Jan. 25, 2016
Jan. 25, 2016

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Jan. 25, 2016

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Once a reckless freelancer, JOSH NORMAN has seen .the light and—awww, who are we kidding? The Panthers' Pro Bowl corner, a former theater student, still loves to ad . -lib. His next role: Cardinals killer?

This is an article from the Jan. 25, 2016 issue

ALL THE field is a stage for Panthers cornerback Josh Norman, who minored in dramatic arts at Coastal Carolina, readily recites Homer and has been known to quote Gladiator after pass breakups. ("What we do in life echoes in eternity!") Before facing the Seahawks on Sunday, though, Norman opted for originality: He galloped out of the tunnel, straddling a football like a saddle and shouting, "Giddy-up!" The performance was both literal (Norman, an avid horse rider, owns a chestnut saddlebred named Delta) and interpretive (he has tamed wild-stallion wideouts all season).

"We all knew what a character Josh is," says Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis. "Because of the year he's had, the world is seeing it too."

Norman has been a revelation for the Panthers, who'll play for the NFC title after jumping out to a 31-point lead against Seattle and then barely hanging on to win 31--24. The anchor on a secondary that's missing injured starters Bene Benwikere and Charles Tillman, he has held opposing QBs to a league-low 54.0 passer rating, according to Pro Football Focus. Perhaps that's why Russell Wilson didn't throw at Norman until the final five minutes of the first half.

It's fitting that in the same game that Richard Sherman and his Legion of Boom appeared to lose their superpowers, Norman continued his ascent as the next great supervillain of the secondary. His seasonlong audition as Sherman 2.0 has included brash declarations and petitions for respect—plus a growing list of nemeses. Norman's sparring instigated a head-butting meltdown by Giants wideout Odell Beckham Jr. in Week 14. A week later Falcons receiver Roddy White laughed off Norman as a lockdown corner, citing Carolina's propensity for zone coverages. In other words, Norman had his attention. "Josh is notorious for getting into opponents' heads," says Tillman. "It's like a Jedi mind trick."

When asked about facing the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald in the NFC title game, Norman played deferential: "The older you get, the finer the wine." (Let the mind tricks begin!)

A college walk-on who was drafted in the fifth round in 2012, Norman started as a rookie—but a tendency to freelance plays got him demoted to nickel corner in '13. When he continued to rely on instinct over assignment, he was benched for nine of the last 13 games that season.

"I realized that, to make it in the NFL, that's not the way you play," says Norman, who at 6 feet and 195 pounds isn't particularly physical or fast, which leaves him relying largely on his outstanding peripheral vision. As much as he has evolved (in part by following some life coaching from owner Jerry Richardson), Norman can't kick his improvising habit.

Late in the third quarter on Sunday, he hung shallow in zone coverage. As Wilson scrambled, Norman abandoned his post and charged, racking up the first sack of his career. "Sometimes you just go rogue for the heck of it," he says. "But I'm not looking forward to dissecting that play with Coach."

PHOTODAVID T. FOSTER III/TNS/ZUMAPRESS.COM (SACK)BLITZ AND PIECES Norman's risky third-quarter takedown of Wilson (below) snuffed out a Seattle drive—and, really, any hope of an epic comeback. PHOTOCHRIS KEANE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above]