Thomas Davis was a lot younger. Heck, he wasn’t even a linebacker. He was a 22-year-old rookie safety for the Panthers. But he was on the verge of the Super Bowl.
“As a young rookie, you don’t understand how hard it is to get to that point,” Davis — now a Pro Bowl linebacker for the same team — said in recalling the 2005 march that ended in the NFC title game against the Seahawks. “In my mind, I said, ‘OK, we made it this far this year, next year we’re going to win the Super Bowl.’ And I fully believed that. This is 10 years later, and now we are finally making it back to the NFC Championship Game.”
Sunday’s conference title game against the Arizona Cardinals in Charlotte, unlike the one between the Patriots and Broncos in Denver, will be between two franchises that have never won a Lombardi Trophy. A pair of franchises that are often overlooked also-rans. But each has been to the cusp recently enough — the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII in February 2004 and the NFC Championship Game in January 2006; the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII in February 2009— that there are remnants of those almosts still hanging around.
Davis is the only current member of the Panthers who was on that 2005 squad that reached the NFC title game. The Panthers didn’t win another playoff game until last year.
“It really puts things in perspective,” Davis said. “That’s one of the messages that I’ll definitely be talking about to the guys. Take advantage of this opportunity because you never know when it is going to come around again. It took 10 years for me to get back here.”
Across the line of scrimmage from him are others who also have been waiting. Quarterback Carson Palmer earned his first postseason win last week. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is looking to add a ring to his Hall of Fame resume.
Fitzgerald spoke about winning that NFC crown in 2008. That journey took them through Carolina, as well.
“I remember we were overwhelming underdogs going in there,” he said. “We were ‘lucky’ to get past the Falcons [in the wild-card round] and we were gonna be road kill when we got there, I remember that. That really bonded the team together. We have to have that same bunker mentality.”
Fitzgerald does not look at that season, which ended with a last-minute loss to the Steelers in the Super Bowl, as a missed opportunity.
“It’s something that’s prestigious,” he said of winning the Halas Trophy as the NFC champion. “Every time I walk through the lobby upstairs [and see the trophy], I sit and focus on that team.”
Davis and Fitzgerald made key plays in their teams’ divisional-round wins, Davis securing a late onside kick and Fitzgerald catching a shovel pass for the winning touchdown in overtime. Both are far enough along in their careers that they realize this could be their last chance at a Super Bowl. Davis has been through three ACL surgeries and is believed to be the first NFL player ever to return after such an ordeal on the same knee. Fitzgerald, 32, soon could see his skills diminish. They certainly haven’t yet.
“If I didn’t know how old I was, I would feel like I’m 20,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t feel any different, honestly. I feel good every day I step out on the practice field. I can do everything that is asked of me. I’m ready for the task.”
This week’s task comes with a shot at a title.
“There are so many guys sitting at home wishing they could be in this position, wishing they could have this opportunity to host an NFC Championship Game,” Davis said. “We have a chance in front of our home crowd to punch our ticket to the Super Bowl. But it’s not going to happen by chance.”