by Anthony Harrison
On the chilly night of Jan. 24, Preyer Brewing Company in Greensboro muted the audio feed from the broadcast of the NFC Championship game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers had just routed the Cardinals 49-15 in the highest-scoring game in Panthers and NFC title game history.
But then, the bouncing bass and horns faded in over the speakers. And everyone in the bar knew what was coming.
Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” while a originally a love song written for Diamond’s wife, plays after every Panthers home victory. Tonight, it must have blared in every bar and home showing the game.
I rolled mad deep with some friends to Preyer, who hosted a potluck party both this week and the last for the divisional round game against the Seahawks. When my friend Lamar heard the familiar strains of Diamond’s ode-cum-anthem, he turned to me, his eyes twinkling with joy and maybe tears.
“We’re going to the Super Bowl!” he said, stunned but not disbelieving.
I affirmed this fact for him with a high five which still stings even as I write this.
And then the chorus to Diamond’s song erupted from the throats of any who cared to belt it.
Good times never seemed so good. So good. So good. So good.
If you are in the enormous minority of football fans who didn’t watch the game, I have two things to say: First off, sorry. Secondly, once again, the Cats devoured the birds who challenged them, and they looked unequivocally like the best team in the NFL while doing it.
Nothing too ugly about this win; no late-game nail-biting or squirming. The only risk of cardiac arrest came from getting too excited about the outcome of every play.
Quarterback “Killa” Cam Newton threw for 324 yards on 19-of-28 passing, completing two touchdowns in the air. His alter ego, “Scramblin’” Cam, rushed for 47 yards and two touchdowns. The “second-rate” receiving corps averaged 17.6 yards per catch. The runners kept their 100-plus yard streak going, even excluding Scramblin’ Cam’s effort. The defense crushed the vaunted Cardinals, sacking Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer three times, picking up three fumbles and snagging four interceptions, including two end-zone grabs by cornerback Kurt Coleman and yet another pick-six for linebacker/human carpet Luke Kuechly.
Again, if you missed this game — big “if” — I feel so bad for you. You missed the most entertaining and explosive blowout in NFC history.
While Carolina may have pulled back on the throttle in last week’s divisional round, there was no sign of letting up on the gas for the second half of this game. They pushed the pedal to the metal to the point that, after Newton made his 12-yard rushing touchdown in the third quarter, I turned to Lamar and spat the beginning of Outkast’s “Gasoline Dreams”: “Don’t ev’rybody like the smell of gasoline?”
There were so many huge plays and tremendous moments in this game, my head felt like it’d been spun in a centrifuge, the excitement overwhelmed me so much.
You just had to be at Preyer to understand.
This was the first time, outside of actually being in the Vault, that I’ve been completely surrounded by an audience totally invested in this team and this game. Every big run, aired-out pass, devastating hit and clutch pick prompted screaming, yelling and cheering, and it wasn’t just me celebrating this time. The hype in the bar was so thick, you’d have needed a chainsaw to cut it.
Until nuclear physicists finally figure out cold fusion, hype may prove to be the only self-sustaining energy source known to humanity. The Panthers will need to ride that hype in order to overcome the champions of the AFC, the Denver Broncos. And while this team we’ve cheered on and believed in all season has finally reached the penultimate goal, we shouldn’t look this gift horse in the mouth.
The Broncos may kick the Cats in the teeth in the Super Bowl, but the Panthers won’t stop attacking. They want this. I hope they keep going for the jugular until they savor the taste of Super Bowl victory.
And it’ll taste good.