Carolina Panthers are alive in NFC playoffs despite record, off-field issues _lowres

Carolina Panthers' Charles Johnson (95) and Kony Ealy (94) celebrate after a sack against the Arizona Cardinals in the second half of an NFL wild card playoff football game in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015. The Panthers won 27-16. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he’s never experienced a season like this one since he joined the NFL 30 years ago.

Carolina’s journey to the NFC divisional playoffs has included quarterback Cam Newton flipping his truck and being hospitalized with two fractures in his lower back, franchise defensive end Greg Hardy being convicted on two counts of domestic violence, and Rivera’s house catching fire and causing $500,000 worth of the damage five days before the biggest game of his coaching career.

“It has been different,” Rivera said. “You can’t make this stuff up.”

There’s been nothing ordinary or predictable about the Panthers on the field, either.

Carolina became the first NFL team to go more than two months without a victory and reach the playoffs. The Panthers won the NFC South despite a 7-8-1 record. And last Saturday, a defense that gave up 35 or more points in four of its first seven games held Arizona to 78 yards in the wild-card round, the fewest ever allowed in the NFL postseason.

Safety Roman Harper said he wasn’t expecting this type of adventure in his first season since joinging the team from New Orleans.

The Panthers visit Seattle (12-4) on Saturday with a trip to the NFC championship game on the line.

“It isn’t the prettiest thing, but we got a date to the prom at the end of the day,” Harper said, laughing. “We’re here. She’s probably not the best-looking one; she’s not going to win prom queen, but we’ll have a good time.”

The Panthers aren’t apologizing for their record.

In fact, in some ways they believe the season has toughened them and left them playoff ready. They had to win their last four games just to get into the playoffs.

Newton has fought through ankle and rib injuries and the back fractures, and he has the Panthers on a five-game winning streak.

Rivera is already hunkered down preparing for Seattle while his wife handles the details of where he’ll live for the next 6-8 months while their burned-out home is rebuilt.

Hardy still isn’t eligible to play, but his absence paved the way for fellow defensive end Charles Johnson to step out of character and become one of the team’s vocal leaders.

Cornerback Josh Norman is convinced the Panthers have benefited from some divine intervention — particularly when it came to Newton’s accident.

“If it weren’t for God’s angel covering him in that truck, I don’t know what would have happened,” Norman said. “We could have been talking about missing our quarterback, our leader, forever. But he was blessed.”

The idea the Panthers are even still playing after a 3-8-1 start speaks volumes about the team, said center Ryan Kalil.

“Some strange things have come up,” Kalil said, “but it’s been very telling of the character and closeness of this team that whether it is something happening inside or outside the locker room, this is a group that stuck together and continue to work and work.”

Kalil said that is also a reflection of Rivera, the 2013 NFL Coach of the Year, for staying positive and keeping everyone together when it would have been easy to quit on the season.

Rivera said he never once lost faith in his team.

“At the end of the day, you learn how to deal and cope with these things,” Rivera said, “and if you can keep your focus, then you will have an opportunity and a chance.”

Then again, maybe Carolina’s season isn’t that unusual.

Former Jets wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery was asked about this year and simply laughed.

“Well, I played in New York,” Cotchery said, “so I won’t even go there.”