Before the Carolina Panthers were haunted by the dynamic duo of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware for four quarters on Sunday night in Santa Clara, the NFC's representative in Super Bowl 50 was a 17-1 football team.
Carolina was great all year long.
Denver (specifically their historically great defense) was just better on Sunday.
The title of "Super Bowl Loser" was given to a team that started 14-0 this season and was averaging 40 points per game in the two postseason games before Sunday's showdown.
It's hard for a franchise to bounce back after getting all the way to the big game and then falling.
But, this Super Bowl loser isn't like many prior to them.
The core of the Panthers will remain intact heading into next season.
Cam Newton will be back fresh off of his NFL MVP season, the best middle linebacker duo in football will be back in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis and Newton's top target—Kelvin Benjamin—will be back from his ACL injury suffered in training camp prior to this season.
Kuechly was last season's NFL Defensive Player of the Year, while Davis racked up five total tackles against Denver 14 days after breaking his right forearm in the NFC Championship Game.
The mantra of the Panthers is "Keep Pounding." Nobody signifies that motto more than Davis.
Benjamin brings a dynamic to the Carolina offense that makes Newton and the Panthers that much more dangerous in the future. In his rookie season during the 2014 campaign, Benjamin caught 73 balls for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns.
Carolina could've used some of this production on Sunday.
There's also that Josh Norman guy at cornerback, too.
You probably remember Norman from his WWE-like street fight against Odell Beckham Jr. back in Week 15 this season, but he was a pretty good player this season.
Pro Football Focus @PFF
Every Cornerback ranked from best to worst this season. Best: Josh Norman Worst: Brandon Browner https://t.co/df4X1OBQ8Z12/4/2015, 10:03:20 PM
"Pretty good," as in the best cornerback in football.
Norman's four-year deal is officially up with Carolina, so he'll be a free agent when the free-agency period starts at 4 p.m. eastern time on March 15.
But, after the season Norman just had—going from Newton's opponent in a training camp brawl (with some NSFW language included in the fight video) to the best corner in the league—it's doubtful Carolina will let him walk, which isn't good for the other NFC contenders next season and beyond.
Only five teams this season gave up fewer points than Carolina's defense, and Norman's ability to take away a third of the field every Sunday was a key reason why the Panthers were so good this season and stayed in Sunday's game.
NFL on ESPN @ESPNNFL
Peyton Manning was 0-4 targeting Demaryius Thomas when Josh Norman lined up across from him at the snap. https://t.co/uBtHw2w9PA2/8/2016, 4:24:45 AM
As good as Carolina is on both sides of the ball, their future success will lie on Cam Newton's shoulders.
When you're the $100 million man and the MVP of the league, your team's spotlight is on you more often than not.
SB Nation @SBNation
Maybe Bill Romanowski should put his phone down and never pick it back up: https://t.co/bfQr7CIJyA https://t.co/NMtxeM3GK82/8/2016, 4:54:23 AM
But make no mistake about it; this is just the beginning for the reigning MVP.
In his MVP campaign, Newton accounted for 45 total TDs (35 passing, 10 rushing), including five more in Carolina's run to the Super Bowl without Benjamin and rookie Devin Funchess not being an intricate part of the Panthers' attack.
Carolina will pick towards the end of the first round in this year's NFL draft, and it's not out of the question for them to consider a wide receiver with that pick.
The ideal first-round pick would be to shore up their tackle play on the offensive line, because Michael Oher and Mike Remmers didn't exactly hold the fort down against Ware and Miller on Sunday.
Football Perspective @fbgchase
Sandra Bullock is going to berate Michael Oher in the locker room, and deservedly so.2/8/2016, 1:20:03 AM
(Yes, it's the most dynamic duo on the edge in the NFL, but you get the picture.)
The hypothetical thought of Newton throwing to Benjamin, Greg Olsen and potentially a guy like Baylor prospect Corey Coleman seems like a fun time in the upcoming Madden NFL 17 video game.
In the real world, Carolina will be just fine.
No team finished better than 8-8 in the NFC South this season and all three teams—the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers—all need significant changes to compete with Carolina.
We all thought the Denver Broncos were dead in the water two years ago, and look how that one turned out just 24 months later.
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