Players are disappointed. As middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said, losing on the biggest stage stings after posting an NFL-best 17-1 record in the regular season and playoffs.
“In order to learn from it, you have to let it sting,’’ Kuechly said. “It’s going to hurt for a while, but the thing that’s good is we have a good team, a good group of guys that understands that.
“You learn something from every situation, whether it’s a win or loss, and we’re going to come back strong next year.’’
Here are five reasons the Panthers can make it to Super Bowl 51 in Houston:
Cam Newton – Despite his short postgame news conference that overshadowed what Carolina accomplished, he’s still the MVP of the league and an elite quarterback. Newton gives the Panthers stability at the most critical position. His teammates believe in him and he believes in them. He gives Carolina a chance every game because of his dual-threat ability. He’s still, as several Hall of Famers said prior to the Super Bowl, one of a kind. Newton will bounce back, maybe more determined than ever. The words that reverberated loudly from his soft-spoken postgame news conference were this: “We’ll be back.’’
Defense – Defense wins titles, as the Broncos proved with the league’s No. 1 unit on Sunday. Sean McDermott’s defense at Carolina has finished among the top 10 in the NFL for four straight years. There’s no reason to think it won’t again with Kuechly and the nucleus back. Signing cornerback Josh Norman to a long-term deal or franchising him will be key. Look for one or the other to happen. Kony Ealy showed with two sacks, a forced fumble and an interception against Denver that he can emerge as a top defensive end. There’s no reason to think this unit won’t be as strong, if not stronger, in 2016.
Dave Gettleman – Carolina’s general manager has been a master in the draft and free agency at finding players to fill holes. He doesn’t have nearly as many holes as he had during his first three seasons, and he has the salary cap under control. He doesn’t have to shop at the “Dollar Store’’ any longer as he mentioned during this past offseason. Look for Gettleman to tweak the weaknesses and make this team better.
Kelvin Benjamin – From Newton to Kuechly to tight end Greg Olsen, center Ryan Kalil and linebacker Thomas Davis, the Panthers have a core of leaders as strong as any in the NFL. Toss in the return of wide receiver Benjamin, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp, and the questionable wide receivers group becomes as good as any in the league. It’s almost like the Panthers are getting another first-round draft pick with the 6-foot-5 Benjamin, the team’s first-round pick in 2014, back in the mix. The rest of the league should cringe that Newton gets his favorite target back. It’ll make him even more dangerous.
Who else? Seattle might be the only NFC team that can match Carolina in terms of defense and balance on offense. And the Seahawks just lost running back Marshawn Lynch to retirement. Arizona is only as good as quarterback Carson Palmer, and Palmer was a disaster in the NFC Championship Game. His time may be running out. Unless another team emerges in the NFC, and most teams have big question marks, the Panthers should be at least among the favorites to repeat.