CHARLOTTE – As much as perhaps any human endeavor, competitive athletics allow emotions to run the gamut in a short amount of time. And at the highest level of athletics, that's more the case in the NFL than anywhere else.
While America's other major sports leagues feature playoff series, a team's postseason pulse can stop dead on a single series of downs in the NFL. Just witness what the Carolina Panthers endured Sunday, when a season built upon just 16 games but 10 times that many days of laborious preparation ended seemingly without warning.
"This is the reality of losing in the playoffs. One team goes home and packs their stuff up, and another team moves on," wide receiver Steve Smith said. "There's nothing worse than getting a trash bag of your stuff together."
As a 13-year veteran, Smith has been through it all before. But because of the nature of the NFL, it's still a rare opportunity even for him. Sunday's 23-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers marked Smith's ninth career playoff game.
Of course, that probably qualifies as a wealth of opportunities by NFL standards. First-year Panthers safety Mike Mitchell, for example, played in his first playoff game Sunday in his fifth year in the league.
"Everyone's emotional and upset, and rightfully so," Mitchell said. "But I told guys as soon as we got in here, 'Remember this feeling and remember that team we just played because we will see them again.'
"We want to try to keep this thing together because we can beat that team. We can beat any team in this league. It just didn't happen for us today, but I want to come back and finish what we started."
It's amazing how an NFL team – even a great one – can find itself being referred to in the past tense in a matter of minutes. Less than four hours before Mitchell was overcome with emotion while describing how special this Panthers group was, he and his teammates were filled with the feeling that a shot at a Super Bowl spot could be theirs before the sun went down.
"You put a lot of time and effort into this thing, and we expected to do a lot more than just make the playoffs," tight end Greg Olsen said. "We weren't just happy to be here. We expected to win, and we expected to be in New York in a couple of weeks. But we just weren't up to par."
Between the euphoria felt by players and fans alike at the long-awaited kickoff and the numbness felt following the loss, emotions spiked and swirled countless times. Emotions got the best of the Panthers defense a couple of times early, when penalties for post-whistle aggressiveness kept the ball with the 49ers. The calls themselves brought out an entirely different set of emotions.
"It's the playoffs. They've got to let us play," said cornerback Drayton Florence, the victim of a pass interference penalty that gave the 49ers a new set of downs in the waning seconds of the first half that resulted in a touchdown and a 13-10 lead. "Obviously that wasn't the case, but you've got to adjust your game to the way they're calling it."
After that touchdown, the emotional tide turned in favor of the 49ers and never switched back. Carolina couldn't move the ball after receiving the second-half kickoff, after which San Francisco marched the length of the field to build its lead to 20-10.
The Panthers could never answer, and soon head coach Ron Rivera found himself unsuccessfully fighting his own emotions while telling his players how proud he was of the team they had become.
The finality of playoff football can be jarring, but if there is a silver lining it's this: Finality is a relative thing. There's always next season, and hopes will soon run high given what this Panthers squad accomplished.
"This game is not indicative of what this season was all about," Rivera said. "Through thick and thin, these guys took it upon themselves and did the kinds of things you need to do to become a football team.
"That's what we did."