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Panthers column: The energy is back

CHARLOTTE — After the Panthers got their first playoff win since they beat the Chicago Bears in January 2006, the fans hung around. They formed a ring around the front row of the lower bowl. Players — Greg Olsen and Luke Kuechly among them — shook their hands to show their appreciation.

“It’s a whole lot of excitement and rightfully so,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “It’s been a long time since we won a playoff game around here. Our fans were excited. They were behind us. They were energized, and we feed off that energy.

“It was all about going out and doing whatever we could to get this win for our fans,” continued Davis. “That was our motivation.”

It was a gratifying scene after a feeling of impending doom hung over the stadium as the Panthers battled the Cardinals with a berth in the Divisional Round on the line Saturday.

A hot start gave the home team a double-digit lead in the first quarter. Spirits were high. The white towels were in the air. The crowd was into it.

That changed when Arizona took a 14-13 lead on Marion Grice’s 1-yard touchdown run that initially looked like a change of possession at the Arizona 1-yard line. Kawann Short knocked the ball out of Grice’s hands, and Roman Harper was there for the recovery. A review of the play clearly showed the ball broke the plane before Grice lost it.

Momentum was in Arizona’s favor.  Carolina clung for dear life.

Ron Rivera had to send a message to his team. He had to tell them something. All he told the players was they couldn’t lose focus because Arizona is trying to manage itself to a win.

A sequence lasting 1 minute, 46 seconds fixed everything.

Running back Fozzy Whittaker knifed his way through the Cardinals’ defense for 39 yards, with help from a downfield block by Byron Bell, for a touchdown on a short screen pass from Cam Newton for a touchdown.

Then Melvin White hit Cardinals return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. so hard on the ensuing kickoff that Ginn fumbled the ball at the Arizona 8-yard line. Kevin Reddick recovered the ball for the Panthers at the Cardinals’ 3. Three plays later, Newton and Mike Tolbert connected for a 1-yard touchdown pass.

The stadium was alive again. Victory was in the air.

This game was a microcosm of the Panthers’ entire 2014 season.

Carolina looked like a winner at the start. Then it looked like a for-sure loser, destined to extend the streak of seasons without a playoff win to nine, because of ineptitude on offense and shoddy-at-best special teams.

Carolina, however, hung around. Just like the last four weeks of the regular season, opportunities for success presented themselves. The Panthers seized them.

“We are going to enjoy it, and we are going to try to capitalize on the opportunity that has been given to us,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “We got ourselves in the playoffs, and we are going to try to take this thing as far as we can. It has been a special and trying year, but I think we have learned a lot, and we’ve gotten stronger because of it.”

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