Lots of football teams play the disrespect card, but let's be honest -- plenty of people were waiting for the other shoe to drop on the 15-1 Carolina Panthers.
You know it. I know it.
Mostly, they know it.
And so on Sunday, that shoe became a boot, and the only place it dropped was squarely in the rear ends of the two-time defending conference champion Seattle Seahawks. The Panthers beat them on the ground (144 yards rushing). They beat them through the air (Cam Newton posted a tidy 108.3 passer rating). They beat them up front. They beat back their comeback, and beat them in a different way than they beat them before.
Carolina beat them, and beat them, and beat them until what was happening out there was impossible for those who have been missing what's going on down here to miss it any longer. Asked as he jogged triumphantly off the field if his team had felt overlooked, first-team All-Pro corner Josh Norman smiled: "Yeah. Yup. Look at the score, though."
That's all the validation they need.
"C'mon, look who picked against us. It was a lot of people," Norman said about an hour later in a cleared out locker room. "Shoot, they didn't think we were gonna make it, they didn't think we were gonna do what we did, they didn't think we'd make it even this far. Guess what? We didn't really care."
And to be sure, there was nothing fluky or lucky or unsustainable about the feel of this one in Charlotte.
True to form, the formula for taking the bully out was hitting him between the eyes right off the bat, and that started at the Panthers' Saturday walkthrough, when offensive coordinator Mike Shula revealed to his players the call for the first play. It'd be a simple counter that wound up meaning a whole lot more.
"You kinda get excited that you're gonna be able to get after it on that play," said left tackle Michael Oher. "That was a good thing."
Was it ever.
Jonathan Stewart, the team's bell cow back in the lineup after a month away, took the ball from Newton, patiently waited for Seattle's pursuit to create a crease, and then shot through an alley created by the big guys holding their blocks. In one fell swoop, the Panthers established their physical will, neutralized Seattle's blinding speed by catching guys overrunning the play, and started towards their week-long goal of matching the visitors' relentlessness is playing whistle-to-whistle up front.
"We knew they were a good run defense," said center Ryan Kalil. "We wanted to challenge them right out of the gate. And I thought it was a great call, it was blocked well, and Jonathan, he ran hard. There's no magic to it really. It's just preparing, preparing, and we did a good job of that all week. And then to start the game like that was a big deal. This game is all about momentum, it's all about momentum. Big plays create momentum."
They were almost as quick to do the same on defense.
After dropping Marshawn Lynch (whose return was, predictably, more ballyhooed than Stewart's) for a 3-yard loss on Seattle's first play from scrimmage, the defensive line got in Russell Wilson's face on second-and-13 -- and there was Luke Kuechly and his sixth sense waiting to outhustle Lynch to a floater over the middle, which the All-Pro middle linebacker took back 11 yards for Carolina's second touchdown.
"The next series, a pick six?" tight end Greg Olsen said with a smile. "That's kinda how you draw it up."
Kuechly described it later to me as a right-place, right-time situation, while crediting the rush with forcing the errant throw. Apprised of that assessment, and that his star teammate passed off the credit Norman said, "Shoot, I guess that's just the kind of players we've got. He's a great one."
It was apparent on this day, at least, that the "kinds of players" Carolina has can also really play.
From there, the Panthers forced a punt, then went on their kind of drive (15 plays for 86 yards), and it was 21-0 less than a minute into the second quarter. Less than 10 minutes later, it was 31-0.
Instead, another of Carolina's reliable vets, Thomas Davis, pounced on the ball to deliver the Panthers to the conference title game for the first time in the Ron Rivera era. The roster's gone through a ton of turnover as GM Dave Gettleman cleaned up the salary cap -- just seven guys that started in the Divisional Round two years ago against San Francisco remain here -- but the program's kept growing, and the way the team wins, with tough, hard-nosed ball, hasn't changed much.
For one reason or another, perception of this group hasn't either, and that's OK with guys here.
"Honestly, we've been in that situation for so long, we've kind of become numb to it," Kalil said. "I think our guys have done a great job of not paying attention to who's picking who and who the favorites are. We just play, and that's really all that matters. I think it's a good thing that you don't get caught up in that stuff. That's come from experience, and how we've been overlooked. But that doesn't matter. What matters is how we play and how we prepare. We got the guys to win."
And as it turns out, they don't really need all of us to tell them that.