ATLANTA – Each of the previous two years, the Carolina Panthers capped the regular season by storming into their cramped locker room at the Georgia Dome and joyously posing for pictures after clinching the NFC South title.
Sunday, the same space was instead filled with a screeching silence, but the Panthers still took a picture. Following Carolina's first loss of the season after 14 victories, players and coaches took a mental snapshot of the moment, hoping that six weeks from now they'll look back at it as a painful but a pivotal frame of reference in their Super Bowl quest.
"We're on a journey, and this is part of it," head coach Ron Rivera told the media, echoing what he told his team following a 20-13 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. "As you're going along, you're going to have bumps in the road; this just happens to be a big bump. Now we've got to refocus, get ourselves geared up and be ready to go.
"We've accomplished a lot, and to be 14-1 at this point in the season is tremendous. Let's not lose sight of that. This is not the end of the world, obviously; it's not even the end of the season."
The Panthers have been insistent that becoming just the second team in NFL history to go 16-0 in the regular season was never their goal, but with just two games to go, of course such an accomplishment was on their radar.
"This is going to burn for a while, especially if things go well for us next week," tight end Greg Olsen said. "But I'm not going to panic; I'm not going to overreact. We're 14-1. There are 31 other teams that wish they had our record.
"Obviously we're disappointed – we wanted to win this game no doubt – and we gave it all we had but just came up short. That's what happens sometimes in the NFL."
The Panthers have done an amazing job of embracing the one-game-at-a-time mantra, and they didn't really slip in that regard Sunday. If anything, human nature got the better of them in another hard-to-avoid way: Just two weeks ago, the Panthers beat up on this same Falcons team by a 38-0 count.
That certainly motivated the Falcons, who had too much pride to allow that to happen again. They also had to win to keep their playoffs hopes afloat.
"We knew that this was their Super Bowl, that their whole season came down to today," Olsen said. "Give them credit. They did what they needed to do to win, and we didn't."
The Panthers, of course, hope their Super Bowl is the actual Super Bowl in six weeks, and if they do get there it will follow a path that safety Roman Harper knows well. Six years ago, Harper starred for a Saints team that started 13-0 before dropping their final three regular season games – only to win it all.
"This was a heck of a run, and now everything is still out there for us," Harper said. "It will be a great learning experience. For the young guys, Coach Rivera gets to give the 'loss talk' for the first time. These things are good for us, and we'll be better because of it.
"I've been on a team where we lost three straight games going into the playoffs and nobody thought we could do it. Now people want to jump off the wagon and try to say what we are as a team, but nobody can determine who we are as a team other than ourselves."
Quarterback Cam Newton, as is well documented from way back when the Panthers last lost a game, takes failure on the football field as hard as anyone.
"It didn't tickle," he said when asked what losing felt like.
But Newton, too, has reached a point in his career where he realizes that as much as he hates it, some good can come from a bad loss.
"We deserved this with how we played offensively, defensively and special teams – and I'm talking with a mirror in front of my face," Newton said. "Yet, we know what we're capable of. We're 14-1 right now. We're in a situation where we can use this as fuel to the fire."
View game action photos from Carolina's 20-13 loss to Atlanta.