CHARLOTTE – Tre Boston's humbling rookie experience came early.
It was his third career game – Week 8 against the Seattle Seahawks. The fourth round draft choice from North Carolina saw his first significant action in place of free safety Thomas DeCoud, the starter at the time who was forced out with a hamstring injury.
The Panthers clung to a 9-6 lead late in the fourth quarter. But with 47 seconds left, quarterback Russell Wilson connected with tight end Luke Willson down the seam for the game-winning 23-yard touchdown.
The pass sailed just over the outstretched hand of Boston. Safety Roman Harper converged and laid a hard hit on Willson, but to no avail. The tight end held on.
"I wouldn't change anything about it," Boston said in retrospect. "Great throw, great catch. That's how you are coached to play it.
"Literally fingertips away."
But after the game, Boston felt responsible for the loss. He took it hard.
"I wanted to be down on myself. It was my first time getting scored on in the NFL," Boston said. "I wanted to take it real personal, because that hurt me.
"I kind of felt like I let the team down. But it's a team game, and my team reminded me of that."
Head coach Ron Rivera offered words of encouragement as well. And after a few days, Boston moved on.
No one wants to get beat with the game on the line. But for rookies, especially defensive backs, it's part of the learning process. That's going to happen when you break into this league. The important thing is getting better from it.
"He's gotten better," Rivera said.
Added defensive coordinator Sean McDermott: "He's done a phenomenal job of responding. I know it was hard on him. It's always hard when you get beat. Part of being a great competitor is the mental tough aspect of it, too. Being able to hit the reset button and get back on it."
Boston's journey is a common one for rookies. They initially take the field trying not to make a mistake instead of trying to make a play.
"When I first got into this defense that was the first thing on my mind – just don't mess up," Boston explained.
At some point, that attitude has to change for success to follow. And the only way that happens is with experience.
"I've grown a lot. It takes time, and you have to get snaps under your belt," said Boston, who missed almost all of training camp and the preseason with a groin injury. "My reps were very valuable to me."
After the Week 8 loss to Seattle, Boston had played 27 defensive snaps in three games. He took over as a starter in Week 14 and finished the regular season with 360 defensive snaps in 11 games. Boston proved he could fit the run and hold his own against passes downfield.
"You can see (I have) more comfort in the scheme," Boston said. "I know what I'm doing a little more. I'm not looking like a young chicken with his head cut off.
"You can tell when a guy is confident out there. When I first got in I wasn't nearly as confident as I am now. Not even close. You can't make plays if you don't know what's going on. I'm at the point now where I know what I'm doing and I want to make plays."
In the regular season finale against the Atlanta Falcons, Boston recorded his first career interception and returned it 84 yards for a touchdown.
A week later in an NFC Wild Card against the Arizona Cardinals, Boston intercepted a pass that linebacker Luke Kuechly had deflected to seal the victory.
"It gives you tons of confidence," Boston said of his interceptions. "And it gives my teammates confidence in me, knowing that I can make plays in big games.
"It really helped me, because before I felt like I was a good player on this team and I was just doing my job. Now I am helping the team more."
When Boston takes the field for Saturday's NFC Divisional Playoff, he'll do it knowing he's a different player than the one the Seahawks faced in the middle of the season.
Boosted by confidence gained through big game experience, he intends to make that clear.
"I feel like I belong," Boston said. "I feel like a playmaker on this defense."