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Panthers fans had been waiting for a big deal to arrive

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tom Sorensen paused before he answered.

It wasn’t for effect. The Charlotte Observer sports columnist for the past 25 years was genuinely searching. Scanning his mind for the last time Charlotte had the kind of buzz it did Monday night, before the Panthers hosted the Patriots.

“I can’t remember,” he finally said. “It might have been early 2009 when [the Panthers] played Arizona [in the NFC divisional round] after having gone 12-4, but people knew that was coming. The team had been winning all season.”

After the Panthers began this season 1-3, the odds were against coach Ron Rivera finishing the season. The team was 14-22 under his watch and hadn’t turned in a winning campaign since 2008.

Five wins later — including last week’s 10-9 victory over the 49ers in San Francisco — and everything had changed leading into Carolina’s first “Monday Night Football” home game in five years.

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