Friday, January 10, 2014

A Chance at a Championship

The Carolina Panthers at last return to the playoffs this weekend with a divisional round game versus last year’s NFC champs, the San Francisco 49ers. The two teams played a gritty, defensive game earlier this year with the Panthers managing to beat S.F. on their home field 10-9.

Of the four games this weekend, only the Panthers-49ers game features a point spread that is less than a touchdown, with Denver (over San Diego), New England (over Indianapolis), and Seattle (over New Orleans) all heavy home favorites. In fact, Carolina is the only home dog this weekend, with S.F. a favorite by as little as one point and as much as three, depending on where you look.

Most of the “experts” are picking San Francisco on Sunday. Over on ESPN their roster of prediction makers features 11 of 13 taking the 49ers. Four out of six of the SB Nation guys are going with San Fran. And 6 of 8 of the ones doing the picking at CBS Sports are choosing the 49ers as well.

Listening to Charlotte sports radio in the car today offered a predictably blinkered view of Sunday’s contest, with most callers predicting a Panthers win and the hosts similarly expressing optimism and looking ahead to later playoff rounds.

I was struck, in fact, by a host going off on a tangent regarding the quarterbacks Cam Newton (Panthers) and Colin Kaepernick (49ers), both of whom are in their third years in the league with both also having achieved significant success early in their careers.

The host spoke of Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino who everyone remembers made a Super Bowl in just his second year with Miami (SB XIX), was crushed by the Joe Montana-led 49ers 38-16, and never made it back to another championship game despite a stellar 17-year career.

On the one hand, the entire discussion seemed a bit premature given the fact that both Newton and Kaepernick have a couple of tough games standing in their way of reaching the Super Bowl. But I did get the general idea that such opportunities generally don’t come easily in the NFL, or in other highly competitive arenas either, for that matter.

There are a myriad of examples in poker of players either breaking through to win that first big tournament early in their careers or coming up short, then never getting back to anything close to the same level of success again. Poker more obviously dramatizes the luck involved in having breaks go your way to land you in the winner’s circle, but the NFL and other sports likewise demonstrate the same principle time and again.

I’ll be on the edge of my seat Sunday rooting on my Panthers, likely thinking back to a decade ago and the last time Carolina made a Super Bowl run. A lot will have to go Carolina’s way for that to happen again, but all I can hope for is that the team manages to take advantage of the opportunity as they don’t generally come around that often.

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