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Sorensen: Carolina Panthers host a big game no one saw coming

Six ESPN trucks pulled into Bank of America Stadium Thursday, and if you walked too closely to them, guards – security, not offensive linemen – demanded identification. Networks usually send two trucks and leave them unguarded.

The arrival of the trucks enhanced the hype, which grows hourly. This weekend might have been the first in Charlotte’s NFL history in which fans asked, “Is Monday ever going to come?”

Carolina plays New England in Charlotte Monday night, and the teams could be members of different species – AFC vs. NFC, old money vs. new money, NFL elite vs. a franchise that desperately wants to know how that feels.

The quality they share is that this season, they’re both good. The Patriots are 7-2 – the Patriots are always 7-2 – and the Panthers are 6-3.

New England doesn’t lose in November, and lately the Panthers don’t lose. They’ve won their past five games.

Games such as this are common in New England; the Patriots host Denver next week and the Boston Red Sox clinched the World Series there.

But we don’t often get them. So if anybody says, “act like you’ve been there,” we’d have to pretend. The last big football game in Charlotte was in the 2008 playoffs, when Arizona handled the Panthers 33-13.

Carolina was 12-4 that season, so we knew a big game was coming. This one, though, feels like a gift.

How could anybody have seen it coming? In early October, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was not Riverboat Ron. He was Run Ron Out Of Town, Preferably On A Plane But A Riverboat Will Do.

The Panthers were 1-3. The Panthers are always 1-3.

But Rivera, by his own admission, changed. He became Riverboat Ron, taking chances, trusting his team, playing to win. And it worked.

Monday night, we will walk to the stadium and it will be like a backyard barbecue, and everybody is invited. Even if you lack a ticket you can, through osmosis, be part of it.

Why wait? At 1:30 p.m. Sunday there were 31 cars parked in front of the stadium’s team store. Fans bought caps, cups and jerseys, usually quarterback Cam Newton’s No. 1 or linebacker Luke Kuechly’s No. 59. I counted 31 hospitality tents set up outside the stadium.

The caravan had arrived.

The Panthers have not, but fans who were desperate in 1-3 October are thrilled now, and they’re willing to prove it.

“I realize how many people recognize me that don’t say anything because right now I’m getting way more ‘Attaboys, good job this season,’ than normal,” said Panthers tackle Jordan Gross. “Everybody’s happy, and that makes me happy because I’ve said before that’s my goal. I want to get this program back on track. And we’re on the way, but we’re not there.”

But merely by being part of it again – part of the conversation, part of contending, part of not being a 91/2-point underdog at home against New England – is a fine start.

Gross, who has played all 11 of his NFL seasons with Carolina, was eating dinner with his wife, Dana, at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse on a recent Thursday night. A man sent over a bottle of wine.

What kind of wine was it?

“Fancy,” said Gross.

But Gross had to work Friday morning, so he thanked the man but told him he couldn’t drink the wine.

Said Gross: “And he’s like, ‘I gotta do it, I’m so excited, I’ve been a PSL owner since the beginning.’

“That,” said Gross, “hasn’t happened for a long time.”

To get a feel for how Charlotte will respond, I went to the downtown Charlotte hotel Saturday where the Miami Heat were staying. As LeBron James and the team walked through the lobby to their bus, fans were loud and near delirious, not quite believing what they saw.

So imagine Monday night. There’s one NFL game being played, and it’s in Charlotte. Network cameras, loud crowd, celebrity announcers – and Panthers guard Travelle Wharton waiting to run out of the tunnel.

“Oh, man, I don’t even know how to explain it,” Wharton says. “Because you’ve got the band, the fire; you’ve got the smoke. First thing: Let’s not fall, because I don’t want to run into the cheerleaders or anybody on the side. Let me find my footing.”

What happens after you find your footing?

Said Wharton: “All right. Let’s go. It’s here.”

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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