The Carolina Panthers have had a surprisingly wonderful 2013 season, largely due to their devotion to growth and their poised leader, Riverboat Ron.
After starting 1-3, the Panthers won eight straight games and established themselves as legitimate contenders in the NFC. Through Cam Newton's maturation and their rowdy defense, Carolina has found themselves in contention for the second seed in the NFC.
Newton has been extremely key to the Panthers' success this season. Although he hasn't had eye-popping numbers, he's obviously grown as a player and is blossoming into a splendid leader on offense. Newton is no longer trying to do everything himself and is letting his teammates at other skill positions get some shine.
Steve Smith and Greg Olsen are more-than-reliable targets for Newton in the passing game, while DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert combine for an effective pairing of runners. The Panthers are the eighth-ranked rushing attack in the NFL, and Williams is having his best season since 2009.
When analyzing how far this team has the potential to go, there's much to consider. One could argue that the level of competition they played during that eight-game win streak was below par at times, but if you look closely at those games, the Panthers largely dominated and rarely faltered as you would expect any team of their caliber to do.
Against tougher teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Carolina put on a defensive clinic, shutting down Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the Niners offense; they held Kaep and Co. to just 151 yards of offense and nine points. The following week, against the New England Patriots, Newton led the team on a 83-yard game-winning drive that he closed out with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn.
The Panthers followed up that drive with an interception of Tom Brady and consequently won. However, there's more to it.
There is much controversy surrounding the "hugception" play in which Luke Kuechly blatantly interfered with the Patriots' receiver and received no call for it. Despite this, the fact that they kept it so close against a team like New England speaks volumes, even if they would have ended up losing.
The biggest blemish this season came against the division-rival New Orleans Saints, a game which Carolina lost 31-13 on the road at the Superdome. This loss didn't prove that the Panthers aren't a playoff team, but rather showed that they can't overcome large deficits against potent passing attacks.
They will have their chance at redemption this Sunday when they host the Saints in their second meeting of the season, and they have a pretty good chance to win. The Panthers are 6-1 at home this season and have gotten on track since their loss to New Orleans a couple of weeks ago.
This upcoming game against the Saints will show us a lot about the resolve of this Carolina team.
What will truly drive this team through the playoffs is their defense. The Panthers' defense is filled to the brim with talent, and it all starts up front with their defensive line. With well over 1,200 pounds on the line alone, Carolina is built to stop the run and let their linebackers play all over the field.
We've all heard that defense wins championships, and this team is a perfect example of that. The Panthers are in good shape heading into the postseason and will be a tough contest for anyone they face.
Especially if they can clinch the second seed in the NFC and home-field advantage, then things will largely be in their favor.
*All stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference