CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers won a game Sunday by doing something different.
You could say that about what they've done this season as well.
They were able to close out a perfect home season with a 30-10 throttling of Denver on Sunday, born out of the fact they threw when the Broncos dared them to.
But what they gained from the win was a new aura, a new identity.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Herald
The old Panthers, even the good teams, lost games like this one time and again. With a chance to clinch things, or validate high-profile wins, they would fall flat, cede hard-won ground.
This time, things changed.
This time, they were different.
"We always respond well after losses," said fullback Brad Hoover. "But the good thing is, with the leadership we have on this team, we fight and we fight and know eventually there's going to be a play. In the past maybe it wouldn't have happened that way. But that's our attitude now, to keep going and going.
"And when things are great, it's easy to do those things. When things are bad, you've got to force those things and keep moving and moving along, stick with the plan and keep going."
On a small scale, they won Sunday by going against their stated goal.
Denver wasn't going to let the Panthers run for 299 yards like they had against Tampa Bay on Monday night, so the Broncos loaded the line of scrimmage. They played the first series with four linebackers, and settled in to walking a safety up later. In both scenarios, they used a single safety high, and let their corners single-cover the Panthers' receivers.
Then the Panthers made the other team pay.
Jake Delhomme threw for 253 yards and a touchdown, with one interception, but wasn't sacked. He consistently made the Broncos pay for that emphasis, by making plays downfield to both Steve Smith (nine receptions for 165 yards and a touchdown) and Muhsin Muhammad (four for 70 yards). Combined with a merely solid running day -- they had 121 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown by DeAngelo Williams and a 2-yarder by Jonathan Stewart -- it made for the most balanced attack the Panthers have had in some time.
"That was very important," left guard Travelle Wharton said. "Not just making the plays downfield, but protecting. When they'd send a different blitz and being able to pick it up and let Jake and the guys outside do their thing. You want to load the box, we're a balanced team and we can do those things.
"We're going to see that from here on out. People are going to try to take that away, they're going to play us differently. We just have to be prepared to answer that."
The Panthers went no-huddle early and it worked. They threw deep and it worked. They ran and it worked well enough.
"It lets the other teams know we're not a one-dimensional team," Williams said. "We can run, we can pass. We are a complete team. ... You're not going to talk about our running game, or our backs or our line or our fullbacks. Now you have to talk about everybody.
"We don't care about the publicity we're getting or anything. We just want to go out and play on Sunday."
And that, as much as anything, separates this Panthers teams from past versions, even the ones that made playoff runs.
Even though the team is younger, there's a maturity about this crowd that can't be described easily.
The win over Tampa Bay last Monday was huge, and the short week made preparation hard. But Delhomme said it worked in the Panthers' favor this week, that it took away the day people patted them on the backs.
"We got refocused on the short week," defensive end Julius Peppers said. "We're focused on the task at hand right now. We don't have a lot of guys out here doing their own thing, not being a part of the team.
"That's the thing that's allowing us to play so well. Everybody has their eye on the one goal at hand. That's winning, and eventually getting to the Super Bowl and winning that."
Hoover said he could see evidence of such in the sloppy wins over Oakland and Detroit, when the Panthers had to slog through but still won. He also saw it this offseason, when there was near-perfect attendance for workouts and voluntary camps.
"I think it's just the mindset and the leadership of this team -- everybody's bought into it," Hoover said. "I think it comes down to, we have to go work, we can't be satisfied with what happened last week. I mean, last week against Tampa was a huge win for us. The best thing that probably happened was that it was a Monday night. We didn't get to come in here and watch it. Guys were patting us on the back, and it felt good.
"But we stayed focused, zeroed in on our objective to get to the playoffs and make a run to the Super Bowl."
The win perfectly sets up next week's game at the New York Giants, where home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs will be on the line.
"That's what you want," Delhomme said. "You live to play in those situations."
And unlike years past, you get the sense from watching them win this one -- the exact kind of game they've dropped so many times before -- that they understand what they need to do.
"This team, we're doing good things, but we know as a team we've still got work to do; we're not going to sit back and rest on this," Peppers said. "All these things that are happening, all this positive energy that's coming is good, but we're not going to fall into that trap of thinking we're better than we are right now."
Peppers was then asked what he has learned about this team.
"I'm learning that we've got a good football team," he replied. "Actually, I'm not learning that, I've known that from the beginning. I've been saying that all along."