Josh Norman personifies Panthers' rise

Carolina defensive back Josh Norman has Panthers pointed in the right direction as the leader of the secondary. Norman is a Greenwood native and played at Coastal Carolina. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

CHARLOTTE - You want that edgy confidence in an NFL cornerback.

"Our defense is menacing," Josh Norman said between the Carolina Panthers' record-setting NFL playoff victory over Arizona and Saturday night's game at Seattle. "Our defense is stifling. Defensive linemen are coming off the ball, linebackers are playing downhill and (defensive backs) are covering and breaking off the ball. I'll say it again: Our defense is menacing. We have that Panther roar."

In an ideal world, an emerging Carolina Panthers' star has Carolina ties. That's Norman, a Greenwood, S.C., native who played college football at Coastal Carolina.

Doubtless, No. 24 is a man of the people.

"White towels, man, they were everywhere," Norman said of the Bank of America Stadium crowd for the Arizona game. "I felt like I wanted to be in the stands with them. It was awesome, that electricity."

Along with perfect casting comes steady performance. No player is more symbolic of the Panthers' unlikely dash from first overall draft pick candidate to Wildcard winner.

Norman was on the bench for much of the Panthers' 3-8-1 start. Five straight victories later, the Panthers have an NFC South title, their first playoff win since 2005 and prime-time reservations in Seattle. Norman is showing shut-down potential, a trait the Panthers need this week and seasons beyond.

Head coach Ron Rivera moved decisively following a 31-13 debacle in Minnesota on Nov. 30. He cut cornerback Antoine Cason and put rookie Bene Benwikere in the starting lineup opposite Norman. Another rookie, Tre Boston, replaced veteran Thomas DeCoud at free safety.

That left Norman assigned to the best receivers on every team.

He passed the December tests.

Tampa Bay's Mike Evans on Dec. 14: 2 catches, 13 yards.

Cleveland's Josh Gordon on Dec. 21: 4 catches, 45 yards.

Atlanta's Julio Jones on Dec. 28: 4 catches, 58 yards.

Evans scored the only touchdown during that stretch, and Norman was furious about that.

While the Panthers were holding Arizona to an NFL-playoff record low 78 yards on Saturday, Norman spent most of his field time covering Michael Floyd, who led the Cardinals in receiving yards (841) and touchdowns (6) this season.

Floyd finished with one catch for nine yards.

The 6-foot, 195-pound Norman has some rough edges to fix. His five fines this season include $11,000 for wearing non-issue silver cleats against the Vikings and $8,268 for fighting against the Falcons.

But no one in the Panthers' locker room is complaining.

"He's going to push you," Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin said. "He's going to get physical with you and make you better."

Norman didn't plan on Coastal Carolina. He hoped to attend Georgia after playing football, basketball and baseball and running track at Greenwood High School.

"They offered me a scholarship depending on my SAT score," Norman said. "I ended up not making it the first time, so they gave it to somebody else. They ended up with the second-best guy. Then I made the score but the scholarship wasn't there anymore."

So Norman opted to follow his brother, defensive back Marrio Norman, to Conway. Josh Norman after his senior season at Coastal Carolina was the Panthers' fifth-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft.

He says there is a bond among the "small college" players on the Panthers' roster, a group that includes running back Mike Tolbert (Coastal Carolina) and wide receiver Brenton Bersin (Wofford).

"The big guys like Cam (Newton) and Charles (Johnson) joke with us about not playing at big schools, but we stick together and represent," Norman said.

It's one, big happy family on the way to Seattle. Whatever happens Saturday night, the Panthers seem to have found a chatty cornerback who can play the game and talk the part.

"It's a credit to the coaching staff and a credit to the player personnel people, getting guys in here that can win," Norman said. "We made a couple of changes in the lineup and we're rolling right now."

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff