Luke Kuechly showed up for work Monday morning and saw the latest sign of the Carolina Panthers' renaissance. There were a half-dozen other players gathered by his locker, hanging out together on a day off. Coach Ron Rivera had given the Panthers a "Victory Monday", but there have been so many of those lately for the NFL's hottest team that the locker room is, counterintuitively, the place to be again.
"It's fun to be in the locker room," said Kuechly, the Panthers' middle linebacker and Defensive Player of the Year candidate. "That atmosphere that happens in the locker room and in the building -- I don't know if that would have happened last year, guys hanging out, like I remember in high school and college."
Last year, it turns out, plays a critical role in Kuechly's assessment of how the Panthers constructed this charmed season, which faces its latest prove-it moment Sunday night in New Orleans. The Saints and Panthers are both 9-3, and this weekend's matchup between them is the first of two games in the space of three weeks that will largely determine which team emerges as NFC South champion and which is left to fight for a wild-card spot.
That the Saints are in a position to win -- that their blowout loss to Seattle on Monday was so shocking -- surprises no one who is familiar with their history and with their determination to bury the memories of the bounty investigation that wrecked last season. That the Panthers are providing such a serious threat to the Saints' supremacy, however, might still be raising eyebrows, even though they're the only team in the division against whom the Saints have a losing record in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era.
With each victory over an acknowledged superpower -- 10-9 over San Francisco in Week 10, 24-20 eight days later over New England -- the Panthers have inched closer to the playoffs. But there is still the sense that this success might be fragile, that the winning could stop, that "Riverboat" Ron Rivera could make the wrong bet on fourth down (Carolina is 8-for-8 on fourth-down conversions since the streak began in Week 6). There is still the sense that the Panthers could revert to being the same off-the-radar team they've been since their last playoff appearance, a gut-wrenching home loss to Arizona in the 2008 season.
The 2013 campaign did, after all, begin with an awful preseason showing by the offense and questions being asked about Cam Newton's readiness to be a top-level quarterback and leader -- and with Rivera's job very much on the line.
"When the season started the way it did, guys were surprised then that was how it was," Kuechly said of the Panthers' 1-3 start. "We had a chance to be a good team, we had a lot of guys back on defense. Once we started to win, guys were like 'This is what we thought season would be like.' "
What convinced them?
"The end of last season, when we won four straight," Kuechly said. "We won with defense and running the ball and Cam settled in towards the end of last year. It was confidence."
It took a long time to get some of that confidence, though. Before the winning streak that closed out 2012, general manager Marty Hurney was fired. He was replaced in January by Dave Gettleman, who chose to stick with Rivera. Still, Gettleman made it clear during training camp that the leash for everyone was short by saying that the Panthers were built to win now. When Carolina stumbled in the first month of the season, my colleague Ian Rapoport reported that the Panthers had quietly begun doing background checks on a list of potential head-coaching replacements, though the team vehemently denied this.
The Panthers' winning streak has quieted everything but the praise being directed at Rivera. His recent loosened-up play-calling on fourth down has reflected more closely the personality of a man congenial enough to open the postgame news conference after the win over San Francisco by asking reporters if they went to the Italian restaurant he'd recommended, a man self-assured enough to say that when he watched the Saints' game against Seattle, he learned something.
"They're beatable," he said Wednesday.
"Since I've been here, he's been very consistent," Kuechly said of Rivera. "He really enjoys being involved with football. He just loves football, loves being around the guys. I think if you asked if he wanted to put on pads and play, he would say absolutely. He wants to be a player so bad. Being a coach is as close as he can be."
If the perception of Rivera and his future has shifted, it's nothing compared to how the image of Newton, once referred to by Rivera as "Mr. Mopeyhead", has evolved. During an interview this summer, Newton did not shy away from saying his demeanor would change, that the sulking and the towel over the head -- which threatened to permanently define him during last year's frustrating start -- would be sidelined.
Teammates were more sympathetic toward Newton than fans were. Kuechly noted that, unlike the quarterback, he could be in a bad mood after a game and nobody would notice. But Newton, because of his high-profile job and media obligations, had his frustrations play out on camera.
Newton told teammates that no matter how the games went this season, he had to handle those very public moments with a straight face. And he has -- although there hasn't been much reason for disappointment, either.
The quarterback has embraced the Panthers' methodical style, one predicated on having the league's best scoring defense. Carolina is one of just two teams in the league to have rushed for at least 95 yards in every game this season. The Panthers' scoring drives last for an average of 8.9 plays (most in the NFL) and 4:27 (longest in the NFL).
While Newton's passing yardage through 12 games is lower this season than in his previous two, he has a higher passer rating than he did last year and is two touchdown tosses short of his career high. Perhaps most critically, he is earning plaudits -- this week in the Charlotte Observer, for instance -- for deflecting praise to his teammates.
Kuechly noticed the change in Newton last week, when the quarterback threw two interceptions against Tampa Bay. Newton rebounded from the second pick with a scoring drive kept alive by critical third-down throws. That, too, continued a trend begun in the final stretch last year, when Newton's interception rate dropped and his touchdown percentage rose.
"He's playing loose, having fun, smiling, running around," Kuechly said. "The other thing that is cool to watch is, he'll throw a pick and then score on the next drive. I don't think his throwing a bad ball has much of an effect on him this year. Next series, nothing behind him matters."
Of course, nothing behind the Panthers will matter much if they fail to capitalize on this winning streak, if they are swept by the Saints or flame out quickly in the playoffs. The Panthers are constructed like the Seahawks -- with a powerful defense, a strong running game and a dual-threat quarterback -- fanning new expectations that they could topple the Saints.
If they do, the groups of fans who gather at Panthers' practices and the ones who approach players at dinner to thank them for what they're doing will grow in number. And all those lost seasons -- except maybe last year's instructive one -- will fade from memory.
And here are 10 more things to ponder as the postseason and offseason changes draw closer:
1) Will the "What's Your Deal?" Bowl ever get boring? For all of their well-known differences, the teams coached by Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll are strikingly similar. Since Week 4, the 49ers are allowing the fewest points per game (12.6), while the Seahawks, who rank fourth on that list, have allowed 17.7 points per game. And these are the two most run-heavy offenses in the league, the only squads that run on more than 50 percent of their plays. The 49ers are 7-2 in their past nine games -- and the two losses, which came by a combined margin of four points, were to the Panthers and Saints. The Seahawks, by contrast, have faced the Saints, Panthers and 49ers, outscoring them 75-17 -- without allowing more than seven points to any one of those opponents. Seattle also gave up just three points to San Francisco earlier this season. With a two-game lead for home-field advantage and victories in hand over their closest pursuers, the Seahawks are not facing as much pressure as the Niners, who would get the NFC's sixth seed right now.
2) How will the worst passing defense in the league contain Calvin Johnson? Johnson, who leads the NFL in receiving yards and touchdowns, has been particularly explosive in the past six games, racking up 962 yards -- more than Dez Bryant has all season. The Eagles' defense, meanwhile, has held opponents under 22 points for eight straight weeks.
3) Will we not know the real outcome of Raiders-Jets until the offseason? While neither team will be mathematically eliminated with a loss, the futures of the quarterbacks and coaches could be at stake. Jets rookie signal-caller Geno Smith has regressed dramatically, and his team has been outscored 79-20 in its past three games (all losses). Rex Ryan named Smith the starter for this week after benching him at halftime last Sunday. In the past seven games, Smith has thrown one touchdown and 11 interceptions. But the more startling development might be the gradual erosion of the Jets' defense. They're ranked 25th against the pass, and the Jets have lost six games by 13 or more points.
4) Will the Bengals or Colts get the upper hand for the AFC's third seed? Both teams are 8-4 and leading their respective divisions -- and both teams have plenty to work on before January. The Colts would like to stop starting slow -- they've trailed in the first half in eight straight games -- while Andrew Luck has been taking a beating. Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton, meanwhile, has cooled off after a hot start in the first half of the season. His completion percentage has dropped by almost 12 full points. Through the first eight weeks, Dalton threw 16 touchdown passes against seven picks; since Week 9, he's thrown just six touchdowns against nine interceptions.
5) Are the Redskins the cure for what ails the Chiefs' pass rush? Kansas City has just one sack in its past four games -- the past three of which were losses. That's the fewest sacks in the league during that span. However, Robert Griffin III has been sacked 19 times in the past four games -- the most during that span. He also leads the league with 11 fumbles this season, and the Chiefs have forced 17.
6) Who will emerge from Dolphins-Steelers in better position for the wild-card race? Probably whoever keeps their quarterback upright more often. The Dolphins' Ryan Tannehill has been sacked 45 times -- 19 times in the fourth quarter -- and the offensive line remains in flux, what with the suspension of Richie Incognito and the absence of Jonathan Martin.
7) Will Tony Romo avoid turning into a pumpkin in December? Romo's career numbers in December are worse than they are in November, but the NFC East is on the line, and his Cowboys are facing a Bears defense that would make its predecessors shudder: Chicago is allowing 386 yards of offense, the most by a Bears defense since at least 1933. Still, Romo will have to be at his best, because the Cowboys' defense is allowing 450.2 yards per game on the road. On Thanksgiving, Dallas struggled to handle undrafted Raiders receivers Andre Holmes and Rod Streater. The Bears offer Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, the most productive receiving duo in the NFL. Last week, Jeffery shredded the Vikings for 249 yards on 12 catches.
8) Can the Packers keep their slim playoff hopes alive any longer? Yes, they're facing the woeful Falcons, but the Packers are 0-4-1 since Aaron Rodgers was hurt. The quarterback practiced in pads Thursday, but won't play in this game. Matt Flynn, who barely topped 100 passing yards against the Lions on Thanksgiving, will get the start. Of course, the Falcons' defense could provide relief. The unit ranks 29th in scoring D, allowing 28.3 points per game, and has just 10 takeaways on the season.
9) Can the Ravens hold off five other teams for the final AFC playoff spot? Because of tiebreakers, the Ravens are in the sixth spot right now. With their quarterback situation mired in uncertainty, the Vikings are likely to lean heavily on Adrian Peterson, who needs to average 198 yards over the last four games to reach 2,000 yards, in the matchup with Baltimore. The Ravens' defense, however, is allowing just 100 rushing yards per game, and is actually playing better than last year's group, improving as the season goes on. Baltimore allowed 5.7 fewer points per game in Weeks 10 through 13 -- when the Ravens went 3-1 -- than it did earlier in the season.
10) Will the Broncos, who are finished with the hardest part of their schedule, slip up -- and thus reorder the top of the AFC seedings? Denver has the easiest remaining strength of schedule in the league, with an opponents' winning percentage of .333. The Patriots, who are just a game behind the Broncos -- but who won their head-to-head matchup -- have a similarly easy final month, with their opponents' winning percentage at .417. The Titans, who play the Broncos, have lost three of their past four, but they're still in the mix for the final AFC playoff spot. The Browns, who play the Patriots, are 4-8. But the Broncos and Patriots might have to rely on someone other than the quarterback this Sunday; the Titans and Browns are the only two teams in the league that haven't allowed a 300-yard passer this season.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.