Don’t be confused — this is a Carolina Panthers town.

It’s not a UNC Tar Heels town, it’s not a Dale Earnhardt (Sr. or Jr.) town, and we all know it’s not anything close to a Charlotte Bobcats town.

Even after one of the most embarrassing losses in franchise history, a 33-13 playoff debacle to Arizona on Sunday, people here always will have more interest in the Panthers than any other team in the Carolinas.

But there’s no denying that the Panthers missed out on something special with this defeat, and it would be naïve to think it boils down to reaching their fourth NFC Championship Game since the team began play in 1995.

The Panthers missed an opportunity to attain bona fide immortality ’round these parts. A win Sunday would have given the Panthers a legitimate chance to step into that rarefied air of being one of those teams that’s identified with a city.

Quick: Tell me which team you think of when someone mentions Pittsburgh.

Yep, the Steelers.

What about Green Bay, Wisc.?

No-brainer: the Packers.

Obviously, Carolina doesn’t have the decades of success those teams boast, but the Panthers had brought this town amazing postseason moments in its previous 13 seasons. Until Sunday, each time the Panthers competed in the postseason, they made it all the way to NFC Championship Game. That’s saying something.

And even though the Queen City has hosted NFL playoff games before, there was something uniquely magical about this year’s venture. You could just feel it. Panthers paraphernalia was everywhere: schools, grocery stores, even houses of worship.

This year was different because, if the Panthers reached the conference championship game, it wouldn’t have been after they upset their way there. No, these Panthers had been good, if not great, all season long. They’d set team records, they’d won big games, they’d shown up against some of the league’s heavyweights during the regular season and acquitted themselves well.

People across the country expected the Panthers to reach the Super Bowl. They had the city in the palm of their hands.

“It was just exciting driving home every day from practice, seeing so many people with Carolina Panthers flags on their cars,” Carolina cornerback Ken Lucas said. “As you’re going through the city, you’re saying to yourself that you represent what they have on their vehicles. It was a great feeling.”

And then they went out, before a national television audience, and played one of the worst games in franchise history.

Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme had six turnovers – five interceptions and one fumble – that led to 23 Arizona points. The running game wasn’t a factor at all. And the defense couldn’t stop Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald, even though he was the only real receiving threat Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner had at his disposal because Anquan Boldin missed the game with a hamstring injury.

It was pitiful, pitiful, pitiful.

“If you have any type of pride about yourself, for us to go out there and give the type of show that we gave (Sunday) is so disappointing,” Lucas said. “We did that in front of thousands and thousands of our fans. And the worst thing about it is you can’t go out there and (try to do better) in a few days; you’ve got to wait until six months from now and start the journey over and try to do it again. That’s what makes it so tough.

“You know you let a lot of people down. You let yourself down.”

Hey, playoff losses happen, even to the best of teams; that’s football, that’s sports. But when a team that had looked so powerful all season — a team that created so much hope among its fan base – goes out with such an improbable whimper, it resonates.

Some fans feel betrayed. It was as if they’d been led to believe Carolina finally was among the NFL’s elite, only to have the rug pulled from their under feet.

Plenty more fans feel they knew all along the Panthers’ story was too good to be true. After all, here was a team that, on at least two previous occasions, had been considered Super Bowl-bound, and simply wound up buckling under the pressure of major expectations.

The Panthers probably always will dominate this city’s professional sports consciousness; the NFL is the most popular sport in America, and Carolina’s relative success in a short period of time makes it worthy of admiration.

But whether the Panthers ever will take the monumental step of winning the big game when they’re expected to, thus giving them this city’s heart, remains to be seen.

C. Jemal Horton has covered sports for the Washington Post, Indianapolis Star and Charlotte Observer. He currently is group sports editor for Carolina Weekly Newspapers.

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