CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis says he'll never forget the sinking feeling in his stomach after Carolina's last home playoff game in 2008.
The final: Arizona 33, Carolina 13.
But Davis said as painful as that memory is, it's important the Panthers learn from that game and not allow history to repeat itself Sunday when they host the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC divisional playoffs.
"Don't come out and play like that team did," said Davis, one of 10 holdovers from the 2008 team.
The Panthers face a similar situation to five years ago when a pumped-up crowd watched in disbelief as quarterback Jake Delhomme committed six turnovers in the most deflating loss in franchise history — one that sent the organization into a tailspin.
Like 2008, this year's Panthers are 12-4, division champions and the NFC's No. 2 seed.
"The valuable lesson is you better be ready for the playoffs," said Panthers veteran offensive tackle and co-captain Jordan Gross.
The loss has become the elephant in the room for Carolina fans.
Sure, there is a buzz of excitement in Charlotte with the city's mayor declaring "Fan Friday" for Jan. 10, imploring fans to wear Panthers colors or black to show their support. But while there is anticipation, there's also an underlying current of trepidation heading into the weekend that another emotional letdown could be looming.
The 2008 Panthers were heavy favorites going into the divisional playoffs and, if they had beaten the Cardinals, they would have hosted their first NFC championship game.
"It seemed like it was set up perfectly for us and then, 'Bam!,'" offensive tackle Travelle Wharton said. "You look back on it and you're like, man, we let one get away. The thing you have to learn from it is you don't get those chances very often. I mean look what happened around here after that game."
It was a disaster.
The Panthers went from Super Bowl contender to irrelevant in a hurry.
Carolina would start the next four seasons 1-3, 1-12, 1-5 and 1-6 and were never in contention when December arrived. The Panthers released Delhomme one year after giving him a $42 million extension, and they allowed John Fox to leave following a 2-14 season in 2011.
This season appeared headed in the same direction after another 1-3 start, but the Panthers got hot and have won 11 of 12 games to return to the postseason for the first time since 2008.
"That year we were expected to be good — and we were good," Gross said of 2008. "But we lost, and we lost in a really bad way. It wasn't a close game. And it was really deflating for this franchise."
The 49ers (13-4) would love to spoil Carolina's return to the postseason.
Carolina defeated San Francisco 10-9 earlier this season at Candlestick Park, limiting Colin Kaepernick to 91 yards passing and 16 yards rushing.
"We owe them," Kaepernick said earlier this week.
Meanwhile, Davis said the Panthers owe it to themselves to leave it all on the field.
"You never forget that feeling," Davis said of 2008. "You want to make sure we do everything in our power to make sure we don't feel that way again. But this is a completely different team and we understand that we have to go out and take care of business."
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