- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Long after most of his teammates had showered and left, Carolina Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn sat in front of his locker in full uniform. His head was bowed and the expression on his face was one of sadness and disappointment.
On the other end of the locker room, quarterback Cam Newton was equally distraught as managers cleaned the floor around him. He took so long to get to his postgame interview in another part of the stadium that he apologized.
In a season when the Panthers learned how to become winners for the first time in five seasons, coming to grips with Sunday's 23-10 NFC divisional playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers was hard to accept.
"It's hard as a person, it's hard as a man, it's hard as an individual, it's hard as whatever you want to call yourself when you put so much into it and you don't get the production that you want out of it," Newton said. "I had a coach tell me right after the game, 'It's a bad ending to a great season,' and he was right."
The Panthers did have a great season. They overcame a 1-3 start to finish the regular season 12-4 with an NFC South title that earned them a first-round bye.
They had a stretch of eight straight wins. They beat these same 49ers 10-9 on Nov. 10 at Candlestick Park and AFC contender New England 24-20 a week later at home. They lost only one of their final 12 regular-season games.
They weren't ready for the season to end.
But in the end, the Panthers weren't able to make some of the plays that got them here. They couldn't turn a fourth-and-1 "Riverboat Ron" Rivera special into a touchdown when Newton came up short on the first play of the second quarter.
They couldn't gain a foot for a touchdown two series later leading 7-6, settling for a field goal that ultimately would come back to haunt them.
They made too many mistakes, from pass interference to unsportsmanlike conduct to interceptions to sacks, to give themselves a realistic chance against a team that is a year removed from the Super Bowl.
In the end, they simply were beaten by the better team.
But they had nothing to be ashamed of. The season was a success on many levels, beyond what most people could have expected after the 1-3 start.
"We learned a lot about who we are as a football team, about our football players," Rivera said. "We learned a lot about our organization. I'm pretty fired up about that. Going forward, it means a lot of good things.
"If we don't learn from what happened today, if we don't learn from the games we played this year, then we wasted this season. We are not going to do that. We are going to get better and we are going to come back."
The foundation is there, despite 21 players who will become unrestricted free agents. The Panthers have a franchise quarterback in Newton, who grew up as much as anyone this season. They have a franchise player on the league's second-ranked defense in middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
They're in much better shape than they were after the 2008 team lost big to Arizona in the playoffs to start a string of four straight non-winning seasons.
"The difference this time around is I don't think this was just one shot for this team to win in the playoffs," said left tackle Jordan Gross, unsure if this was the last game of his 11-year NFL career. "There is a bright future."
Wide receiver Steve Smith, who fought back from a knee injury suffered in Week 16 to catch four passes for 74 yards and a touchdown, agreed.
"I take out of this a team that has fought through adversity, that did not listen to the naysayers, that proved a lot of people wrong," said Smith, who was held without a catch in the second half. "And it showed we have a foundation, a strong foundation."
Smith set the tone. He predicted after a Week 1 loss to Seattle, which will host San Francisco next weekend in the NFC title game, that the Panthers would face the Seahawks again deep in the playoffs.
Asked if he was disappointed that won't happen, Smith said, "Heartbroken. Not disappointed. Heartbroken."
That was the feeling throughout the locker room. Defensive end Greg Hardy, who was held without a sack after collecting seven in his previous two games, was so upset that he left without talking to reporters.
Safety Mike Mitchell was teary-eyed as he talked about wanting to return next season.
"I haven't played on a team with this type of coaches, these type of teammates, probably since I was a 17-year-old boy," said Mitchell, who signed a one-year deal before this season. "I had a great group of guys and I want to finish this."
Mitchell also felt the 49ers were lucky to escape with the win, pointing to calls that went against the Panthers. He mentioned the unsportsmanlike penalty on him and a pass interference call that set up San Francisco's first touchdown with five seconds left in the first half.
He reminded of calls that weren't made. He mentioned San Francisco having 12 players on the field the play before the 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis, and a head-butt by Anquan Boldin that Mitchell felt was no different than an infraction Munnerlyn was penalized for earlier.
"I can't wait to play them [again] with a new set of refs in a new game," Mitchell said of the 49ers. "We can beat that team. We can beat any team in this league. It just didn't happen for us today."
It didn't happen because the Panthers sacked quarterback Colin Kaepernick only once after getting to him six times in the first meeting. It didn't happen because Newton was sacked five times and intercepted twice.
It didn't happen because the team that has made seizing the moment its mantra couldn't seize opportunities in the red zone.
"Absolutely," Newton said. "It goes back to this is a terrible ending to a great season."