- Associated Press - Thursday, February 4, 2016

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) - The Carolina Panthers are older than you think.

Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly, the team’s cornerstone players, are young and still on the rise.

But the surrounding cast is a bit older and the roster is filled with veterans. The Panthers had the NFL’s second-oldest team to start the season with an average age of 26.9.

Six of Carolina’s starters are at least 30 years old. That doesn’t count injured 34-year-old cornerback Charles Tillman and 31-year-old nickelback Cortland Finnegan.

The wise, old vets are making sure younger guys don’t take this Super Bowl appearance for granted because there’s no guarantee they’ll be here again.

“I look at this like it’s my only opportunity,” defensive end Charles Johnson said. “You see guys retiring like crazy. You get one chance and one chance only.”

Johnson, who turns 30 in July, has spent his entire nine-year career in Carolina. He’s been through the tough times such as the 2-14 season in 2010.

“You don’t know what you go through until you get to a point like this,” he said. “This is what all the hard work is for. Those guys like Star Lotulelei and Kuechly are used to winning division championships, but it makes you humble going through a season winning only two games and it makes you focus on the task at hand.”

Safety Roman Harper already won a Super Bowl with the 2009 New Orleans Saints, who beat Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. The 33-year-old Harper, who has the grayest hair on the team, has stressed to teammates that simply getting here isn’t good enough.

“Being on top of that mountain, it’s tough to get there,” Harper said. “We just have to put it together and finish. It doesn’t do us any good to come this far and cut it short. We have to complete it.”

The Panthers surprised everyone going from 7-8-1 to 15-1. Newton and Kuechly are star players, but many fans are just getting to know the rest of the team.

“We’ve kind of crashed the party,” coach Ron Rivera said. “We’re kind of new to the scene.”

Newton, Kuechly, Lotulelei, Kawann Short and Shaq Thompson are core players who were drafted in the first or second round. Each player is 26 years old or younger. Josh Norman (28) had a breakout year in his fifth season. Of the six, only Newton plays offense.

The Panthers added several older players who were castoffs from other teams. Defensive end Jared Allen was acquired from Chicago in October.

Safety Kurt Coleman bounced around the league before coming to Carolina and having his best season. Left tackle Michael Oher was signed after Tennessee released him. Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. returned for his second stint with the team after Arizona cut him.

“You don’t get here every year,” Coleman said. “This is something that you have to enjoy. Enjoy this process, but while you’re here, understand that it is a business trip, and it’s only good if you win.”

Then there’s linebacker Thomas Davis, who turns 33 next month. Davis already has overcome three torn ACLs. Last week, he had surgery after breaking his arm in the NFC championship game win over Arizona.

Nothing will keep Davis from playing against Denver on Sunday. He knows it could be his last chance to win a Super Bowl.

“Without a doubt, I will be there playing,” Davis said. “I know I’m getting up there in age and years, but I’m really enjoying the moment right now.”

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

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Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AP_RobMaaddi

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