Panthers in the NFL: 2021 Playoff Edition

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Peter Diana | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, TNS

Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner scores in the first half against the Cleveland Browns during the NFL wild card playoff game on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

By Carson Zaremski, Staff Writer

Football fans around the world tuned in on Sunday to watch as four teams battled for a spot in Tampa Bay for Super Bowl LV. To kick off the day, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traveled to Lambeau Field to take down the Green Bay Packers in a tightly fought 31-26 win. Following that contest, the Buffalo Bills traveled to Kansas City, but fell to the Chiefs 38-24.

Five former Pitt Panthers got the chance to take the field over the course of this year’s NFL playoffs, and two of them head to the Super Bowl next weekend. Let’s take a look into which Panthers lasted the longest and which remain in the championship hunt.

James Conner, Pittsburgh RB

In the first weekend of this year’s playoffs, the hometown Steelers took on the Cleveland Browns. Pittsburgh entered the game as five-point favorites, but that didn’t last long. The Browns shocked Steelers fans, scoring the first 28 points of the game. Conner finally broke through for the Steelers first score, finding the end zone from the 1-yard line with under two minutes left in the first half.

Pittsburgh shied away from the run game for the rest of the night, only handing it to Conner once more the rest of the game. Conner did score again, though, catching a two-point conversion to bring the Steelers within 11 late in the fourth quarter. The team wouldn’t get any closer, losing the game 48-37.

J.P. Holtz, Chicago TE

Sunday Night Football hosted the New Orleans Saints against the Chicago Bears in the wild card round of the playoffs. The Saints controlled the game from start to finish, taking the lead in the first quarter and never looking back. As the third string tight end for the Bears, Holtz played just three offensive snaps and 12 special teams snaps for the Bears.

Aaron Donald, Los Angeles DT

In the first round of the playoffs, the Los Angeles Rams traveled to Seattle to take on the third-seeded Seattle Seahawks. The absence of “The 12s” — Seattle’s famously loud fan base — essentially neglected any sort of home field advantage, meaning Seattle couldn’t solely rely on its defense. The Seahawks offense proved no match for the Rams’ defense, holding them to 278 total yards. Donald, a two-time AP Defensive Player of the Year, had a strong impact on the game.

Donald started strong, sacking Russell Wilson twice in the same drive of the first quarter, leading to a Seahawks punt and solid starting field position for the Rams. Early in the third quarter, Donald once again pulled down Wilson, but Wilson landed on Donald’s ribs. After the play, Donald grabbed his ribcage in visible discomfort, headed to the sideline and did not play another snap. The Rams wound up pulling out a 30-20 victory.

The Rams had to play against Aaron Rodgers and the first-seeded Green Bay Packers in the second round. Donald did start the game, but didn’t seem himself, winding up with just one tackle all game. The Rams couldn’t bring Rodgers down for a sack the whole night, something that hadn’t occurred to the Rams defense since its Week 6 matchup with the 49ers. The Packers plowed over the Rams in a 32-18 victory.

Jordan Whitehead, Tampa Bay FS

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have provided the biggest surprise of the playoffs thus far, coming in as the fifth seed and making it all the way from the Super Wild Card Weekend to the Super Bowl. They started off on the road, playing their wild card matchup against the Washington football team. With the help of Whitehead, Tampa Bay’s defense held off Washington, beating them 31-23.

The Buccaneers then traveled to New Orleans for a divisional round matchup against the second-seeded New Orleans Saints. Whitehead contributed with two solo tackles and the Buccaneers held the Saints to just 20 points. Tom Brady’s offense put up 30 of its own, beating the Saints by 10.

Tampa Bay then headed from an indoor facility in New Orleans to the 30 degrees Fahrenheit Lambeau Field to take on the No. 1 seed Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship. This would be Tampa Bay’s toughest challenge yet, facing MVP front-runner Aaron Rodgers. The Buccaneers took an early lead, but couldn’t pull away just yet, heading into the half up 21-10.

Green Bay would receive the ball in the second half and on a critical third down, Whitehead made his biggest impact. Rodgers threw the ball to Aaron Jones who turned up the field, only to get hit immediately by Whitehead, forcing Jones to fumble. The Buccaneers recovered and wound up scoring on the next play, putting Tampa Bay up 28-10, going on to win the game 31-26.

Whitehead became a vital part of the Buccaneers defense all playoffs, but the Packers felt his impact the most. He forced two fumbles while also making four solo tackles, propelling Tampa Bay to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2003.

LeSean McCoy, Tampa Bay RB

McCoy heads to the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year, this time playing against the Chiefs rather than for them. McCoy didn’t play a snap against Washington, but played two offensive snaps against the Saints and one against the Packers. Although fans may not see McCoy on the field, he brings valuable experience and leadership to a young backfield highlighted by 26-year-old Leonard Fournette, and 23-year-old Ronald Jones II.

Despite playing every playoff game thus far on the road, the Buccaneers will head home to Tampa Bay to become the first team to host a Super Bowl in its home stadium in NFL history. Whitehead, McCoy and the Buccaneers will take on the Chiefs on Sunday, Feb. 7 for Super Bowl LV.

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