The NFL season ended Sunday with the Seattle Seahawks' dominating victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.
In some ways, it seems like only yesterday that the 2013 season started with the Seahawks squeaking out a victory over the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium.
It was another remarkable season of football, capped by the NFL's top-ranked defense thrashing the league's top-ranked offense, the fourth time that's happened in the five instances when league leaders have squared off in the Super Bowl.
Panthers' fans tuning into the game no doubt had to think to themselves at some point, "I wonder what our second-ranked defense would have done against the Broncos?"
And at about that moment, FOX probably cued up the commercial featuring the fan who likened a Super Bowl without his favorite team to having a front-row seat for some other guy taking the girl of his dreams to the prom.
That's why some players say they don't watch the Super Bowl – a likely story so says center Ryan Kalil.
"I think everybody watches the Super Bowl," Kalil said. "There's only one team that's truly happy at the end of the season, but I am proud of my team. We had a pretty good run and improved in a lot of areas, and the plan is to take some of that momentum into next season and expand on it."
In fact, after the Super Bowl, the Panthers' breakthrough season seems even a bit better. Yes, it was just one game, with the Seahawks playing their best game of the season and the Broncos playing their worst, but it seemed to solidify the school of thought that the NFC was stronger than the AFC in 2013.
In retrospect, does it seem a stretch to suggest that the four best teams in football may have resided in the NFC, a list clearly headed by the Seahawks but followed by the Panthers, San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints?
Of those four teams' 16 regular season losses, eight came against each other, and they all knocked each other out of the playoffs.
It's going to be tough sledding in the NFC going forward, but the Panthers are hitching their wagon to some promising personnel. Who wouldn't excited about a team led on offense by a quarterback coming off his second Pro Bowl appearance in three NFL seasons; a defense led by a linebacker named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in his second season; and a team led by the NFL Coach of the Year?
The Panthers have won 17 of their last 22 regular season games. Three of those five losses came in the first month of the 2013 season, after which they won 11 of their final 12 regular season games.
"For us, the challenge next year is, 'What if we don't start 1-3? What if we start 3-1?' We can put ourselves in a better situation," quarterback Cam Newton said. "The name of the game is winning. You have to have that culture, and you have to remind each other constantly about making a big impact."
Throughout this past season, a lot of the postseason talk was focused on the prospect of the path to the Super Bowl going through Seattle, where the Seahawks rarely lose. After the Panthers' 12-7 loss to Seattle to open the season, Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith predicted the Panthers would see the Seahawks again.
He was almost right. Had the Panthers beaten the 49ers in the NFC Divisional Playoff, they would have traveled to Seattle for the NFC Championship.
The Seahawks aren't going away anytime soon, but the Panthers will have a chance to write a different script in 2014 with Seattle visiting Charlotte for the third consecutive season.
Given the growth shown by the Panthers in 2013, they can't wait.