HOUSTON Anyone who is stunned by Carolina's ascension in the NFL hasn't been paying attention.
In just the last year, Syracuse won the NCAA tournament after being unranked in preseason polls. Then the Anaheim Mighty Ducks went from near the bottom of the NHL to a seventh game in the Stanley Cup finals.
The Marlins? A low payroll also-ran since their first championship in 1997, Florida beat the Yankees in the World Series.
Heck, Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel who? won golf majors. And Funny Cide, a rank outsider before the Kentucky Derby, nearly won the Triple Crown.
The 2003 sports scene was rife with surprises. So why should the Panthers' presence in the Super Bowl next Sunday make so many people do a double take?
Simply because every time an underdog begins to resemble a contender, it takes a while to gain public acceptance.
''We proved a lot of people wrong,'' running back Stephen Davis said. ''But it isn't for everybody to buy into it; it's for everybody in here (the locker room) to buy into it.''
Of course, that's the nature of sports, where the likes of the Panthers and Orangemen and Marlins are overlooked until they can't be overlooked any longer.
For the Panthers, that time has come. It's impossible to ignore a Super Bowl team, even one with so few stars.
All anyone needs to do is look back two years to the Patriots. Tom Brady was an overachieving quarterback helped immeasurably by the obscure tuck rule. Bill Belichick was a good coach with limited personnel whose team won a watered-down AFC, but surely would be routed by the 14-point favorite Rams.
Final score: unappreciated Patriots 20, vaunted Rams 17.
So dismissing the Panthers would be unwise, especially in these days of frequent upsets at the highest levels. No one knows that better than Belichick.
''Nobody is going to put those points up on the board,'' he said. ''You have to go out there and earn it. It doesn't make any difference who is the favorite, who is the underdog, it is a tossup.''
The Panthers certainly can take inspiration from the Marlins, and the things they had to say after beating the prohibitive favorites from New York.
''In our mind, this is not an upset at all,'' Marlins outfielder Jeff Conine said. ''In everybody else's mind, it's a humongous upset. Nobody gave us a chance.''
Or from the Orangemen.
''This team showed that you can be behind, you can be struggling, you can do some silly things sometimes,'' coach Jim Boeheim said. ''But you can still overcome all that.
''If you keep playing and keep working together all the time, anything's possible.''
The Panthers are learning that. And showing it to America once again.
Carolina is not unlike many recent Super Bowl teams. In fact, since the 1998 season, seven of the 12 conference champions did not have a winning record the previous season. The Panthers were 7-9 last season. New England was 5-11 in 2000, champions in '01.
In the last eight Super Bowls, the favorite has covered just twice.
Carolina fans also need not be worried about a lack of Super Bowl experience, a factor that has become overrated. Generally, first-time Super Bowl teams did not fare well, but two of the last four champions were making their debut in the big game (Baltimore and Tampa Bay). The Rams who won four years ago had last been in the Super Bowl in 1980, when they played in Los Angeles. And the 1997 champs, the Packers, were making their first trip since winning the first two Super Bowls in 1967 and '68.
Panthers players can look at what Curtis and Micheel proved last summer. Each prospered even though neither had won a regular PGA Tour event, let alone faced the crucible of challenging for a major title.
The Panthers also know that nothing in pro football is more difficult than surviving the deafening dome in St. Louis to win a playoff game. No other team had done it, yet the Panthers blew an 11-point lead in the final moments and still won in double overtime.
''You grow as a team when you win games like that,'' receiver Muhsin Muhammad said.
You also grow as a team when you go from losing in the NFC title game (January 1997) to a coaching change (1999) to a 1-15 record (2001) and another coaching change, to, well, who knows?
''It's been seven years in the wilderness,'' safety Mike Minter said. ''When you come out of the wilderness, it feels so good. And guess what: Now it's time to head to the promised land!''
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