- Associated Press - Friday, December 18, 2015

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Thomas Davis heard the rumblings late last season about how the NFL needed to consider changing its playoff rules to prevent teams with a losing record from playing in the postseason.

He was talking about Davis’ Carolina Panthers, last year’s poster child for what ailed the league.

“We ain’t got to worry about that this year, now do we?” the Panthers veteran linebacker said with a wry smile.

Nope, they certainly do not.

The Panthers (13-0) have gone from being the joke of the NFC South last December with a 3-8-1 record to darlings of the league in a little more than a year. They’ve won 17 straight regular season games since - tied for the fourth-longest streak in NFL history - and have become Super Bowl favorites with a chance to join the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only undefeated champions.

The team’s rise to respectability has been impressive, but not overly complicated.

“We went through the growing pains,” Davis said. “But we came together as a team and never lost focus. There were a lot of things that went against us last year, but we stayed together, stayed the course and we put the work in. That is what it boils down to.”

The Panthers didn’t bring in any big-name free agents. They didn’t fire any coaches. And they didn’t make a change at quarterback.

Instead, they remained true to their blueprint and stayed the course. They allowed young players to develop into core players. They added moderately priced, mid-level free agents in the offseason who were familiar with the team’s system. And Ron Rivera and his staff kept on coaching.

The Panthers have been built around quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, and they add continue to pieces to complement them. Often times that means utilizing rookies and young players.

“We keep that in our mind - our young guys have to play,” Rivera said. “You have to develop that core.”

There is no magical formula for Carolina’s turnaround; it didn’t happen overnight.

It is easy to forget this team went 12-4 in 2013 to win the first of three straight NFC South championships.

But the Panthers fell on hard times last season for a variety of reasons. Newton was coming off foot surgery and broke his ribs in the preseason. He was working behind a revamped offensive line and wide receiving corps. The defense struggled with injuries.

Often playing seven rookies in significant roles, the Panthers struggled to find cohesiveness and lost a series of close games.

Rivera was on the hot seat. Newton was being talked about as a bust. The Panthers seemed in shambles, even though they were still in the thick of the playoff hunt at 3-8-1.

Then, they got healthy, their no-huddle offense started clicking and they haven’t looked back since.

The Panthers reeled off four straight wins to capture the NFC South, not that many noticed.

They beat Arizona in the playoffs, though that victory was dismissed because of the Cardinals’ quarterback injuries. And when Carolina lost 31-17 to Seattle when Kam Chancellor sealed the game with a late interception return for a touchdown, it was expected - the clock had struck midnight for Cinderella.

Still, the Panthers stayed the course.

They acquired some unheralded veterans this past offseason, including safety Kurt Coleman, wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. , cornerback Charles Tillman and offensive tackle Michael Oher who have played major roles. But mostly they spent money re-signing their core players, including Newton and Kuechly.

When the team lost No. 1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a season-ending knee injury in training camp, general manager Dave Gettleman didn’t panic.

The Panthers turned to the receivers on the roster, a nondescript group that included Ginn, Philly Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and second-round draft pick Devin Funchess.

This season everything has come together, though the respect didn’t come with it.

When they were one of the teams to start 5-0, they were dismissed yet again: Many believed they were weakest of the unbeatens, would be the first to lose a game, didn’t have enough weapons to win a Super Bowl.

At 10-0, the Panthers were underdogs against the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day.

“People are going to find something,” fullback Mike Tolbert said.

But Carolina isn’t listening; its formula is working.

They’re first in points per game on offense and have run for at least 100 yards in 24 straight games.

They rank third on defense and lead the league with 33 takeaways, resulting in an NFL-high 117 points.

Newton has been a huge part of the team’s success.

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula turned to a no-huddle offense late last season, and Newton has been thriving ever since.

Newton has thrown for a career-high 28 touchdown passes this season and run for seven more and established himself as a leading MVP candidate. His QB rating in the fourth quarter is among the league’s best.

“You can’t really put a finger on it, but he just has it,” Cotchery said of the fifth-year quarterback. “He lives for those moments. A lot of people shy away from those moments, but he just embraces those opportunities.”

And so are the Panthers.

___

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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