Analysis

Carolina Panthers should maintain perspective after first loss

ATLANTA -- Where was that voice coming from? Why was anyone talking? This was getting uncomfortable. And it was making things awkward, maybe even more awkward than a locker room of 52 other grown men getting dressed in total, stunned silence.

Slicing through the quiet like laughter at a funeral, Panthers safety Roman Harper was the only guy still going about his normal business Sunday. He was the only dude who didn't seem like he'd just seen a ghost. But ... why? Carolina had just recorded its first loss of the regular season.

"It's not the end of the world," Harper told NFL.com. "I've been here before."

Oh, right. Perspective.

You see, as Harper draped himself in a sweet, cobalt blue, three-piece suit after the 20-13 loss to the Falcons, he understood better than most players in NFL history one valuable lesson for this Carolina team:

There's no such thing as a bittersweet Super Bowl celebration. The Lombardi Trophy still weighs seven pounds, and it is still 22 inches long, whether it is presented to a team with seven losses or one loss or none.

While Cam Newton absorbed Sunday's defeat by sitting at his locker for more than 45 minutes, most of which he spent with a towel over his head, Harper seemed more capable of maintaining focus on the bigger picture. And that's not a knock on the 26-year-old Newton. The 33-year-old Harper merely has the benefit of life experience.

"In 2009, we were 13-0 when we lost our first game to the Cowboys," said Harper, referring to his time as a key member of that season's Saints squad. "Then we lost two more. We were the first team in NFL history to lose our last three games and still win the Super Bowl."

How's that for a stat?

You see how this works? Six years ago, after that first New Orleans loss, it surely would have been tough to convince Harper that any statistic other than 13-1 mattered to his season's fate. Now, he's actually using those losses as an example of perseverance.

There is no question, it would have been badass for the Panthers to go undefeated, to potentially join the 1972 Dolphins as the only Super Bowl champs to go wire to wire without a loss. But there's a reason only one team has done it: It's hard as hell. Carolina coach Ron Rivera learned as much as a member of the 1985 Chicago Bears, who won it all after going 15-1. Harper learned as much in 2009. And now, Newton has learned it, too.

That doesn't take away two key facts about the Panthers' current state: They will go down in history as the first NFC team to start a season 14-0. And everything, aside from the one-time undefeated campaign, remains intact for them.

Look, for any bitter Panthers players befuddled by a loss to a team they beat two weeks earlier in a 38-0 blowout, this is nothing more than a humbling moment and a reminder of the intensity football teams will bring to the field this time of year.

"It's a great learning experience," Harper said. "This was a playoff atmosphere. Let's be honest, this isn't meant as disrespect, but this was a huge game for the Falcons. This was their chance to validate themselves."

In other words, this was Atlanta's Super Bowl. For the Panthers, the real Super Bowl is still achievable. The real party, their chance to reenact the epic celebration that went down in the Big Easy after the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, can still take place.

Harper's perspective isn't only healthy -- it is precise.

Consider what happened to the Saints during that Week 15 loss in 2009: In the game's final moments, with one final chance, Drew Brees fumbled away the football, sealing up a seven-point defeat on a day when New Orleans looked more lethargic than usual. The next week, they played the Bucs.

Now, for the 2015 Panthers' version: In the game's final moments on Sunday, with one final chance, Newton fumbled away the football, sealing up a seven-point defeat on a day when Carolina looked more lethargic than usual. Next week, they play the Bucs.

Guess what else? The '09 Saints lost that next game against Tampa Bay. And the criticism grew louder about a possible anticlimactic close to their season.

Yes, it is possible this could be Carolina's fate, as well. But that's where the Panthers need to keep these similarities from continuing.

"We have our ticket punched into the playoffs, which is most important," Harper said. "And we have that first-round bye. But we still need to get home-field advantage. That needs to be our focus right now."

Despite Arizona's big win against the Packers on Sunday, the Panthers can still determine whether they lock up that home-field edge. With a win against the formidable and improving Bucs next week, they can make their path to Super Bowl 50 a much more comfortable one.

And that is what is most important.

No question, the looks on the faces of the Panthers' players and coaches on Sunday were to be expected. The disappointment was a reasonable emotion. Sunday saw some potentially great storylines -- like offensive coordinator Mike Shula potentially joining his father, Don, in the very elite Undefeated Club -- fall apart.

Of course, Shula can still join his father in another club: The one full of Super Bowl champions.

So it is time for the Panthers to put this game behind them, to learn from it and grow from it and restore any sense of urgency that was lost on this magical run, which had seen them go more than a year without experiencing the feeling of a regular-season defeat.

Carolina got to this point by playing with grit and toughness and swagger like few teams we've seen before them. Regardless of what the critics wanted to say on Sunday, the Panthers don't need to be humbled or play any differently than they have to date. Must we remind those critics that Carolina is 14-1, still the NFL's best record?

Now the Panthers must follow Harper's lead. They must realize that one loss doesn't define the season nearly as much as the 14 wins before it. And they must realize Rivera's message all along was the right one: This season wasn't about going undefeated. It was about winning the Super Bowl.

Yes, the Panthers lost on Sunday.

But that doesn't mean they need to cancel the parade just yet.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.

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