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The Panthers are one win away from history -- and one heck of a party

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CHARLOTTE — People around town regard me as an oddity because I went to high school in Charlotte. I didn’t grow up here (I grew up in Cleveland) but when I was 14 my family moved down here along with tens of thousand of other Northerners. There were jobs and sunshine days in Charlotte. It was a new world.

It took a lot of getting used to then. People thoroughly panicked whenever there was a single snowflake, and they would buy out all the bread and milk in the supermarket. Restaurant menus listed mac and cheese as a vegetable. All forms of soda pop were called “Coke” (even though Pepsi was born in the Carolinas) and sweet tea was the default choice of beverage.

More than anything, coming from a major league town, the sports scene was utterly baffling to me. There were obviously no professional sports teams in Charlotte then — heck, Charlotte then was the 47th-biggest city in the country, behind Toledo, Tulsa, Honolulu and Newark (Charlotte is now the 17th-biggest city and has more than double the population of all four of those mentioned). The closest thing Charlotte had to a sports celebration when I was going to high school happened in 1982 when Dean Smith’s North Carolina basketball team finally won the national championship. It was the seventh time Smith had taken a team to the Final Four; many thought Smith would never win it all because of his regimented system and frantic substitution patterns.

So when the Tar Heels won it — after Michael Jordan hit the shot and Georgetown’s Fred Brown threw the ball away — it was wild. People rushed outside and, I remember, they were dancing and hugging and honking their car horns past midnight.

Of course, the University of North Carolina is not in Charlotte or even particularly close to Charlotte. Plus, there were plenty of North Carolina State fans, some Duke fans (though not as many as would later emerge) and some Wake Forest fans, so it wasn’t exactly a unanimous sports celebration. But, as far as I know, it was the closest thing Charlotte has had to one.

Because Charlotte is such a new city, there is little major sports history to fall back on. Some may remember the Carolina Cougars of the old American Basketball Association — that team was coached by Larry Brown, and it had some terrific players on it like Billy Cunningham. But what you might not know is that the Cougars barely played in Charlotte. Their home base was Greensboro, a city about 90 miles northeast. They also played some games up in Raleigh and even a few games in Winston-Salem. Charlotte in those days wasn’t much bigger than any of those other cities.

Charlotte has a nice minor-league baseball history — Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva and, later, Cal Ripken played baseball in Charlotte for a brief time. But Charlotte wasn’t even big enough to merit Triple-A baseball in those days; it’s a Triple-A baseball town now. Stock car racing was (and is) huge in Charlotte long before it found a place in the national scene. Professional wrestling was probably Charlotte’s biggest sport for time, back in the heyday of Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat and “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes. The Final Four was here once.

All of which is to say: This Carolina Panthers experience is unique in Charlotte history. Yes, it’s true, that over the last 25 or so years, Charlotte has become a major league sports city. The Charlotte Hornets have been around (off and on) since 1988, and they had a couple of good teams in the 1990s.

And this isn’t the Panthers’ first Super Bowl team. The 2003 Panthers got there behind the power running of Stephen Davis and the sporadic wonder that was Jake Delhomme. They lost a surprisingly close game to New England.

But this Panthers team is different. It is the first genuinely great team ever to play in Charlotte. And the Panthers are, on pace, to be remembered as a genuinely great team. Only two other teams have gone 15-1 and won the Super Bowl.

The first was the 1984 San Francisco 49ers with the majestic Joe Montana on offense and the invulnerable Ronnie Lott on defense.

The next year, you had the 1985 Bears with perhaps the most dominant defense in NFL history and with Walter Payton gaining more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage.

The 49ers and Bears are, even now, regarded as two of the best ever. Meanwhile, the other 15-1 (or 16-0) teams have all failed to win the Super Bowl. The 1998 Vikings, well, I just brought that team up to someone from Minnesota and heard some heartfelt groans. Those Vikings went 15-1, set all sorts of scoring records and dominated on a global scale behind a rookie receiver named Randy Moss. Then, they lost to Atlanta in the NFC title game when kicker Gary Anderson missed his first field goal of the season.

The 2004 Steelers under Bill Cowher went 15-1 behind rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who won all 13 games he started. Those Steelers had the best defense in the NFL, allowing the fewest points, the fewest yards, the fewest rushing yards, and tied for the fewest passing touchdowns in the league. But they turned the ball over four times in the AFC championship game and allowed Tom Brady to do as he wished. The Patriots blew out the Steelers in Pittsburgh, perhaps the greatest triumph of Bill Belichick’s triumphant career.

Belichick’s 2007 Patriots, as everyone knows, went undefeated in the regular season but lost to Eli Manning’s Giants in the Super Bowl because of a relentless New York pass-rush and a helmet catch.

The 2011 Green Bay Packers went 15-1 one year after winning the Super Bowl. They seemed utterly invincible. Aaron Rodgers had the best statistical year ever for a quarterback, compiling a record 122.6 passer rating with a completion rate of almost 70 percent, 45 touchdown passes, and only six interceptions. Rodgers was just about perfect … until the playoffs. It was Eli Manning’s Giants again who made big plays and put on the pass-rush. Rodgers was sacked, flustered, he threw an interception, and the Giants won by a blowout.

So there you go: It’s proven staggeringly hard over the last 30 years to dominate during the regular season and then win the Super Bowl. But the Panthers seem to have the team to do that. They went 15-1, their only loss coming when they laid an egg in Atlanta. But like the 1984 49ers and 1985 Bears, they have played their best football in the playoffs.

And like those two teams, they have a singularly dominant player on both offense (Cam Newton) and defense (Luke Kuechly).

Charlotte has never had a team like this, nothing close, and so this is climactic sports moment in the history of this city. You sense that all over town. Downtown lights up Panthers blue. “Go Panthers” signs are everywhere. People sell Panthers gear under tents throughout the city. Everyone punctuates the conversations with “Keep pounding.” Put it this way: When the Charlotte Hornets came to town in 1988, people were so unfamiliar with the vagaries of professional sports that The Charlotte Observer felt obligated to explain that it would cover the team both at home AND on the road.

Now, the Charlotte Observer has 11 people at the Super Bowl, and all you hear fans say is that they wish they could get MORE coverage.

The excitement is palpable … and so is the dread. This is the first time that Charlotte has faced real sports expectations. The 2003 Panthers were a constant surprise, and by the time they reached the Super Bowl they were playing with house money. These Panthers are 5.5-point favorites at the moment, but more than that, these Panthers have built up an aura of invincibility around town.

When various city leaders and business people pushed to bring professional sports to Charlotte 25 or 30 years ago, they often talked about what those sports teams would do for the city. Revenue! Respect! Worldwide fame! Most of those things were probably overstated. Studies suggest that the sports team revenue for cities is usually much less than promised. The vague idea of becoming “a major league city” has few tangible benefits. People in Charlotte have built two arenas, and they have spent a lot of money on personal seat licenses, and they have watched one team leave town.

But the way these Panthers have brought Charlotte together is real. Most people have moved here in the last few years — Charlotte’s population has more than doubled since 1980 — and they bring with them the passions of their hometowns. Everywhere you look there are Pittsburgh fans, Cleveland fans, New York fans and Washington fans. The Panthers and Hornets are, in words I’ve heard countless times since returning four years ago, “my second favorite team.”

These Panthers, though, have captured these new Charlotteans. They are just that good. It is thrilling to watch Cam Newton run and throw and dab. It is inspiring to watch Thomas Davis return from surgery after surgery. It is fun to watch coach Ron Rivera grow on the job. Everybody buys in.

From what I can tell talking to people throughout the city, few believe the Panthers will lose to Denver. There was much more trepidation when Carolina played Seattle and Arizona. It isn’t cocky talk you hear around town but, instead, a quiet certainty.

If Carolina wins, sure, it will be the biggest party Charlotte has ever had. That’s obvious.

But if Carolina loses, Charlotte will have its first sports broken heart. As a Clevelander, I can tell you, that’s part of the deal too.