A late-season conversation with Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez convinced former Oklahoma defensive end Frank Alexander to embrace Carolina's playoff journey.
The Panthers, the No. 2 seed, host defending NFC champion San Francisco on Sunday afternoon. The winner advances to next Sunday's NFC title game.
“Talking to Tony, he's played 17 seasons and he's never made it to the Super Bowl,” Alexander said. “He's a Hall of Famer. Just to be in the hunt my second year is really big. I can't really explain how it feels. It's something I'm not taking for granted.”
Carolina posted a 10-9 win at San Francisco on Nov. 10. The Panthers held the 49ers to three field goals and 151 total yards. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick was only 11 of 22 for 91 yards passing with an interception.
“It all started back at OTAs last spring,” Alexander said. “One of our goals was to have one of the top defenses. Everybody bought in months ago, all working towards one goal. We pride ourselves on being really close.”
A reserve on a Carolina defense that finished No. 2 in the league in total defense and scoring defense, Alexander, a 2012 fourth-round pick, plays around 10 to 15 snaps a game, primarily on running downs.
“It's been a kind of an up-and-down season for me,” Alexander said. “Everyone wants to play more, but you have to understand it's bigger than you. Whatever your role is, it's your job to give it your all.”
Carolina has allowed more than 22 points only twice all season.
“It's being disciplined,” Alexander said. “If you take care of your job, you know the guy next to you is going to do his job. That's big for the entire team but it's especially big on defense.”
San Francisco wasn't the Panthers' only statement win. Carolina also owns wins over New England and New Orleans. The Panthers lost to Seattle 12-7 in the season opener more than four months ago.
“It shows we can play with anybody,” Alexander said. “As long as we play hard and do the things we've been doing all season, we have a shot to get to the Super Bowl. We're playing with a lot of confidence.”
Alexander credits coach Ron Rivera, a linebacker for 13 seasons for the Chicago Bears, for the team's performance.
Rivera was an NFL assistant for a dozen years before being landing his first head coaching job three years ago at age 50.
“Because of all his experience as a player and a coach, he's one of those guys you understands what you're going through,” Alexander said. “He's such a great coach to play for. No one really looks at is as a workplace. You can just go out and play and don't have to get uptight.”