Best moments in Carolina Panthers history

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaab/players/121832/" data-ylk="slk:Steve Smith">Steve Smith</a>’s game-winning touchdown in the 2004 divisional round helped catapult the Panthers to their first ever Super Bowl. (AP)
Steve Smith’s game-winning touchdown in the 2004 divisional round helped catapult the Panthers to their first ever Super Bowl. (AP)

What are the best moments for each NFL franchise? Yahoo Sports provides our opinion, which you are free to disagree with (and we’re sure you will).

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5. Hiring John Fox

Following a 1-15 season in 2001, the Carolina Panthers fired coach George Seifert and replaced him with John Fox. A master motivator, Fox was determined to turn the Panthers’ fortunes around with a strong running game and stout defense. Two years later, Fox led Carolina to the NFC South title and its first Super Bowl berth, thanks to a defense that improved from 31st in the NFL in 2001 to second in 2002. The Panthers lost to the New England Patriots 32-29 in Super Bowl XXXVIII, largely considered one of the best championship games in NFL history. Fox also led the Panthers to the NFC title game in 2005. Fox earned 78 victories in his nine seasons and, in the process, elevated expectations in Carolina.

4. Starting 14-0 in 2015

Carolina was coming off back-to-back playoff performances and was expected to return to the postseason in 2015 thanks to its defense, but Cam Newton and the offense helped the franchise exceed even those lofty expectations. The Panthers had a relatively easy start to the season with wins over the Jaguars, Texans, Saints and Buccaneers, but a 27-23 Week 5 victory at the Seahawks – in which Newton introduced us to “dabbing” and led a game-winning drive – showed this Panthers team could be special. Newton led another late-game rally against the Giants on Dec. 20 that improved the Panthers to 14-0 and had the franchise thinking it could have the first undefeated season since the Dolphins in 1972. But those hopes were dashed the following week in a 20-13 loss to the Falcons. The Panthers beat the Bucs in the final week of the regular season to finish 15-1, then cruised in the NFC playoffs and reached Super Bowl 50. But Carolina was denied its first Super Bowl title as the Broncos recorded a 24-10 victory. Despite the rough ending, the start to the 2015 season is one Panthers fans won’t soon forget.

3. Reaching NFC title game in second season

Coming off a respectable 7-9 record in their inaugural season, not much was expected from the Panthers in 1996. But Carolina stunned the league, winning its last seven regular-season games to finish 12-4 and claim the NFC West title. The Panthers hosted the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round and won 26-17. Their miracle run ended at Green Bay in the NFC title game as the Packers rolled to a 30-13 victory. The Jacksonville Jaguars, who came into the league with the Panthers in 1995, reached the AFC title game but lost as well. Still, two expansion teams reaching their respective title games in their second seasons was quite an accomplishment and brought plenty of hope for the future. Carolina, however, did not return to the playoffs until the 2003 season.

2. ‘Keep Pounding’

Sam Mills Jr. played the final three of his 12 NFL seasons with the Panthers, and the undersized 5-foot-9 linebacker out of Division III Montclair State helped the franchise establish its identity. But it’s his inspirational speech as Carolina linebackers coach before a playoff game against Dallas on Jan. 2, 2004, that still resonates. In August 2003, Mills was diagnosed with intestinal cancer and was only given two months to live. But he didn’t miss a game that season and before the Panthers’ playoff opener, he spoke to the team. “When I found out I had cancer, there were two things I could do – quit or keep pounding,” Mills said. “I’m a fighter. I kept pounding. You’re fighters, too. Keep pounding.” The Panthers pounded Dallas and advanced all the way to Super Bowl XXXVIII, where they lost a heartbreaker to the Patriots. Mills died in April 2005 at the age of 45, but the “Keep Pounding” legacy lives on. The fund, which sponsors cancer research programs and has raised more than $2.2 million, encourages patients, survivors and their loved ones to always “Keep Pounding” to overcome obstacles in their lives. Just like Sam Mills Jr.

1. Steve Smith’s TD catch in 2OT of 2004 playoffs

Originally drafted as a return specialist in 2001, Steve Smith became the franchise’s best receiver, and he made no bigger catch than a 69-yarder for a touchdown in double overtime of a 2004 divisional playoff game against the St. Louis Rams. Facing a third-and-14 at their own 31-yard line on the first play of the second overtime, Smith caught a Jake Delhomme pass between several Rams defenders at midfield, then raced to the end zone to send the Panthers to the NFC championship game. A week later, the Panthers defeated the Eagles in Philadelphia in the NFC title game to reach the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.

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