CHARLOTTE - The Carolina Panthers talked all last week about trying to gain more momentum with a season-ending victory at New Orleans.
The season instead ended on a negative note, but the Panthers plan to turn that into a positive.
"You better believe it's going to be used," head coach Ron Rivera said Monday, one day after the Panthers' 45-17 loss. "New Orleans showed us what a playoff-caliber football team should look like.
"We've watched the tape, and the players will get a chance to watch it. I think it's important that we realize that we played against a playoff team, and they showed us what it takes."
The Panthers were trying to conclude the season with a fifth victory in their final six games, but the task proved too tall against a Saints team now riding an eight-game winning streak into the playoffs.
The teams were tied at 17 with less than a minute left in the opening half, but the Saints scored just before halftime and kept rolling in the second half to end the Panthers' three-game road winning streak and finish the regular season unbeaten at home.
"As the game progressed, we were on the short end of it, but the first half was indicative on how we can play," Rivera said. "Unfortunately, it didn't go well at the end of the half and then in the second half."
Monday morning, Rivera met with his players one final time before dismissing them for the offseason. They didn't achieve the outcome they were aiming for in the finale, but they exited Bank of America Stadium excited about their eventual return in preparation for next season.
Wide receiver Steve Smith said Carolina would be a playoff team in 2012, and left tackle Jordan Gross predicted the Panthers would win a Super Bowl during Rivera's tenure.
"Hopefully, it's while I'm still here," said Gross, a nine-year veteran. "Getting healthy will help us a ton. We're so banged up – 18 guys on IR – and that's tough to overcome. We'll get everybody healthy and see where we're at. Free agency will be big for us, and we'll be in position to draft some good players.
"Six-and-10 is the worst we could be. I think it's only going to be better from here."
Six weeks ago, the Panthers stood at 2-8, coming off a 49-35 loss at Detroit that extended their road losing streak to 12. Carolina responded with victories in four of its next five games – including three on the road – before hitting a big road bump Sunday.
"Obviously, the game yesterday was tough, losing like that to a division opponent – guys we don't necessarily like a lot," right guard Geoff Hangartner said. "It was a tough way to end the season, but I think as we look back, finishing 4-2 in the last six games will give us a lot of confidence going into the offseason.
"We'll start next season expecting to win instead of hoping to win."
In an ideal world, Panthers players would have headed home Monday with a feather in their collective cap and smiles on their faces, but it might not be so bad to instead enter the offseason with a chip on their shoulder and a bad taste in their mouth.
"Yesterday was a big disappointment, and I think that's going to leave a pretty sour taste walking out of here," tight end Ben Hartsock said. "It was a game where we wanted to send a message across the league and across the division, but we didn't get that accomplished.
"Guys are going to leave a little bit sour, and hopefully that's going to lead to motivation. It's just one more thing that will add to our work ethic this offseason so that when we get back together, we'll be ready to get rolling."