SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Things just didn't seem right for the Panthers, who went 15-1 in the regular season and were even more impressive in the postseason before Sunday's disappointment in the Super Bowl.
Their opportunistic defense wasn't making the plays that it did during its first two playoff games, when opponents went to Charlotte to die. No, Peyton Manning's encumbered fast balls didn't make it into the hands of the Panthers, who forced seven turnovers in the NFC title game against the Cardinals and MVP candidate Carson Palmer.
When Carolina needed a turnover Sunday, they were unable to get it. And All-Pro corner Josh Norman was an offender, letting Manning passes bang off his hands on at least two occasions before the Broncos handed the Panthers a surprising 14-point defeat after Carolina entered the week atop the NFL mountain as five-point favorites in Super Bowl 50.
"It's so gut-wrenching and hard to swallow that," Norman said. "There were chances and opportunities there and we just didn't capitalize on them and it's so hard to play one team and play the other one, it really is."
"I'm having a hard time sitting here," said Norman. "I'm going to be straight up honest. I don't even want to talk to you guys."
Norman was asked to elaborate about his comment about playing more than one team, but he didn't offer an answer. Instead, he sat at his makeshift podium inside a Levi's Stadium storage room, starring straight ahead, not making eye contact with the group of reporters who had waited out almost a minute of silence from Norman when he first reached his seat in front of the microphone.
In the distance, Manning's post-game presser could be heard as he spoke loudly into his mic, which was amplified by echoes inside the cavernous room where both teams held their sessions with reporters.
"It just sucks to be on the other side, it really does," Norman said.
It was a tantalizing loss for the Panthers, who never seemed completely out of the game until the very end, when Von Miller forced his second fumble from Cam Newton that gave Denver the ball at Carolina's 4-yard line, setting up C.J. Anderson's dagger of a touchdown that made it a 14-point game after a two-point conversion at the 3:13 mark.
The Panthers seemed one break away from getting momentum to put pressure on Denver. After all, the defense was keeping Manning out of the end zone, holding the Broncos to field goals on their first three red-zone trips. All the Panthers needed was a big play on defense to give the offense a spark after Denver maintained control for the majority of the game.
But it didn't come. And instead, the Broncos made a few to increase the pressure on Carolina as it went the entire game playing from behind.
"They made plays on the defensive side that put their offense in position to score points," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "That's what it came down to. They took advantage of their opportunities. We didn't."
The Panthers turned the ball over four times, three via fumble and one interception that should have been a catch hauled in by Ted Ginn Jr. that would have given the Panthers a likely first down deep in Broncos' territory after Denver made it a 16-7 game with a 30-yard field goal on the previous drive.
Ultimately, the Panthers lost a game in which they held the Broncos to just 194 total yards, the fewest by a Super Bowl winning team in history, and held Manning to just one third down conversion in 14 tries. The turnover battle, which Carolina lost 4-2, played played a monumental role in the defeat.
"I'm not going to lie and say this doesn't hurt, because it does," Norman said. "It's going to be with me for a while, but I know I'll be back in this game. This feeling hurts, it just really does."