The Carolina Panthers entered Bank of America Stadium confident, self-assured and angry -- to their own detriment. Players were sloppy and undisciplined in a game they needed to treat like any other, but it wasn't another game and most of these guys hadn't been there before. It resulted in a convincing win for San Francisco, but that shouldn't be the focus on Monday.
Self-editing is the greatest skill anyone can learn in life. Just as I wont give you 10,000 words of sweeping romanticism on the Panthers season so too the team needed to keep itself in check and not allow the 49ers to get in their head.
Let's call Sunday what it was: A disappointing end to a spectacularly fun season.
It's a case of being too young, from an organizational standpoint. This is the beginning, not the end like it was in 2008. If the first step is 12-4 and a divisional playoff berth then the next step will be that much sweeter. Ron Rivera proved he can be an NFL head coach, which was unclear entering the season. There's work to be done on the coaches around him, but Rivera showed he has what it takes to lead a team all the way to the playoffs. His emergence in 2013 was a revelation, and something to cling onto.
Cam Newton was amazing for one half of football and crumbled in the second, which served to highlight how he continues to be let down by the cast around him. The passing offense has been one dimensional for much of the year, and that reared its head when the 49ers schemed around Steve Smth. No. 89 was taken out of the game and neither Brandon LaFell nor Ted Ginn were big enough players to mitigate the shift.
In many ways it's a season that ended back where it started, with the same weaknesses. We all knew how good the front seven was going to be, that was a known quantity -- but what lost on Sunday? The same things that many thought would lose games back in September: Lack of secondary, poor right side of the offensive line, not enough receivers, suspect play calling.
Easily finding weaknesses is a double-edged sword. It hurts to see something that's been a glaring problem all year come to fruition when it matters most, but it also means that there's a GM in pace who can find a way to fix these. There have been reports that the catalyst for Marty Hurney's firing was an inability to answer what was wrong with the team, and it's hard to imagine Dave Gettleman wont have seen these same problems.
It was a wholly remarkable year, heroism to Hogwarts. There were moments you wanted to pull your hair out, others you couldn't stop grinning ear-to-ear -- and for that we all owe the team the warmest of thanks. It taught us all how it feels to be fans again, to be fanatics. After years of accepting mediocrity in early-November we got to feel that what we cared about mattered on a meaningful national level. Picking up sword and shield this fan base rallied around a team that was overlooked and counted out, proudly emblazoning "Keep Pounding" on anything that could hold the words and ready to fight anyone who made mockery of them.
In the end the Panthers became their fanbase, a union these two sides have not felt in a long time. The rabid, frothing fury became manifest on the field and lack of discipline caused too many dumb mistakes. I know the propensity will be to blame referees for the loss, but it's simply not the case. Carolina was outplayed, the second half proved that three times over -- and remember for just a second how ridiculous blaming the referees sounded in Carolina's win over New England on Monday Night Football.
This wasn't their year, just as it wont be for 31 other teams. In the end that's kind of okay. There wont be a Lombardi Trophy or ticker-tape parade, but there's a foundation and a heart that can't be taken away.
Thank you for reading. Thank you for commenting. Thank you for screaming and shouting, invective or cheers -- if only because you let the world know you cared. For three years I've said the only thing that can kill a fanbase is apathy, and you never let it creep in.
234 days until the 2014 season kickoff. Keep Pounding.