Panthers can't wait till next year

CHARLOTTE – It isn't uncommon for players to take some time to sign footballs and jerseys in the locker room.

Typically, they're signing for folks outside the building. Monday, they were signing for each other.

"Guys don't want it to be over. They want to play another football game," said wide receiver Brandon LaFell, who spent much of his morning asking for autographs on his No. 11 jersey. "We've been having too much fun around here, coming in here and practicing every day and then going out and winning games. It's just been too much fun.

"It's not real right now."

Reality hit hard Sunday, when a Panthers team that closed the regular season by winning 11 of its final 12 games saw its season come to a sudden stop with a 23-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in an NFC Divisional Playoff.

"It's just shocking that the season ended. I didn't want to take those pads off," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "We left some plays out there and didn't execute when it was time to execute. They made more plays at the end of the day."

The pain evident in the postgame scene remained the day after, but a collective resolve was present as well. After the final team meeting of the season, one that celebrated the successes of the year before turning toward the goal of greater success in the future, players talked as much about what can be as they did about what could have been.

"We're heading up," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "We've got a good mix of guys that have been around for a while and young guys that feed off each other. We've got a good base, a good set of building blocks.

"All we've got to do is just keep getting better. That's what everybody tries to do in the offseason, and it's whoever does the better job that will be better next year."

Carolina did that as well as anybody last offseason. The 2012 team won five of its final six games to finish 7-9, then the 2013 team stumbled to a 1-3 start but recovered to say the least, losing just once more prior to Sunday's setback.

The next task for the Panthers – who have now won 17 of their last 22 regular season games - is to sustain success, both into next season and the postseason. As is typical throughout the NFL, difficult personnel decisions must be made before the team again takes the field.

"It's one of those sad days - a lot of guys saying goodbye because they don't know if they'll be back," said LaFell, one of 21 Panthers who can become unrestricted free agents. "Hopefully they will."

This time last year, with the playoffs not in the picture, players said their so-longs a couple of weeks earlier.

There is still the Pro Bowl to come for five players – five more than a season ago. It's not quite the bowl the Panthers had in mind, but it is another sign that the franchise is moving closer to ending the season with a jubilant locker room scene.

"I want to finish this the right way with this group of men," safety Mike Mitchell said. "I haven't played on a team with these types of coaches and these types of teammates probably since I was a 17-year-old boy.

"It's a great group of guys, and I want to finish this."

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