NFL Carolina Panthers

5 Carolina Panthers Who Will Be Clutch Down the Stretch

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5 Carolina Panthers Who Will Be Clutch Down the Stretch

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers haven't been a very clutch team over the past few years. It became a recurring nightmares for Panthers fans as their team repeatedly collapsed in the fourth quarter, turning the ball over and failing to convert third downs, then allowing the opponent to drive down the field much like John Elway did against the Cleveland Browns. The perpetual heartbreak planted both Ron Rivera and Cam Newton on the hot seat, making David Gettleman question whether it was a good idea to bring either of them in. Things were grim in Charlotte, and it didn't appear to be getting better any time soon.

It's amazing how much of an impact a small change in mindset can make. After starting 0-2 and seemingly going down the same old road, everyone in the Panthers organization made a small change in their mindset. While every player or coach expressed this change in their own way, it all centered around one goal: they're going to play to win, and they're going to do it their way. One by one, the Panthers changed the way they approached the game, and their play followed suit.

Cam Newton changed from being a playmaker to a true quarterback, controlling the offense rather than being it. The secondary banded together and tried to play as part of a unit, feeding off the success of the front seven and playing to their strengths in coverage. Mike Shula opened up his playbook to utilize Newton's talents, and those talents have been invaluable. Even Ron Rivera changed, going for it on fourth down frequently and getting critical conversions in critical situations. The Panthers have learned to be clutch, but who will do it for them down the stretch, leading them into the playoffs and possibly stealing a division title? Here they are:

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5. Drayton Florence

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Drayton Florence has been very clutch since returning to the Panthers early in the season, sealing the deal against the Atlanta Falcons and the San Francisco 49ers with key picks. He has the savvy to do it again down the road, and I have a feeling that he will be critical in the upcoming matchups with the New Orleans Saints.

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4. Greg Hardy

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Much like the recent Super Bowl teams of the New York Giants, the Panthers are all about their pass rush. Without Charles Johnson, however, someone will need to step and get pressure to help out the vulnerable secondary. Enter the Kraken. Hardy has all the skills the Johnson has, except for maybe his sack fumble ability, and he will need to consistently get pressure if the Panthers want to beat teams down the stretch.

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3. Thomas Davis

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Luke Kuechly may be the vocal leader of the Panthers' defense, but everyone follows the example of Davis. Even after suffering three major injuries to the same knee, he still plays at a Pro Bowl level, covering receivers and backs as well as being physical at the point of attack. Davis brings it when the game is on the line, and he inspires his teammates to do the same, making him one of the Panthers' most valuable assets.

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2. Greg Olsen

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Every quarterback looks to his tight end in crunch situations. Why do they do this? Because they're big, reliable targets, and that's exactly what Greg Olsen is. He's scored the go-ahead touchdown in consecutive weeks and he has converted a number of critical third downs during the seven-game win streak. There is no reason to believe he can't continue that production.

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1. Cam Newton

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We've seen with the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans that even a team with a wealth of talent can still refuse to win if they don't have a reliable quarterback. Newton hasn't been reliable over the past two years, but he most certainly is now. He's led game-winning drives in three consecutive weeks, and led a number of blowouts before that. His play will be instrumental to how the Panthers perform down the stretch, and he will determine whether the Panthers can be NFC South champions.