Bank of America Stadium in Uptown Charlotte went from deafeningly loud to depressingly quiet during the Carolina Panthers’ playoff game Sunday. The San Francisco 49ers spoiled the Panthers’ first playoff game in five years, beating the home team 23-10.
Uptown was a sea of Panthers’ black and blue Sunday, with some 49ers’ red sprinkled in.
“Well I got my Panthers’ shoes on,” Tommy Gladziszewski said while tailgating with his friends. “I got my Panthers socks on, my Cam Newton jersey on. I have my Panthers hat that actually a customer knit for me because she knows I'm a big fan.”
The top of Gladziszewski’s hat looked like a snarling Panther, with the snout protruding out of his forehead. Pretty awesome, as he described it.
At another tailgate uptown, Joy Taylor and her husband said they drove down from Huntersville to check out the playoff atmosphere, even though they didn’t have tickets to the game.
“It’s a real shot for the city, I think – shot in the arm,” she said. “I mean, look at everybody out here walking around, people that don't have tickets like us just down here partying. I think it's huge.”
You could hear that excitement as fans pushed through the turnstiles to enter the stadium. And once the game started, the noise was deafening. During the 49ers last drive of the first half, it was goosebumps-inducing loud.
The Panthers had just taken a 10-6 lead, and fans were screaming, banging their seats, putting coins in bottles and shaking them – hey, anything to try to help the Panthers get a stop.
But the Panthers couldn’t get a stop, at least not without a penalty. The Niners drove almost 80 yards and retook the lead five seconds before halftime, 49ers 13, Panthers 10.
And the crowd never again got as loud as it did on that drive.
The Niners scored 10 more points and shut out the Panthers in the second half. Whenever the Panthers started driving, the Niners sacked quarterback Cam Newton. And when he threw an interception late in the fourth quarter, some fans slammed their seats and headed for the exit. Final score, 49ers 23, Panthers 10.
In the Panthers’ locker room afterward, veteran lineman Jordan Gross summed up the season this way:
“We made believers out of our fans after starting 1-3, and they responded with overwhelming support, and the gift is a playoff game at home,”he said. “When you don’t win, it’s very, very bittersweet. Because you were in the playoffs, you won the division and had that success but then you lose at home, and you know, it stings.”
But Gross says he doesn’t feel like that was the one shot this team had at a deep playoff run.
He and receiver Steve Smith helped the Panthers get to a Super Bowl in 2003. (That’s the closest the franchise has come to winning one.)
Smith says the current roster has a lot of talent.
“The foundation is strong,” he said. “You look at Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, A.J. Klein, Star (Lotulelei), man, these young boys are playing well and playing hard.”
It was the first playoff game for those players. It was also Ron Rivera’s first as a head coach.
Rivera says he considers this a successful season.
“We learned a lot about who we are as a football team,” he said. "We learned a lot about our organization. And we learned a lot about our fans, so I’m pretty fired up about that.”
"I think going forward, it means a lot of good things,” Rivera continued. “But if we don’t learn from what happened today, we don’t learn from the games we played this year, we wasted this season. We’re not going to do that. We’re going to get better, and we’re going to come back.”
After Rivera finished talking to reporters, he walked through the Panthers’ locker room. He spent time with each of the players who were still there, offering a few quiet words of thanks and encouragement.