SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Back in November, the Carolina Panthers were 9-0 and about to take on a 4-5 Washington team that just beat the Saints 47-14.
At the time, Cam Newton's team was starting to feel itself. The record made the Panthers one of the elite teams in the league, although they were without recent championship history to add credibility to their undefeated start. In the NFL, credibility is framed by Lombardi Trophies and Carolina had not brought one home in its 20-year history.
Their best chance since their inception into the league came after 2003, when Newton was 14, when they fell to the Patriots 32-29 in the Super Bowl on the strength of Adam Vinatieri's 41-yard field goal with :04 left, giving New England a second championship in three seasons, before backing it up with another the following year.
With three titles in four seasons, the Patriots had the credibility to act however they pleased without being questioned. They earned that right by winning at a dynastic rate.
That might be why, in November, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera reportedly had to speak to his team about being too cocky following their ninth win, a 27-10 drubbing of the lowly Tennessee Titans. According to the NFL Network, Rivera told his team, "I love the personality, but we can't lose our focus," during the week before the game against Washington.
The team's personality, of course, has been a hot topic in the two weeks leading up to Sunday's championship bout with the Denver Broncos to culminate a 15-1 regular season, and two impressive postseason wins where it outscored heavyweights Seattle and Arizona, 80-39. But really, those two games that got Carolina to Sunday's Super Bowl weren't as close as the combined scores indicate.
Those victories featured team-wide celebrations and poses for photographers - things those Patriots teams didn't do under Bill Belichick, to be sure.
Newton, who claimed the NFL's MVP honors Saturday night, made "dabbing" famous, to the point where it became fodder for national pundits and fans alike. Newton's smiles and celebratory dances were drawing the conversation away from Carolina's 9-0 start. The main cause for controversy: a lack of championship credibility - the "act like you've been there before"-conversation that becomes in vogue whenever a new team shakes the establishment with a newfound joy for winning.
While the debates were highlighted by takes on Newton's dancing and first-down points, the Panthers were giving game balls to young fans after every touchdown. The smiles from those kids as they clenched those footballs with their lives were as wide as Newton's and his teammates'. But in the Internet age, it's far more satisfying to criticize than praise.
After Rivera spoke to his team about getting ahead of itself following the Tennessee win, the Panthers thumped Washington 44-16, with Newton throwing for five touchdowns, something he did three times during the regular season.
"We’ve kind of crashed the party," Rivera said this week. "We’re kind of new to the scene. Not a lot of people know who we are and so to draw a quick conclusion on that based on a couple of things. I think is disappointing.
"It’s funny because I was talking earlier with one of our folks here about embracing the whole situation instead of the circumstances. We have a little saying. Don’t let it get in the way. You sit there and say, ‘This is a hassle having to come here and be around these guys.’ Well guess what you just did? You created a distraction. So embracing it and being who we are, I think is really helping us to get past this. We’re staying relaxed. We’re able not to be distracted. I think that’s part of keeping your personality and making sure that you are who you are. That’s helped us and I’m not going to have our guys change now. All of a sudden you want our guys to tighten up."
Newton appeared more irritated than tight this week, having to speak to the media for 20 minutes or so for four straight days since landing in the Bay Area last Sunday. The next night was the Super Bowl Opening Night event (formally tabbed Media Day), following by three consecutive mornings with press conferences at the foot of the team hotel in down town San Jose.
"I hear so many people talking about us as a team and they have too much fun, they can’t be taken seriously, this, that and the third," Newton said Tuesday. "We take pride in not having a limit of people that had disciplinary issues as far as the team this year. For us, we keep our personal business our personal business and I think that’s important."
With two weeks to prepare for the big game, every stone for every story gets turned by media members prodding for ways to pass the time until kickoff.
On Wednesday and Thursday of Super Bowl week, every player from every team is made available. Everyone involved is asked about their opinion, and stories like the Panthers being too cocky following their 15-win season and playoff drubbings over contending teams get traction. Just because.
"It’s not necessarily the media pressure, it’s just media requirements that is getting up under a lot of people’s skin," Newton said.
Is 'being too cocky' a real possibility for the Panthers?
Sure. They come into the game as five-point favorites after favorites have lost outright in five of the last seven times. They lost in the Divisional Round, falling to the 49ers, 23-10 two seasons ago, in an undisciplined performance after earning a first-round bye with a 12-4 regular season. Last year, they backed into the playoffs with a 7-8-1 record and got to the second round with a home win against the Cardinals, who had back up Ryan Lindley at quarterback. He Threw for 82 yards in 27-16 defeat to Carolina, who went on to lose in Seattle, 31-17 the next week.
The viability of the Panthers as potential champions was questioned because of they didn't look anything like champions during their last two playoff trips. And with a schedule in 2015 loaded with teams from the three worst divisions in the NFL - the NFC South, NFC East and AFC South - there was plenty of reason to wonder if Newton's team was more sizzle than steak.
But after those performances in their first two rounds against the Seahawks and Cardinals, to back up a near flawless 15-1 season, a win over the Broncos would validate plenty for Carolina.
If the Panthers end up lifting their first ever Lombardi Trophy at Levi's Stadium Sunday, they can be as cocky as they want. They will have the hardware to back it up.