A year's worth of hard work by the players has culminated in the Panthers first playoff berth in five years, and just the fourth time in team history Charlotte has hosted an NFL playoff game. The season's emotions have taken fans on a ride, ranging from discussing the first overall pick at 1-4 to the seemingly never-ending win streak that put the team where it is now.
This is it, and it all feels strange -- perhaps that's the good thing. There's a lot of bravado floating around the fanbase right now with an appropriate amount of chest-puffing, but on a personal level I'm not nearly as confident. Part of me wishes I was that confident, but then I remember the last time I felt comfortable entering the playoffs. It was 2008, and the Panthers collapsed in a heap of Jake Delhomme interceptions that not only ended a season, but killed an era of football in Carolina.
The last time I felt this uneasy entering the playoffs? 2003. A team that was underrated, undervalued and made it though by the skin of its teeth. That team's offense wasn't dynamic, but the defense was aggressive -- and it was enough to make the Super Bowl. A decade has passed, and how sweet it would be to honor the 10th anniversary of "Keep Pounding" with a win in Charlotte.
That is going to be very difficult.
San Francisco is, for all intents and purpose a more mature Panthers team. I'm not talking about their players being older or wiser, just that the 49ers organization is entering the third year of a rebuild under Jim Harbaugh with a clear focus in mind. Everything has been working in concert over three seasons, while Carolina has gone through a change at general manager, offensive coordinator and several position coaches.
It's a sign of what's to come for the Panthers. This team needs to be incubated a little longer, final touches need to be added and everything needs to be polished.
Don't mistake that with a belief this game in un-winnable. Forget "any given Sunday," or whatever phrase you choose to denote that anything can happen, the Panthers match up well with San Francisco. The defensive line is capable of stopping Frank Gore, Luke Kuechly has the athleticism and ability to spy Colin Kaepernick to prevent his big runs, and Thomas Davis can cover Vernon Davis -- even if he's not elite in pass coverage.
These two teams met in Week 10, and I'm not sure we learned anything that can be ported over to the playoffs. San Francisco was decimated on offense with the loss of two tight ends, the Panthers were terrible themselves with Cam Newton playing poorly and Greg Olsen being a non-factor. It was dirty, it was ugly and while the win was fun neither team played to its potential.
This discussion of "potential" is of importance, because it helps mitigate the rhetoric of "Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis were missing." Yes, these vital offensive players were out and it influenced the game, but lets not pretend for a second that the Panthers were at their best either.
That Week 10 matchup represented a reshuffled offensive line, Jonathan Stewart's second game back from injury, and some of the worst offensive scheming we saw all season. Offensively the Panthers were passing, and there was a potential for a lot more points that were left on the field.
What's left to say? We could sift through all the minutia and discuss why the Panthers should win and break down each position, but that feels too clinical for a game that will be largely emotional. It's a chance to be loud, proud and show appreciation for a team that left it all on the field in 2013. If that means seeing another three wins this year, I'm all for it -- but lets celebrate what this season has meant.