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Carolina Panthers rampage into Super Bowl with true team effort

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In a jubilant postgame locker room, a kid in a wheelchair, decked out in a brand new Carolina Panthers conference championship hat and T-shirt, came by the defensive-line area.

Second-year end Kony Ealy introduced him to grizzled vet Jared Allen not by name, but by simply saying, "This is the guy that taught me everything." And it turns out that's being reciprocated big-time.

Just being here is teaching Allen plenty.

"It's the standard that's been set from the top down," said the 33-year-old. "This is the way you do things -- it's team, team, team, team. You've got guys that buy into that, and you've got the right leaders and right personalities, because for someone to say something to someone, and someone to correct someone, somebody has to be willing to be corrected by someone without holding a grudge. Guys genuinely have each other's back, and are for the greater good of the team. It's a special place."

That special place produced a 15-1 juggernaut during the regular season. That special place was where the Seahawks' two-year reign as the NFC kingpin came to an end seven days ago.

And that special place is where this new-fangled powerhouse seems to have found its final gear -- kicking an already impressive run into overdrive by positively running the Cardinals out of Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, beating them every which way before sending them back west with a 49-15 shiner.

But this isn't so much just about a singular team -- even one that will have a chance, in two weeks, to match the NFL record for wins in a single season, if Carolina can do similarly rough things to Peyton Manning and Co. in Santa Clara, California. No, it's more about what's been building here for five years under Ron Rivera.

Yes, there's talent. Cam Newton looked every bit the MVP against Arizona, throwing for 335 yards and two scores, and rushing for two more as part of his 47 yards on the ground. Jonathan Stewart was, again, workmanlike in churning out 83 yards rushing. Greg Olsen, Ted Ginn and Philly Brown laid waste to the idea Newton's weapons are lacking. KK Short continued to serve notice of his presence on the D-line. Luke Kuechly had a pick-six. Josh Norman was his normal aggressive self.

Just as important, though, was how all those pieces fit together, and not just from a football standpoint.

"There are so many things this group has gone through," said Rivera on Saturday afternoon. "The ups. The downs. This year, in camp, they handled a bunch of tough situations. It was the way they handled the loss of Kelvin Benjamin. Then, there was the dust-up between Josh Norman and Cam. They get in a fight, and they came to me and said, 'We got it. We're good.' And so I never even brought it up in a team meeting. I never had to do any of that with these guys."

Rivera continued, "I learned from Mike Ditka that players have to take ownership. It looks like these guys have taken ownership. The weeks go on, and they are who they are."

The Panthers coach then recalled a story from Ditka's 1985 Bears -- he was a linebacker on that team -- to illustrate the point. A young player had stepped in for an injured vet and performed admirably, beginning to earn stripes. Then, one Friday morning, the kid showed up to practice clearly having been out late the night before, maybe even still drunk.

Ditka did nothing. At the end of practice, a group of older players that included Steve McMichael and Dan Hampton cornered the kid to address the problem. The coach walked right past them and off the field. He knew the issue would be taken care of. And it was. That team went 18-1, won a Super Bowl, and is now considered one of the greatest groups ever put together.

Now, to spin this forward 30 years -- earlier in the fall, one of the Panthers' young, budding stars stepped out of line and, accordingly, Rivera prepared to address it with him. One of Carolina's vets stepped in.

"I'll handle it," he said.

The vet told the kid he'd better stop because, "Next time, [Rivera] is gonna fine me."

Message sent. Message received.

"You're not having to worry about getting in front of the group and bringing up discipline anymore," Rivera said. "Guys make mistakes. Something happens, and usually the coach has to get up there and reiterate the rules. I'm at the point now where if a guy's late or something, we'll fine you, or handle it one way or the other, just treat you the same as everyone else, and then it's done."

When Allen says that people have to be willing to be corrected by others, that's what he means. That's really what Rivera has been building toward for a half-decade here.

Allen later compared this Panthers group to a youth football team because, as he sees it, no one cares who gets credit -- all that matters is winning. You'll have trouble finding anyone here who doesn't like coming to work. And when someone does hit it big, there's a recognition it's part of something larger.

Take Kurt Coleman's two interceptions of Carson Palmer on Sunday.

"D-line. D-line. Seriously, the D-line did it," Coleman said. "They got pressure. They had pressure in his face. I know for the second one, Mario [Addison] had great pressure, and it put the ball up a little bit higher than probably what Carson wanted. And that gave me enough time to get under the football and jump up and get it."

Everything here is collective.

Problems are collectively solved. Triumphs are collectively shared.

It's Rivera's vision now, the same as it was Ditka's vision all those years ago in Chicago.

"If somebody steps out of line, it's not one person that stops them," Norman said. "Everybody stops them. It's not just that one person, everyone gangs up on them -- 'Hey man, get your stuff together, because we're trying do something big and we don't need you to be out of line or none of that.' This is a team, it's more than one guy. It's everyone together. And once everyone understood that, we haven't had a problem. We don't have any cancers, no buttheads around here. Everyone's just having fun."

And sure, it took a while to get to this special place the Panthers find themselves in.

But now that they're here, it sure looks like they'll stay awhile.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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