Panthers break the ice with playoff experience

col-tbuzz (2)One of the best and worst assignments of my 22-year sportswriting career was covering the Carolina Panthers in the 1996 NFC Championship Game … IN Green Bay … IN January.

It was the Panthers’ second year in the league, and they were going up against one of the most storied franchises in NFL history. The Packers delivered a stern 30-13 lesson in playoff football that chilly day in one of the coldest games ever played back before Al Gore invented a polar vortex. (Or was it the Internet?)

Anyhoo, the details are sort of foggy from the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, and it’s taken me a while to warm up to the Panthers since this Southerner’s all-expenses-paid trip to the Great White North. But Sunday’s 23-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers was so similar it’s scary – without the sub-zero temperatures.

Just like in Green Bay, the Panthers played hard-nosed football in the first half and went toe-to-toe with the more experienced Packers. But the second half was a different story in both games as the team that BELIEVED it was going to win took over from the team that HOPED it was going to win. It’s more than semantics.

Just as then-Panthers quarterback Kerry Collins (that’s a different column) was a bit wide-eyed and perhaps too amped up to go up against future Hall of Famer Brett Favre, Carolina’s latest gunslinger, Cam Newton, is still learning to become the leader of what is developing into an outstanding young team.

And young teammates like linebacker Luke Kuechley, who still made 10 tackles and played his back side off like Newton, will be better prepared and even hungrier for a playoff victory when the next opportunity comes around. Little things like Newton falling 1 inch shy of the goalline on fourth-and-goal will go the other way.

It’s funny to remember that Panthers coach Ron Rivera was rumored to be on the hot seat after last season. Patience, which is rare in the NFL days, paid off for the Panthers. His style of football isn’t all that fun to watch, which those of us who live here are forced to do every Sunday, but it is built for the playoffs.

Add a little playoff experience and the Panthers look like a contender for the coming years. Maybe it’s best they didn’t make it to the Super Bowl this year, when it will be held in chilly New Jersey in February. I much prefer 2015 in sunny Arizona.

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