On the field, the Carolina Panthers were pushed to the brink of their first loss this season, barely escaping with a 41-38 victory Sunday against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Afterward, the Panthers showed their true championship form in a joyous postgame locker room, reveling in the moment of a third consecutive NFC South title.
It proved to be a celebration within a celebration.
Not only did the Panthers improve to 12-0 this season, they extended their overall winning streak to 16 games dating to last season. And they kept a stranglehold on home-field advantage in the NFC.
“How sweet it is,’’ smiled Panthers’ strong safety Roman Harper, who cut his NFL teeth in New Orleans from 2006-13 as a member of coach Sean Payton’s first draft class.
“Today was one of those days where we didn’t play our best, but we still found a way to win in a tough environment, and that’s what great teams do. We knew we had to get to 12 before we could get to 13. Now we got to get to 13.’’
As Harper held court in one end of the raucous locker room, quarterback Cam Newton did his best karaoke version of Drake’s “Back to Back,’’ much to the delight of wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who caught a game-winning 15-yard touchdown pass from Newton with 1:05 remaining.
Cotchery acknowledged that the Panthers knew they had clinched the division title before the game by virtue of Atlanta’s 23-19 road loss against the surging Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But that didn’t change the Panthers’ game plan.
“You always want to take care of your own busiensss,’’ Cotchery said. “That’s what we tried to do. This game is all about dealing with adversity.
“We know we got some work to do. Right now, we took care of our division. But we’ll put the (championship) hats down after we finish celebrating and we’ll get back to work this week.’’
One by one, players were handed NFC South championship caps as they walked into their locker room and exchanged congratulatory hugs with beaming coach Ron Rivera.
Nearby, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson shared some intimate words with selected players, including tight end Greg Olsen, who kept the winning drive alive with a crucial 16-yard catch on fourth-and-4 from the Saints 46.
Olsen cradled the ball with both hands inches before it hit the turf, prompting Payton to challenge the on-field ruling of a completed pass.
“I was surprised that they challenged it,’’ said Olsen, who caught nine passes for a game-high 129 yards. “On the field, live, I felt like it never left my hands. I caught it pretty clean. It never hit the ground. I wasn’t very worried about the challenge.”