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A painful end to a special Carolina Panthers season

The Carolina Panthers lost a lot of things Sunday.

They lost their composure. They lost their knack for converting on fourth-and-1. And ultimately they lost in their first playoff appearance in five years – a 23-10 defeat to the San Francisco 49ers in front of a forlorn home crowd at Bank of America Stadium.

Just when it seemed like the Panthers’ magical season was building to another operatic crescendo, somebody pulled out a kazoo.

“Silly penalties, silly mistakes and not seizing the moment,” was how Carolina quarterback Cam Newton described it, and that was about right.

It was a bitter end to a sweet season, one in which the Panthers went 11-1 over their final 12 regular-season games to grab the NFC South crown and a first-round playoff bye. But the Panthers unraveled Sunday, and what was left in the aftermath was a desolate locker room and a roomful of players proclaiming next season will be different.

“It came down to two pretty obvious things,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. “Goal-line offense and penalties. You do the math on those, and the score looks a lot different.”

The sold-out crowd did its best to inspire, but by the end the fans were understandably much quieter.

“I thought the crowd was great early on,” Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. “They weren’t as loud in the second half, but that was due to a poor tone on the field.”

This didn’t have the same feel as the home playoff game five years ago – when Carolina lost by 20 points, Jake Delhomme had an astounding six turnovers and the game was pretty much over by the second quarter.

This remained a game all the way through, but the ultimate result was no different.

“To go out here and have a home game that we really didn’t show up for in the second half and play football, it’s tough,” Panthers wide receiver Brandon LaFell said.

In the teams’ first matchup two months ago, Carolina had edged San Francisco on the road, 10-9. This time the Panthers’ offense still could only put up 10 points, and the healthier 49ers scored two touchdowns to go along with the three field goals they got in both games.

What will haunt the Panthers’ offense all offseason were four downs on two consecutive series at the San Francisco 1 in the first half. Two Mike Tolbert runs and two Cam Newton runs couldn’t touch the end zone, as the 49ers’ defense simply overwhelmed the Panthers and their offensive line at the most pivotal time.

Newton called his own number on a fourth-and-goal quarterback sneak at the 1 but was stuffed, as head coach “Riverboat” Ron Rivera gambled once more but lost this time. On the Panthers’ next series, Carolina lost a yard on a Tolbert run on third-and-goal from the 1 and had to settle for a field goal.

“Two third-and-a-foots and we get a total of three points,” Olsen said disgustedly, shaking his head.

The field goal gave Carolina a 10-6 lead in the second quarter, but the 49ers would then score the game’s final 17 points. And while some controversial calls went against Carolina – San Francisco should have been called for “12 men in the huddle” and for a head butt by wide receiver Anquan Boldin on the same second-quarter drive – the Panthers’ defensive backs also simply lost their composure and their coverage responsibilities at critical times.

They took turns messing up. Captain Munnerlyn had a 15-yard penalty for a head butt. Robert Lester gave up a 45-yard pass when he didn’t come over to help on a deep route. Mike Mitchell had a late hit that gave the 49ers their first three points (he called it a “terrible call” five times in his postgame interview).

Oh, there’s more. Drayton Florence committed pass interference in the end zone. And cornerback Josh Thomas committed the most blatant foul of all, taking a swing at a 49ers player who was on the ground and giving San Francisco one more fourth-quarter first down.

“We have to maintain our composure,” Rivera said, “and that falls on me as the head coach.”

When the sting of this loss fades a bit, the Panthers and their fans will realize once more what a successful season this was.

The Panthers turned around a tide of negativity and became a force in the NFL for the first time since 2008. Their future is bright, with Newton as the offensive centerpiece and linebacker Luke Kuechly his gritty counterpart on defense.

But when safety Mike Mitchell choked up in the locker room, when Newton sat at his locker in full uniform with his head down, when Panthers fans filed quietly out of a stadium that had held so much blue-sky promise three hours before, you knew this one hurt deeply.

Of 32 NFL teams, 31 of them always end the season disappointed. That is the cruel reality of the business of football. And on Sunday, it cut like a knife.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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