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Time to enjoy the Panthers’ return to national spotlight

This has been a great week to be a fan of the Carolina Panthers, especially if you spend time in or around Charlotte. Bars, restaurants, sports talk radio, non-sports talk radio, your living room – you had to work to find places fans did not talk about Sunday’s game.

And it wasn’t merely us. USA Today offers a weekly NFL preview and features one game. Carolina-San Francisco is it.

Randomly turn on the NFL Network Friday night and the fellows are debating whether they prefer as their quarterback Carolina’s Cam Newton or San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick.

Vivid Seats tracks the secondary value of tickets; that is, not how much initial buyers pay but the price original buyers are able to charge. The mean Carolina-San Francisco ticket goes for $250, third highest this week in the NFL.

Among the least appreciated facets of sports is anticipation. You get hard guys who contend that only the result counts. I refuse to live in that often joyless world.

The San Francisco game is the most anticipated for Panther fans since 2008. (We invoke 2008 so frequently it sounds magical, mythical and mystical, as if it offers eternal sunshine and mermaids, and nice mermaids, not mean ones.)

I love thinking about this game and the possibilities it offers. One of Charlotte’s best known residents says he’ll be there. That’s Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors.

Who are you pulling for?

“Come on, now!” Curry says in a text message.

If you know Curry, you know who his team is. You ought to know even if you don’t know him.

Critics contend almost hourly that Carolina’s four-game win streak has come against inferior opponents, and they’re correct. But what were the Panthers supposed to do – apologize, refuse to play, petition commissioner Roger Goodell for stiffer competition?

Good teams are supposed to beat bad teams badly, and the Panthers did.

If they beat San Francisco, the victory doesn’t mean they’ve arrived. If they lose, the loss doesn’t mean they haven’t. I see San Francisco and Carolina’s their next two opponents – New England in Charlotte and Miami in Miami – as a set.

The numbers are interesting. Miami is 2-2 at home. The Patriots are 2-2 on the road and have lost two straight as visitors – to Cincinnati and the New York Jets.

San Francisco is 3-1 at home. The last two seasons, playoffs included, the 49ers are 10-2-1 at home.

San Francisco has not been the NFL’s best team this season but it might be the most complete. If there’s a better offensive line, I don’t see it. The 49ers will hammer the ball, or attempt to. They lead the league in rushing (153 yards a game), rushing touchdowns (15) and runs of 20 or more yards.

Carolina’s major statistical edge comes in sacks. The Panthers rank ninth, the 49ers 25th.

The 49ers, however, almost certainly will regain the services of pass-rusher Aldon Smith. Smith is 6-4 and 265 pounds, somehow only 23 years old and remarkably athletic. He sat out five weeks while he was in a treatment center.

In its last four games San Francisco has five sacks. In the three games Smith played he had 4½.

The 49ers are tested. That’s clearly an edge. They play in national games. Because they are who they are, almost every game they play is national. They’re 6-2 and defending NFC champs, and if you beat them, especially on the road, you did something.

Hype doesn’t mean a game will be good. Hype means a game will be big.

Have fun with it.

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