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The Panthers' playoff makeover

The ugly duckling of the NFL playoffs used a stifling defense and hard-charging running game to get a Wild Card weekend win. Just how far deep into the postseason can the Panthers go?

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton took extra time to arrive at his postgame news conference Saturday night at Bank of America Stadium. Once there, it was clear why.

Newton wore a satin-laced suit and black shoes with dazzling, long, gold, bouncing tassels. He looked more ready to talk chic than football.

Now this is how you dress it up. How you take the ugly duckling of these NFL playoffs and provide a makeover off and on the field that sizzles. Newton and the Carolina Panthers were the 7-8-1 losers who were winners, the NFC South champions with an excuse-me reputation more than a smack-down one.

That's over.

Carolina is a playoff winner for the first time in nine years. It strangled the Arizona Cardinals, 27-16, before 71,849 Panthers fans who looked and sounded starved for this victory while furiously waving white towels and enjoying every second of the mauling. Newton threw two touchdown passes and Jonathon Stewart rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown.

But the real ugly turned into beauty was the Panthers' defense.

It allowed Arizona only 78 total yards -- the fewest ever in an NFL playoff game.

It was led by the Panthers' defensive front -- ends Charles Johnson and Wes Horton and tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelie. But every defensive player had their hands in it, a swarming, relentless, punishing, sure-handed and quick attack that made Cardinals third-string quarterback turned starter Ryan Lindley look pitiful.

First, the Carolina defense knocked out the Arizona running game.

Then, it delivered a TKO on Lindley.

"Actually, from their very first third-down play of the game, he looked a little worried and confused and nervous," said Horton. "I give him credit, he hung in there. But you could tell he could feel our pressure."

How could Lindley not?

Carolina started the game fast on defense and kept squashing any Arizona attempt to run the ball, often forcing negative running plays. And then once the Panthers jumped ahead, 27-14, with 4:04 left in the third quarter, their defense played the game even faster. With a cushion, they hounded Lindley with more determination, with no hesitation, and often with three or four Panthers in the Arizona backfield lurking, pouncing immediately after the snap.

It quickly became a cover-your-eyes game for Lindley and all of the Cardinals.

It was all forced by the Panthers, a team that looked roasted after a six-game losing streak during the regular season. A team that nearly lost Newton in his two-car accident on Dec. 9. A team with only eight starters from last season in this new lineup, one that took time to mesh with the 14 new starters. A team with as many as seven rookie starters.

"We've kind of found an unconventional way into the playoffs," Panthers' head coach Ron Rivera said. "We've made a little noise. Now let's see what we do next week."

The Panthers' formula of formidable defensive line play coupled with firm defensive contributions at every other defensive level bodes well for them. If their defense can win individual and team matchups like this they can steadily advance. They can beat all comers.

The once-ugly duckling that could.

"Stopping their running game was emphasized all week and we did that from the start," Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "The guys up front hit it hard and then they started hitting the quarterback. It's hard to play quarterback in this league, let alone in the playoffs, when you can't step up in the pocket, when your feet are getting stepped on and when you are being harassed like that."

Lindley passed for 82 yards, was intercepted and was sacked four times. He managed a second-quarter 1-yard touchdown pass but completed no pass in the game of more than 21 yards. No Cardinals' running back could manage a run longer than 9 yards.

Everything was compressed and then flattened by the Panthers.

"Each player on our defense is being attentive to his assignment," Short said. "Everybody wants to get to the quarterback. Once we got up by 13 points in the third quarter, we played even more loose. And you could see Lindley was stressed and frustrated. He knew we had the green light to come after him."

That sequence in the third quarter where Carolina turned an Arizona 14-13 lead into a Carolina 27-14 lead was startling.

If their defense can win individual and team matchups like this they can steadily advance. They can beat all comers.

It started with Newton throwing a 39-yard touchdown pass to running back Fozzy Whittaker. On the ensuing kickoff, Melvin White socked the ball loose from kick returner Ted Ginn, Jr. for a Carolina recovery at the Arizona 3-yard line. Three plays later Newton tossed a 1-yard touchdown pass to fullback Mike Tolbert

BAM, BAM, BAM!

The way the Carolina defense was dominating, it was game over even though 4:04 was left in the third quarter.

Here is something to love about the makeover Panthers.

Listen to White describe the team's success on that kick coverage and turnover gained:

"I usually play wide outside on the kickoff coverage team and run about halfway down and play safety," White said. "But on that play we switched it where I went all the way down to the ball and someone else took over safety. They were probably not expecting me there. It was a play that worked for us."

It was craftiness in special teams defense to augment what was already going on with a roughhouse defense.

These aren't your ugly Panthers anymore.

"We'll just keep being ourselves," Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said. "We'll let everyone else decide how pretty we are and if we're dangerous or not."

★★★

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