In late December, after the Panthers lost to the Falcons to fall to 14-1, my son Ben asked who I thought would lose next: the Panthers or the girls basketball team I coach, the Scholars Academy Eagles.
"The Panthers," I said.
Ben was surprised by my response. I'm a huge Panthers fan and a second loss would knock them out of the playoffs. Did I really think that would happen before my team, which was only 5-0 at the time, would lose?
"Yeah," I said. "I'm guessing the Panthers will lose one game next September or October before my girls start our 2016-17 season."
Even my son, a tough critic, had to admit that was a pretty good answer.
Unfortunately, it turned out to be the wrong answer.
On Tuesday, we put our 12-0 record on the line and pretty much got run out of the gym by a quicker team. It was the same team we had defeated in last year's semifinals, but this time our outstanding center, Celeste, was home sick with a cold. Without our shot-blocker -- not to mention one of our best shot-makers -- we wilted in the second half.
Of course, I'm not certain we would have won even if we had Celeste, as we did lose to that team by a single point last season. We are a very good shooting team for this age group but made hardly anything Tuesday, and that very well might have doomed us even if our center had been healthy.
Meanwhile, the Panthers have not lost again since their setback in Atlanta. They ended the regular season by crushing the Bucs -- sending Lovie Smith into the coaching abyss -- and then scored impressive victories over the Seahawks and Cardinals, teams many regarded as the two most dangerous in the league.
All of that good work has put the Panthers into the Super Bowl against the Broncos. Oddsmakers have established my heroes as 5 1/2-point favorites ... and although I won't place any bets, I certainly would side with the Panthers if I did.
Yes, I'm a fan, but I'm pretty objective as fans go. (Three decades of sportswriting does that to a guy.) I simply see Carolina as the superior all-around team: far more dynamic and balanced offensively, and every bit as impressive defensively. While Cam Newton has matured into being the best quarterback in the league, 106-year-old Peyton Manning hopes to keep his body in one piece for one last hurrah.
The Broncos' strength is their outside pass rush, but even that could end up working in the Panthers' favor. If DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller get caught a little too far upfield trying to get to Newton, he will run wild into the middle of the field. If the Panthers can do a decent job of keeping those great linebackers off of Cam -- and I think they will -- it could end up being yet another lopsided Super loss for the Broncos.
As for my Eagles, we got to experience one of the things I really like about sports: the quick turn-around.
Wednesday, one day after having a less-than-stellar performance and suffering our first loss, we played extremely well in a dominant 36-10 victory.
Celeste was back to anchor our defense, our leading scorer Sholeh found the touch that had abandoned her the day before, our top outside shooters Ritika and Olivia each swished a 3, and our defense was active and effective.
Plus, the 5th-grader we affectionately call "Rookie" had her best game -- stealing the ball several times, setting some great picks and scoring on three confident, aggressive takes to the hoop. On the third, she used a hesitation dribble to beat her defender, drove, scored and got fouled for an "and-1." The girls on the bench went wild, not just because Rookie made such a nice move but because we had worked on hesitation moves just two days earlier in practice. Which made the bald, old coach pretty happy, too!
So I was wrong about which team would lose next. But if you ask me the question again ... I'll STILL say next season's Panthers.
I'm not a big believer in an undefeated team "needing" to lose in the regular season to be more psychologically prepared to win in the playoffs, but I do agree with my athletic director that sometimes a loss will re-focus a team.
We have 7 games to go -- 4 in the regular season and then, hopefully, 3 in the playoffs -- and I'm confident this group will run the table.
And the Panthers ... well, a loss Sunday ain't gonna happen.
Yes, I know most of America is rooting for Peyton Manning to go out a champion, but he's got his ring. The Bears helped assure him of that. It's our turn, now.
Panthers 30, Broncos 16.
KEEP POUNDING, BABY!!!