SANTA CLARA, Calif. - From the first game of their special season, the Carolina Panthers preached that it's not always the best team that wins but rather the team that plays the best that wins.
That mindset helped the Panthers forge one of the greatest regular seasons in NFL history and one of the strongest showings the NFC playoffs have ever seen.
Finally, when Carolina claimed a spot in Super Bowl 50, the Panthers were at long last viewed as the best team.
And what happened? The team that played the best prevailed.
"They just played better than us," an understandably sullen Cam Newton said after the Denver Broncos knocked off the Panthers 24-10. "I don't know what else to say."
Really, there isn't much more to say.
The Panthers turned the ball over an average of 1.2 times per game while compiling a 17-1 record entering Super Bowl Sunday. Against the Broncos, they turned it over a season-high four times.
The Panthers committed an average of 6.2 penalties entering Sunday before being flagged a season-high 12 times.
The Panthers had been sacked an average of 1.9 times per game but were sacked a season-high seven times.
"You have to give credit to Denver's defense, but that is not our style of play," tight end Greg Olsen said. "It seemed like every time we settled into a rhythm and settled into a comfort zone, something else went wrong.
"It's obviously an understatement to say it was very frustrating. It's disappointing when you don't really give yourself much of an opportunity to be successful."
Here's just a sampling of what Olsen was talking about, taken from the first few minutes of the game when the Broncos built a lead they never relinquished.
The Broncos put together what would prove to be far and away their best offensive drive off the opening kickoff, but even their efficient 64-march resulted in just a field goal. After the teams traded three-and-outs, Carolina's second drive started with what looked like a bobbling Jerricho Cotchery catch for about 25 yards, but the official with the worst view ruled it incomplete, and replay officials didn't see what they thought they needed to see to overturn the call even though everything pointed to an overturn.
Not the end of the world, right? Well, two plays later, still backed up at the 15, Newton lost a fumble on the first of several impressive plays by Super Bowl MVP Von Miller, and defensive end Malik Jackson fell on it in the end zone for a 10-0 lead.
And so it went, in both big and small ways pretty much the entire game.
Head coach Ron Rivera said he felt his team didn't lose its fun-loving personality on the biggest of stages, but frankly there was little to love as the team lost something more important – the football.
"We turned the ball over," Rivera said. "We fumbled the ball when we really hadn't fumbled the ball. We had a couple of tipped passes intercepted.
"You're not going to win football games when you make mistakes like that. Credit to them for doing some really good things."
The defense, for the most part, played winning football, holding Denver to 194 yards and 11 first downs. The Broncos' lone offensive touchdown, which was the dagger, was on a 4-yard "drive" after Newton lost a fumble with four minutes left.
That was the play that finally put it away.
"They didn't make mistakes, we did make mistakes," defensive end Kony Ealy said. "Obviously that resulted in a loss."
Ealy called the loss a "bump in the road," and his determination to bounce back put a period on the fact that Sunday's setback, no matter how hard to swallow, doesn't mean the Panthers didn't have an amazing season and don't have a bright future.
"A lot can be appreciated from this season," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "But at the end of the day, you want to win the Super Bowl."
During one of the million interviews leading up to Super Bowl 50, Saints quarterback Drew Brees was asked who he thought would win the game. He offered an answer that at first seemed like an attempt to be politically correct but was actually the best way to sum up how that funny-shaped ball sometimes bounces.
Brees wouldn't outright predict a winner but said if the teams played 10 times, the Panthers would win eight times. But, of course, they only played once.
"We've talked about getting to the mountain peak. We're at the top of the mountain, but we're just not at the peak," Rivera said. "They played better than we did today, and that's why they won the football game."
View game action photos from Carolina's 24-10 loss to Denver in Super Bowl 50.