by Anthony Harrison
On the afternoon of Dec. 27, the Carolina Panthers’ historic streak finally came crashing down to a bitter end at the hands of their bitterest rival: the Atlanta Falcons, only two weeks following Carolina’s home shutout against the same team.
Yet, all is not lost.
I watched the game in a galaxy far, far away: Amity Hall, on the corner of 3rd and Sullivan Streets in Greenwich Village, right across the street from New York University’s law school. It’s a split-level affair; you could order brunch upstairs if you had a reservation, or you could trudge down into the cellar bar and get your drink of choice or some of their spectacular wings.
Either way, on game day, they’ll play the Panthers on nearly every television. In fact, they’re the official bar of the Big Apple Riot, the New York chapter of the Roaring Riot, a Panthers fan club.
“We had some people come in to watch NBA games,” bartender Brandy told my mom as my eyes drilled holes into the television. “They were also Panthers fans. And they kept coming back and bringing more and more friends. So last year, we talked to the [Roaring Riot] and became an official Carolina bar.”
Initially, only my family and another alone occupied the lower bar, but as the first half unfolded, more people trickled in.
About six 20-somethings came in as Panthers head coach Ron Rivera challenged a fourth-down call.
“Let’s go, Panthers!” their scruffy leader shouted, stomping the barroom floor.
The bar entered the game after that, cheering at small victories, jeering at slips.
I have to admit I was both proud and confused by this contingency. Were they Carolinian émigrés? Had they been fans since Newton joined the franchise? Had they watched the 2004 Super Bowl? Or had they been loyal followers for the past 20 years?
Still, their support in this enclave made me feel more at home. And, watching the game, I needed comfort.
The game started as nicely as any other with a grinding drive capped by Scramblin’ Cam running in for a eight-yard touchdown.
And then, the Atlanta officiating crew showed how good Southern home cooking could get.
Now, I hate when people blame officials for their team’s losses. Truthfully, the Falcons showed up big time, playing like the Falcons I was afraid of much earlier in the season. And I’m not lumping the initial unsportsmanlike-conduct call against cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman in with this estimation. That felt like a deserved makeup penalty after last week’s bout against the New York Giants.
Instead, I’d say it was the no-calls which lent aid to the resurgent Falcons.
Two stick out in my mind: At least two Falcons shoved Cam Newton around after the whistle following his herculean effort to make a first down in the second quarter. No flags for unsportsmanlike conduct there.
But then, egregiously, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan straight-up flicked the ball at linebacker Thomas Davis as Davis raged forward for what should have been an enormous sack. Riverboat Ron, arms thrusting diagonally downward, screamed at the refs for a call of intentional grounding, as did the sizable crowd assembled at Amity Hall. Again, no flag.
My friend Winston — a staunch Falcons fan — agreed with me when I said in an online conversation, “How that wasn’t intentional grounding, I will never, ever understand.”
He replied, “Yeah, officials def bailed him out.”
It’s pretty bad when the fans of the opposing squad agree with you on BS no-calls; that’s all I’m saying.
Facts are facts, though: The Falcons’ shoulder chip trumped the Panthers’ plucky pursuit of perfection.
The defensive line couldn’t stop the Falcons rush attack. Linebackers and corners missed tackles. And despite that stellar first drive, seeing Cam break yet another record, the normally explosive offense failed to get fired up and seize momentum.
When your defense blocks an opponents’ field goal attempt, you march down the field and score.
When your opponents’ center snaps the ball so damn high the quarterback can’t catch it and your star cornerback picks up the unforced fumble with excellent field position, you march down the field and score.
And when you stop your opponent from scoring a game-clinching touchdown and force the field goal with two-and-a-half minutes to go and have accomplished incredible late-game drives without breaking much of a sweat, you march down the field and score.
Instead, Carolina gave it up on fourth down in their own territory, letting the wounded Falcons take a few knees and gloat.
There were brilliant moments. There were slouchy moments. So it was another typical Panthers game.
But instead of an ugly win, all we have is an ugly loss, thrown down quickly in New York minutes.
When I showed up at Amity Hall that afternoon, I foresaw the Carolina enclave celebrating, thinking I’d get a great scene and ribald quotes to relate to you. Instead, there were a bunch of unhappy campers in the Village bar, smiling somberly and searching for the silver lining.
Granted, there is one: The Panthers no longer have to worry about achieving a perfect record. And, if you ask me, it builds character to have a loss or two going into the postseason. For the first time since 2014, they recall the sting of defeat. They won’t want to feel it again.
Still, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t upset.
I wanted to see the impossible. We all wanted to see the impossible. It seemed so close, within the grasp of not just the participants, but within sight for the entire rapt audience across the country.
But the Carolina Panthers aren’t perfect.
I may refer to linebacker Luke Kuechly as a demigod; some refer to tight end Greg Olsen as the Norse war god Thor; many call quarterback Cam Newton Superman.
But even Keke missed easy tackles. Olsen dropped passes. And Cam gave up stupid sacks and threw the ball away too often.
No matter how boundless the potential they’d previously displayed this season, these men are not deities or superheroes. They’re ballplayers. They’re human beings like you and me.
And nobody’s perfect.