CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – Carolina coach Ron Rivera remembers turning to Dave Gettleman following a training camp practice this summer, and asking the Panthers general manager, "Am I seeing what I think I'm seeing?"
Rivera wanted verification that this Panthers team was clearly the most talented he's coached in five seasons — one he thought had Super Bowl potential.
Well, turns out Rivera was right.
And now that the Panthers have realized those expectations, the fifth-year coach believes they're capable of bringing home the organization's first Vince Lombardi trophy.
"The thing we've got to remember is what we're playing for, and that's to win it," Rivera said Monday. "It's not about getting there. It's not about being a part of it. It's about winning it. And that will be our main focus."
Said quarterback Cam Newton: "We're not finished."
Rivera, who won a Super Bowl ring with the 1985 Chicago Bears as a linebacker, said he'll rely on his former coach Mike Ditka, among others, for advice leading up the Feb. 7 Super Bowl against the AFC champion Denver Broncos.
"One of the things coach Ditka emphasized to us was to enjoy the moment," Rivera said. "The moment doesn't come very often. It's hard. It's hard to get to where we are right now."
The Panthers have remained a loose, confident team throughout the season.
They're also a tightknit group, regularly hanging out off the field together, and seem to thrive playing the underdog role — even though they opened as a 4-point favorite against Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
That harkens back to when some believed Carolina was the worst of the 5-0 teams in October.
The Panthers would prove doubters wrong, winning 14 straight games to open the season before suffering their only loss at Atlanta. They finished the season as the No. 1 scoring offense in the league and led the NFL on defense in takeaways.
They're rebounded from that Atlanta loss to win three straight, including home playoff games against the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals.
"We've been doubted. We've been slated; all of the above, but yet when you have turnouts like (Sunday) it makes it all worthwhile," Newton said after the win against the Cardinals.
Added wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery: "Everyone can try to find something when they doubt us, but we just try to go out there and put our ball on display."
Rivera has said he loves his team's personality — and doesn't want players to change.
He doesn't mind Newton's touchdown celebrations, his players posing for pictures on the sideline when the game is in hand or even lip-syncing to Drake's lyrics, "We got a really big team; we need some really big rings" in a video they've posted on social media.
"We are who we are," Rivera said.
Right now, what the Panthers are is a championship team looking for the franchise's first Super Bowl.
Rivera doesn't plan to change a thing.
"Do what you've done," Rivera said. "Some of my experiences in coaching, you get to certain experiences like the playoffs, and sometimes you get a little bit of panic. Am I doing enough? Should I do more? Should I change this?
"I told our coordinators, 'We're going to stick to what got us to where we are.' We'll emphasize that to the players and make sure we keep our personality."