SEATTLE – As the reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks emerged from their tunnel moments before opening kickoff and passed through a series of columns that spit fire skyward, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton stood noticeably near the spectacle.
Newton and the Panthers moved a step closer to their own championship this season, but along the way they also got burned by the NFL's hottest team.
"We didn't think coming out here that we were just going to lose," Newton said after his team's improbable run ended with a 31-17 loss to the Seahawks. "I don't put on my helmet just to bow down to somebody and say, 'Well, you guys have got it.' We played with a chip in our shoulder, and you saw a team that wasn't afraid of the hostile environment or the defense we were going against.
"We stepped up to the challenge of playing, but we've got to be more thorough. When you're playing a team like this that is talented, that is coached well, you have to be ready to play a complete game of football."
Newton helped the Panthers offense put the NFL's top-ranked defense to the test, but the Seahawks passed when it mattered most. Newton threw a pair of touchdown passes to rookie Kelvin Benjamin, but in between he threw two interceptions and was credited with a lost fumble.
Newton gave the Panthers a chance, but he also gave the Seahawks chances to do what they do best.
"I did a bad job of protecting the football," Newton said. "They played great defense, and sometimes you've got to take what they give you."
The Seahawks don't give up much, but Newton helped Carolina rack up 21 first downs. The Panthers never trailed by more than one score in the first three quarters, and Newton nearly closed it back to a one-score game with another impressive drive midway through the fourth quarter, only to have safety Kam Chancellor pick him off and return it 90 yards for essentially a game-clinching touchdown.
Moments later on the sideline, center Ryan Kalil approached Newton on to console him and thank him.
"I just wanted to pat him on the back," Kalil said. "I know how hard he takes losses, especially in the playoffs. He works incredibly hard and he cares a lot about this team and his teammates. I just wanted to make sure he knew how much I appreciate that."
Newton's fire for the game was never more evident than it was throughout the season, the most trying one of his football life. Ankle surgery sidelined him throughout the offseason and slowed him in training camp, then a rib injury in a preseason game forced him to miss the first regular season game of his four-year career.
Newton fought through it but wasn't himself early in the season. He eventually hit his stride, only to slump along with the rest of his team. Just as he got back on track, he broke two bones in his back in a frightening automobile accident.
Amazingly, Newton just missed one game and picked up where he left off, leading the Panthers to two more victories to claim a playoff spot before claiming his first playoff victory prior to Saturday's swan song.
"I have mixed emotions because this team has been through so much. I don't want to make it about myself, but we all know what I've been through," Newton said. "We'll look back at this year that was so tumultuous on the field and off the field, and we conquered a lot of things.
"The guys came together and believed in coaching and each other. With the injuries we had and people we were missing, we were always trying to fill holes. But when we sunk our teeth in and got comfortable with each other, that's when started seeing the benefits."
Newton believes the benefits will extend well beyond the 2014 season.
"Great teams build from these type of opportunities," Newton said. "We had a great run, and we just have to come back and mature and know that when we're in this situation again, we will prosper."