Sapakoff: There's still room on the Carolina Panthers' playoff bandwagon

Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton (1) signals after making a first down against the Arizona Cardinals in the first half of an NFL wild card playoff football game in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

Mike Tolbert wasn't a bit worried.

"The way our defense was playing," the Carolina Panthers running back said Saturday, "we always knew we were in the game."

Forget that the Carolina Panthers were behind at halftime in an NFC wild-card game against a team using its third-string quarterback.

Never mind that the Panthers had a losing record during the regular season, or that they would have fallen short of the Duck Commander Independence Bowl if the NFL had a playoff committee.

And, sure, the home team tried to ruin everything with a 1-7-1 stretch over two miserable months of the regular season, and with ugly turnovers and dumb penalties during Saturday's 27-16 victory over the Arizona Cardinals at Bank of America Stadium.

But the Panthers, after holding Arizona to 78 yards, are moving on in the playoffs for the first time since 2005, and there's still room on a happy bandwagon bound for Seattle or Green Bay.

What you get for your fan investment (or re-investment): A warm and fuzzy story, complete with a player named Fozzy; upside.

Afraid of Seattle's 12th Man or Lambeau Field tradition?

"I mean, we're built for things like that," said Tolbert, a former Coastal Carolina starter who scored on a 1-yard pass from Cam Newton in the third quarter. "We're ready to accept the challenge."

The Panthers did what they were supposed to do Saturday, make Arizona Cardinals fans long for first-team quarterback Carson Palmer or second-stringer Drew Stanton.

Poor Ryan Lindley, making his seventh career start, looked lost in the misty rain.

The postgame scene of Panthers players exchanging pleasantries with ecstatic fans in January was unimaginable five weeks ago when Carolina was 3-8-1.

"Things just came together," tight end Greg Olsen said. "Sometimes it's best to play your best ball at the end of the year, and that's what we're doing."

The Panthers, with last week's upset of the Falcons at the Georgia Dome, became the first NFC South team to win back-to-back division titles since the NFL split into eight divisions in 2002. As with Arizona on Saturday, Carolina had help.

The Saints mysteriously lost their home-field advantage.

The Falcons were so bad they fired their coach.

The Bucs stopped here, there and everywhere on the way to locking up the first pick in 2015 NFL draft.

But however a division title is packaged, the fast finish makes for a bright future in the relative NFC South sense. It starts with Newton, only 25 and already four seasons into a gradually improving career: 6-10, 7-9, 12-4 with a playoff loss, 7-8-1 with a playoff win.

A bit underrated, the guy has missed only two starts, and one of those was two weeks ago following a nearly tragic auto accident.

Newton has made two Pro Bowls while grasping leadership concepts. He just needs to stop taking so many unnecessary hits, and reduce fumbling.

"We have a long way to go," Newton said. "We didn't come this far to end it (with one playoff win). And we have to do our part offensively."

"Unsatisfied" chatter in the playoffs is quite the contrast from Thanksgiving week when Ron Rivera was on the endangered head coach list after a 31-13 loss at Minnesota.

Now? Rivera deserves Coach of the Year votes. Other teams would love to have such a wise, gritty, honest leader. Among his magical tricks this year: Making the playoffs despite starting as many as seven rookies (a franchise record) in a game.

The unlikely Fozzy Whittaker, free agent running back playing for his fourth NFL team, caught the go-ahead touchdown pass for an unlikely team.

"We just kept going, kept pounding, kept showing up," veteran defensive end Charles Johnson said. "A lot of guys are showing up right now."

Asked to balance a five-game win streak with the formidable Seattle/Green Bay task at hand, linebacker Thomas Davis seemed to be welcoming new- and former Panthers fans back aboard.

"We're battle tested," Davis said. "It's all about us sticking together and making this run and feeding off this momentum."

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff