The TVs in the Carolina Panthers’ locker room were showing the Green Bay-Dallas playoff game Sunday afternoon as players came in from a meeting and began clearing out for the winter.
After an abrupt end to a feel-good, late-season charge, the Panthers were packing up and heading home.
Josh Norman, the talkative cornerback who always makes time for the media, couldn’t bring himself to talk to reporters Saturday night after the Panthers were eliminated after a 31-17 loss to Seattle.
On Sunday, Norman described the mood fittingly.
“It came crashing down on me in the locker room like, wow, this is it. I was expecting to play next week, really I was,” Norman said. “Shoot, this is what you get, man. Trash bags the next day. Man, it’s a hard pill to swallow.”
Norman said he hadn’t slept – not on the cross-country flight from Seattle or in the hours before the team meeting Sunday afternoon. He said he was one of the first players to arrive at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday morning.
“Started to see guys roll in, and they’re rolling out with trash bags,” Norman said. “That’s pretty much what we’re getting right now.”
The Panthers (8-9-1) salvaged their season with a four-game winning streak to win the NFC South, then beat Arizona in the wild-card round before falling to the reigning Super Bowl-champion Seahawks.
It was a wild ride that include the first tie in franchise history, a six-game losing streak, a car accident that hospitalized quarterback Cam Newton and a fire at the home of coach Ron Rivera.
But the Panthers rallied to become the first repeat champ in the NFC South and earn the first back-to-back playoff berths in their 20-year history.
Strong safety Roman Harper said it was a strange, rewarding season.
“We went, what, two months without winning? I’ve never been a part of anything like that. Never seen it,” said Harper, a nine-year veteran. “And for us to come back and have success is a testament to this team and how we stuck together.
“Throughout all the good and all the bad we never pointed fingers. We enjoyed being around each other. When you have guys like that you’re going to have success. We’ve got a good thing going.”
General manager Dave Gettleman has a lot of decisions to make this offseason, the biggest of which involves quarterback Cam Newton.
Newton, who had three turnovers in the divisional-round loss, is under contract for 2015 at a guaranteed $14.6 million after the Panthers picked up the club option in his original deal. The Panthers were unable to get a long-term deal done with Newton before the 2014 season, but those contract talks will be renewed.
Newton fought through a number of injuries this season to win his first playoff game. He underwent offseason ankle surgery, cracked his ribs during the preseason, and sustained two fractures in his lower back in the Dec. 9 wreck.
The turnovers against Seattle were not all entirely Newton’s fault, but he took responsibility for them.
“The difference was just missed opportunities,” Newton said after the game. “I did a bad job of protecting the football, and when you’re playing a great defense you just have to take what they give you.”
Newton’s fumble on a bad zone-read exchange with running back Jonathan Stewart gave Seattle a short field and set up the Seahawks’ first touchdown. The fumble was initially charged to Stewart, before press-box officials switched it to Newton.
There was confusion during and after the game about how defensive end Michael Bennett came through the left side of the line unblocked to disrupt the play. Newton indicated crowd noise prevented all the linemen from getting the call.
“That was a read play. I don’t think it was blocked right, but that’s what happens when you play in a hostile environment,” Newton said. “A lot of people heard one thing, and others heard something else.”
Newton’s worst giveaway was his last one: Kam Chancellor’s 90-yard interception return in the fourth quarter that sealed it for the Seahawks.
Backup receiver Brenton Bersin was the first read on the play, but slipped in his route. Rivera said Newton was late getting to his backside reads, allowing Chancellor to break in front of the throw to tight end Ed Dickson.
Newton said he was proud of the way the Panthers overcame adversity this season, but the final game left him frustrated.
“Having a performance like (Saturday) makes you want to go back and play it right now. We wish we could play these guys over again,” Newton said. “These guys are a good team. We’re a good team. We have to be better, and we will be better.”
But that was little consolation Sunday as players filed into the locker room Sunday, filling their garbage bags and glancing at the TVs as Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson was interviewed during halftime of Green Bay’s victory.
“We’ve been NFC South champs two times in a row. It was said it couldn’t be done, and we did it,” Norman said. “We’ve got to take a lot of pride in that. But we know there’s no moral victories in this game.”