The Carolina Panthers are preparing for their first playoff game in five years. WFAE's Michael Tomsic spoke to Coach Ron Rivera and players after Monday's practice and has this report.
Let's start with the obvious: head coach Ron Rivera knows this playoff game – his first as coach and the city's first since 2008 – is a very big deal.
"This is an important game – we know that," River said in a press conference. "But it's no more important than the ones we've had to play all year. We've had to play games, and we've had to win them. Our approach is this is the next biggest one we're going to play because it's the one we're about to play."
Rivera says that approach to every game is how the Panthers turned an awful start into a division title this season.
After losing three of their first four games, they reeled off four straight victories, all blowouts.
Then they traveled to San Francisco and pulled out a close, defensive slugfest against the 49ers that got NFL experts thinking, this Panthers team could be for real.
This weekend, the 49ers travel here for the rematch. In the locker room after the Panthers' practice Monday, veteran receiver Steve Smith said don't put too much weight on the first game. When you play the same team twice, "you always get two different teams," he said.
"I think a good example is us and New Orleans," Smith said. "They wiped the floor with us down in New Orleans, and I think it was a lot better game this go-around."
In the second game, the Panthers beat New Orleans to take the division lead. Smith sprained his knee in that game but expects to play this weekend.
Carolina sealed their division with a win in Atlanta. That meant a first-round bye and then a game in Charlotte this weekend, where the Panthers have sold out every game since 2002.
Coach Rivera says playing at home makes a real difference.
"It really does," he said. "It's a great crowd. It's been a great crowd for us all year. And we've earned this opportunity, and deservedly so for our fans."
The team says the tickets it put on sale for this week's game sold out in about three minutes.
But playing at home wasn't an advantage in the first round of the NFL playoffs. Three out of the four road teams won this past weekend.