CHARLOTTE – Where do you even begin?
Attempt to write a reflective piece on the 2015 Panthers, and a flood of images, moments and conversations rush in all at once.
It makes sense to sort through things from the start – that training camp in Spartanburg where the criminally underrated Panthers were formed.
I remember thinking to myself back in early August, "Nobody really respects this team."
Sure, the loyal fans believed. And some local media recognized the strength of the core and thought this team led by a healthy Cam Newton had a chance to be pretty solid. But from a national perspective? Not so much.
I sat down for a brief Q&A with Peter King of MMQB.com back then in the Wofford cafeteria, and he offered honest perspective on what those who cover the NFL thought about Carolina.
"I think everybody says those guys (Atlanta and New Orleans) will take their rightful place," King told me, "and Carolina will be a 7-9, 9-7 type team."
A two-time defending division champion without the burden of high expectations? This was very dangerous – in a good way – for Ron Rivera, Dave Gettleman and the Panthers, who knew they had a team that could compete with anybody.
Then wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin went down during the second-to-last camp practice. A confidence-shaking, sucker punch to the gut.
When the regular season started, no one had any clue what was coming.
A scrappy win against the Jaguars in the opener came with a cost: Star linebacker Luke Kuechly was concussed and ruled out for the next three games. But the Panthers won anyway – there was Newton's flipping touchdown against the Texans, cornerback Josh Norman's soaring game-saving interception against the Saints, and five takeaways to down the Buccaneers.
Carolina was 4-0 entering the bye. A trip to Seattle to face the two-time NFC champions in Week 6 would serve as a true litmus test.
The Panthers' 27-23 comeback victory was the most thrilling game of the season; a heavyweight bout that gave Carolina a 5-0 record and the confidence to know they could beat anyone anywhere.
But the skeptics were out in full force. The Seahawks (2-3 at the time) weren't the same, they said. The Panthers hadn't proved anything yet.
Then Carolina held on to beat the Eagles and Colts in primetime. Then came a dramatic win over the Packers.
Still, the outside noise sounded off. "Worst 8-0 team ever" soon became the "worst 9-0 team." Then, you guessed it, the "worst 10-0 team."
All of it seemed to strengthen the Panthers' resolve. They kept scoring, dancing and dabbing in the face of skeptics. And the bond in the locker room kept tightening.
"You know I love that personality," Rivera would tell his team throughout the year.
They didn't need anyone else's approval. They knew what they had and what they were capable of.
So did their fans.
Something special was happening, and it wasn't just on the field. Support for the Panthers in Charlotte and the Carolinas was taking on a life of its own. All the criticism and doubt from media types only increased the passion and intensity of that support.
The Panthers and their fans weren't invited to the proverbial party, so they started their own. And that was the party everyone wished they were at.
Thanksgiving Day in Dallas took things to another level. Two pick-sixes in the first half paved the way for a beat down against "America's Team" with everyone watching.
The Panthers looked like an overwhelmingly powerful wave that was getting bigger and bigger each week. Casual fans were swept up for the ride, opponents were swallowed up by it.
After a comeback win over the Saints and a shutout against the Falcons, Carolina was 13-0. It took over three months of undefeated football, but finally, everyone started coming to the realization that the Panthers were pretty doggone good.
A 35-7 lead withered away against the Giants in Week 15, but Newton led a winning drive in the final minute to escape with victory.
An out of control Odell Beckham, Jr. and "batgate" dominated the headlines after that victory, and the Panthers weren't themselves in Week 16 at Atlanta. The tide was momentarily stemmed as they suffered their first defeat.
But a 38-10 victory over Tampa Bay in the regular season finale restored the scintillating swagger, and the 15-1 Panthers were the NFC's No.1 seed for the first time.
That Seahawks team that wasn't highly thought of in Week 6? They were on their way to Charlotte for the Divisional Round, gearing up for another Super Bowl run. In the blink of an eye it was 31-0 at halftime – a more impressive half of football would be nearly impossible to find.
After fighting off a desperate Seattle rally, the explosive Cardinals were up next, traveling to Charlotte for the first NFC Championship ever hosted by the Panthers.
It was 34-7 after three quarters. When Kuechly returned an interception 22 yards for a touchdown to make it 49-15 late in the fourth quarter, Bank of America Stadium exploded in a combination of sheer joy and utter amazement.
The 17-1 Panthers were going to Super Bowl 50.
But after they ran out of the tunnel and onto the Levi's Field turf, it never felt right. They say defenses win championships, and Denver's top-ranked defense certainly won that one against Carolina's top-ranked offense, forcing uncharacteristic miscues and turnovers.
It was stunned silence in the postgame locker room. This team had always found ways to win throughout the season. They wholeheartedly believed a comeback was in store.
"With everything we've been through, I just knew we were going to find a way to pull it out," tight end Ed Dickson said.
Instead, a remarkable season ended painfully.
But what the 2015 Panthers accomplished and the way in which they accomplished it can't be ignored.
This tweet was sent to me recently:
They did make it look like fun, and they'll be remembered for the way they connected with people who watched them play.
"The culture of this team kind of changed and caught fire around the whole world," safety Roman Harper said after the Super Bowl loss. "It was crazy. It was a phenomenon."
The 2015 season felt like a transformative one for a franchise that completed just its 21st season.
The Carolina Panthers are no longer an under-the-radar organization that might surprise people every few years. They've built one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, boasting several stars in their prime. They've established a winning culture. They've set a standard.
They're a force to be reckoned with.
View the top photos by photographers Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez and Kent Smith from the game between Carolina and Denver.