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Monday Morning Optimist or: How I learned to stop worrying and love football again

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Panthers were favored to win against the Falcons. They were expected to win. That comes with the territory when you're undefeated. What nobody predicted, however, was the complete decimation of Atlanta to the point where the game was over at halftime, Cam Newton didn't need to play a quarter of the game, photos at the 2 minute drill and a nice victory lap for good measure. The Panthers' 38-0 drubbing of the Falcons was so complete, so resolute that even the staunchest of critics are eating their words.

Before the game I was talking to a friend about how this season has been unforgettable. He quipped that for him the season can't be viewed that way until it's over, the playoffs decided and the Super Bowl settled. I understand that reasoning, but I wholly disagree. This season has been more than about wins and a stunning lack of losses. It's been about more than the future of the organization, the development of Cam Newton or any other metric or platitude in between.

"Unforgettable" is a subjective phrase largely colored by personal experience. One person's "unforgettable" is another's ho-hum. The same way I was stunned and amazed by a squirrel the first time I moved to North Carolina, but I digress. This season has been unforgettable to me because it reminded me that football is fun. Not because the team is winning. I've been there before and at times bad seasons have been fun too. It's because that the Panthers' unbridled joy at simply playing football has cut through the grand seriousness the NFL far too often struggles with.

We get swept up in contract talk or salary cap space. We concern ourselves with injury statuses and player development. We get into ceaseless arguments over who's the better quarterback or which team is a pretender. Sometimes we have the ugliness of domestic violence or serious brain injury thrust into the fore. There are times when it's really difficult to be a football fan. To love the game and overlook all the ancillary pieces that make enjoying it impossible at times. Reconciling the amazing athleticism we see every week with the harsh reality that this is a business, and the heroes on Sunday are often flawed individuals with their own demons, capable of heinous behavior.

Maybe it was the Greg Hardy situation that almost broke me. Perhaps it was seeing Steve Smith cut. It could have been reading about Stephen Davis, who struggles to remember things he did with his children -- at age 41. The NFL provides so many moments that make you want to break objects or just break down. For a time I was worried if this was the status quo. Whether the NFL would be my prison as a writer. An inescapable box devoid of passion where I would churn out words like a monkey at a typewriter, terrified every Monday morning that this would be the week people would recognize my words as fraud.

This season changed that. Seeing this team play with joy fixed the problem. Getting to see an organization treat football like a game -- a game that's fun -- was my remedy. Away from the quarterback pissing contests or over-worn phrases about "the golden age of football," these guys are playing not just like a team, but playing like they're friends. Legitimate, no-nonsense friends.

I don't mean for this to sound like the Panthers are something wholly unique. In fact, I'm sure this phenomenon exists inside other organizations too. However, no team is better at wearing their hearts on their sleeves than the Panthers and that's why we as fans connect to them the way we do. We see the people behind the facemasks, not the helmeted juggernauts hitting each other for our amusement. This team has brought a human side back to football, and it was a side I desperately needed.

The unforgettable moments in this life are the ones that either impact you positively or negatively to such an extent that your future is shaped because of them. It probably says a lot about my life so far that I can say a football season is "unforgettable," but I won't apologize for it. There will be another scandal, an arrest, a player's career ended by injury and it will hurt. Perhaps I'll break something or maybe I'll cry, but it won't erode how I feel about this game. Not anymore. Things may not be perfect, but every week I get to witness Cam Newton or someone else on offense hand a ball to a child, create an unforgettable moment for a kid. Hear thousands of fans cheering in unison, forgetting about their bills, heartaches and struggles -- at least for three hours a week. The Carolina Panthers reminded me of that.

What I liked ...

Thomas Davis

There are some weeks that TD goes off and it's so much fun to see. On Sunday he was everywhere. Always in the right place. Precisely at the right time. In the end he finished with 11 tackles, 0.5 sacks (which really felt like it should have been all his) and two QB hits to boot.

The tragedy of Davis is that he so often gets overlooked because of No. 59 in the middle. Only the most die-hard Panthers fans remember he's on the outside and has been playing brilliantly for years. Now he's getting the recognition he deserves.

Cam Newton

This song will keep being sung until the words lost meaning. Perhaps they already have. Newton has been absolutely astounding this season, and once again it's the little things he's doing that don't appear on a box score or the Red Zone channel that are the most interesting.

A pivotal moment came in the first half when Newton was clearly dead to rights on a sack. Most quarterbacks would go down, some could roll out and throw it away. Cam did both, and goad the defense into hitting him late -- which kept the drive alive.

Another moment like this came in the third quarter. The defense was lined up in a Cover 2 that Newton noticed after sending Devin Funchess in motion. The Cam of previous years would have snapped the ball, tried to rocket the ball in there, which likely would have ended in an incompletion or a pick. Newton switched the play, dropped back into the shotgun and handed the ball to Jonathan Stewart for an eight yard gain. It won't appear on a box score, nor will it be reflected in his passer rating, but it was huge.

Oh ... he threw three touchdowns too.

Jonathan Stewart

Simply a monster game from J-Stew. His 44-yard run certainly made the stats look amazing, but this was a hard yards game for No. 28. Newton's running was stymied with effective quarterback spying and edge pressure, which made the need of good running back play paramount.

He finished the day with 99 all-purpose yards and a touchdown.

Ted Ginn

You caught them! Two targets, two huge plays. If I'm going to give you a hard time for messing up you WILL be recognized for doing it right.

Kurt Coleman

Coleman isn't just the best pickup of the season the Panthers had on defense, he might be one of the best free agent signings this team has ever had. He's constantly effecting plays and added ANOTHER interception to his ludicrous haul this year.

Kawann Short

What an absolute monster. Two sacks and a recovered fumble. Just a mammoth day.

What's next?

The 5-7 New York Giants who are more dangerous than their record shows. Everything will be about getting licks on Eli Manning and stopping that link to Odell Beckham Jr. If the Panthers can do that they'll be at 14-0.