The receivers of the Carolina Panthers are a no-name cast of misfits, seemingly unfit to play a leading role for the highest-scoring offense in football and a team preparing to play Super Bowl 50 as a big favorite.
Ted Ginn. Jerricho Cotchery. Devin Funchess. Corey Brown. Brenton Bersin.
Those five names represent the receivers for a team that averaged 31.3 points per game and is now a win over the Denver Broncos away from completing an 18-1 season.
Many wondered how the Panthers could possibly survive when top receiver Kelvin Benjamin went down with a torn ACL in August, given the remaining personnel at the position. Carolina's five receivers have since transformed from the weakest link in the chain to the perfect supporting cast for the Panthers offense.
"We understood that we were a whole bunch of misfits and different things like that," Ginn said, per Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic. "'We don't have a receiving corps.' Yeah we heard it. But we knew what we had in the room and collectively we came together as a group to make it work. That's all you can do."
|Carolina Panthers WRs in 2015 Regular Season|
|31 receptions over 20 yards, 115 first downs|
Over 16 regular-season games, Ginn, Cotchery, Funchess and Brown caught 22 of Cam Newton's 35 touchdown passes.
Ginn, who came into the season with 11 career receiving scores, hauled in 10—making him one of just 13 players in the NFL this season to catch double-digit touchdowns. Three of the scores covered more than 40 yards, while five gave the Panthers a lead.
Of Ginn's 44 total receptions, 10 produced 20 or more yards (22.7 percent). Five were good for more than 40 (11.4). He made a living off getting deep within Carolina's unstoppable play-action passing game.
Cotchery entered his 12th NFL season at age 33. He put up modest numbers—39 catches, 485 yards and three touchdowns—but he caught almost 74 percent of his targets, averaged 12.4 yards per catch and produced first downs on 26 of his 39 receptions.
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Funchess was the wild card. A rookie from Michigan standing 6'5", some believed he was best suited to play tight end at the NFL level. The Panthers took him in the second round and slowly developed him at receiver, and the results paid off late in the season. Funchess caught all five of his touchdowns over the final nine games of the regular season.
Brown—an undrafted free agent from Ohio State in his second NFL season—caught four touchdowns, while producing a catch over 20 yards in seven of his 14 games.
Bersin played in nine games after being signed off the practice squad in September, catching nine passes for 119 yards.
"Those guys have been playing lights-out since Day 1," Newton said, per Chris Wesseling of NFL.com "To say the least."
The group's shining moment came in Carolina's NFC Championship Game win over the Arizona Cardinals.
Ginn scored from 22 yards out on a misdirection run in the first quarter, giving the Panthers a 10-0 lead. He later set up a second-half touchdown with a 39-yard reception. Brown put Carolina up by 17 points in the first quarter when he caught a deep pass over the middle and sprinted 86 yards for a touchdown. In the fourth quarter, Funchess put the game out of reach when he hauled in a five-yard strike from Newton.
Overall, Ginn, Cotchery, Funchess and Brown combined to catch 10 passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns, plus Ginn's touchdown run.
The Panthers receivers no longer want to be known as the weak link for the game's most dominant team.
"It pisses me off, I ain't going to lie to you," Panthers receivers coach Ricky Proehl told Somers. "These guys have developed into such a great group that plays for each other, and I think that's important."
Just look around the league. Aaron Rodgers' receivers caught 17 of his 31 touchdowns. Tom Brady threw only 12 touchdowns to wide receivers. Peyton Manning, Newton's counterpart on Sunday, found receivers for scores just five times this season.
The Panthers' rag-tag group of receivers caught 22. Only a handful of teams produced more in 2015.
Of course, Carolina's group hasn't done it all alone. Newton produced an MVP season as a passer and runner; tight end Greg Olsen led the team in receptions (77), targets (123) and receiving yards (1,104); and the Panthers ran the football more than any offense in the NFL (526 attempts). Carolina's offense isn't built through the receiver position, especially without Benjamin.
But the Panthers haven't won 17 games in 18 tries in spite of the team's production at receiver.
The group's biggest test comes on Super Bowl Sunday, when the Broncos will throw a secondary consisting of Chris Harris, Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby at Carolina's receivers. On paper, it looks like a huge mismatch favoring Denver.
However, the Panthers have been beating the odds all season. If Super Bowl 50 swings Carolina's way on a big play from a receiver, don't be surprised. It's happened all season.
Zach Kruse covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.