we have done that in a strong way.''

Perhaps the Panthers should have known it was going to be a weird season when a frustrated Newton ran down Norman after an interception during a practice at training camp, tackled him in the end zone and began throwing punches at the cornerback before teammates separated them.

Or when star wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL at camp in a non-contact drill.

Or even when two protesters suspended themselves from cables from Bank of America Stadium's upper deck to draw attention to a human rights cause during a Monday night game.

It seems no matter what the Panthers do, they've been unable to hide from attention this season.

''To me, it's a sign of the times,'' said Rivera, who played linebacker for the 1985 NFL champion Chicago Bears. ''We were outrageous in 1985. And we had the personalities to go with it. Everybody from Jim McMahon, Richard Dent, Walter Payton, William Perry, we had some great people.

''Fortunately enough back then, we didn't have to deal with the scrutiny at the time. We didn't have the folks from the media to worry about.''

Panthers veteran tight end Greg Olsen said he's learned that's all par for the course if you're playing in today's NFL - especially when you're winning.

And he might have a point.

Last year there was drama surrounding the Panthers when Newton flipped his truck in a two-car accident and broke two bones in his back, and when Rivera's house burned down in a fire days before a playoff game against Arizona.

''That's the NFL,'' Olsen said. ''There is always going to be something. There is always going to be a story. You have to fill these articles with something. And that's the nature of the game - there's a lot of interest in the game and the personalities that make up the teams.

''As a player, after a while you realize it's all just white noise and you keep playing and let everyone else worry about that other stuff.''

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