The Carolina Panthers' Super Bowl dream is dead.
The reality is as cold as the minus 17 degree wind chill that froze Lambeau Field Sunday and as certain as the Green Bay Packers' 30-13 victory in the NFC Championship Game was authoritative.
Simply put, the Packers are the best team the Panthers have faced in their two-year existence.
Green Bay's offense put up record numbers against Carolina's proud defense, which allowed franchise highs for total yards (479) and rushing yards (201).
The Packers shut down the Panthers running game, limiting Carolina to 45 yards. That tied the franchise low set last season in a victory over Atlanta.
The Packers' special teams were superior, too. Desmond Howard's 49-yard kickoff return was 16 yards more than any return against the Panthers this season.
``It would be way to easy to sit here and say we lost because it was cold,'' said Carolina cornerback Eric Davis. ``We lost because they played better.
``They did it with good, old-fashioned football. There were no whistles or bells, no mirrors or sleight-of-hand tricks. They executed and they beat us. It was that simple.''
The Packers (15-3) advanced to Super Bowl XXXI, where they'll face the New England Patriots on Jan. 26 for the NFL championship. The Patriots advanced with a 20-6 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Green Bay-New England winner will receive the Lombardi Trophy, named after late Packers coach Vince Lombardi, who coached Green Bay to the first two Super Bowl titles.
There was a hand-scripted banner Sunday hanging above the crowd of cheeseheads and Packers lovers: ``Vince is proud.''
The Panthers can be proud of finishing 13-5, advancing to the NFC final by winning the NFC West and going 4-0 against the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers.
``It's always an empty feeling in your stomach when you lose and it always hurts a little bit more when you come this far and you have an opportunity to possibly go to the Super Bowl,'' said Panthers coach Dom Capers. ``But one of the things I want to say about our football team is I didn't want anyone leaving this locker room feeling bad.
``At the beginning of the year, I don't think anyone would have given the Carolina Panthers a chance to be playing for the right to go to the Super Bowl. I don't believe we have anything to to be ashamed of.''
There were moments in the first half when a Panthers upset of the Packers, who were favored by 12 1/2 points, looked possible.
Two blunders by Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre helped Carolina build an early lead.
With the Packers backed up to their 6, Favre was intercepted by linebacker Sam Mills with 5:37 remaining in the first quarter of a scoreless game.
Mills returned to the 2 and the Panthers scored a touchdown two plays later on a 2-yard pass from quarterback Kerry Collins to fullback Howard Griffith.
After the Packers tied the score at 7 on a 29-yard pass from Favre to Dorsey Levens on the first play of the second quarter, the Panthers got another big break when Favre crumbled under the pressure of a blitz.
He fumbled at the Green Bay 47 and linebacker Lamar Lathon recovered at the 45. The Panthers drove to the Packers 4, but couldn't get a touchdown, settling for a 22-yard field goal from John Kasay for a 10-7 lead.
Then the Packers took over.
They drove 71 yards in 15 plays, using up 7:52 for a go-ahead touchdown. The score came on a 6-yard pass from Favre to wide receiver Antonio Freeman, who beat cornerback Tyrone Poole to the left side of the end zone.
Instead of going to the locker room at halftime behind 14-10, the Panthers took an aggressive approach for the final 42 seconds of the first half.
Collins hurled a deep pass down the left sidelines to Willie Green, but it was picked off by defensive back Tyrone Williams.
Favre then made the Panthers pay for their friskiness, completing two passes for 48 yards to set up Chris Jacke's 31-yard field goal with four seconds left in the half, increasing the Packers' lead to 17-10 and giving them and their fans more momentum.
Tight end Wesley Walls said the field goal ``jolted'' the Panthers, but Capers defended his decision not to play it safe.
``I felt we had a chance to possibly go down and get a field goal,'' Capers said. ``In a game like this, I felt that was the best route to take. We had enough time and we had all three of our timeouts left. I felt if we could go out and gain 30 or 40 yards, we'd be in field-goal range.''
All season, the Panthers have dominated in the second half, but they didn't Sunday.
The Packers scored on their first three second-half possessions, getting two field goals from Jacke and a 4-yard touchdown run by Edgar Bennett to take a 30-13 lead.
Carolina could interrupt that flurry with only a 23-yard field goal by Kasay.
Dissect that stretch and two plays stand out as the ones that assured Green Bay's victory:
Two plays after Kasay's field goal cut the lead to 20-13, Dorsey Levens caught a short screen pass from Favre and ran 66 yards to the Panthers 4, setting up Bennett's TD.
It was a masterful play call by Green Bay offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis. He anticipated a blitz from the Panthers left side and got it when outside linebacker Kevin Greene roared in toward Favre, untouched.
That's what the Packers wanted. Before Greene got there, Favre dumped the ball off to Levens, who eluded safety Pat Terrell and tore off on his long run.
``That was huge,'' said Davis. ``If we had any hope of getting back into the game, that pretty much killed it.''
If the game wasn't over then, it ended on Anthony Johnson's fumble with 1:23 remaining in the third quarter.
Though the Panthers were down by 14, they were driving. Johnson had picked up a first down and still had plenty of running room ahead of him when nose tackle Gilbert Brown knocked the ball lose and safety LeRoy Butler recovered at the Panthers 47.
That set up the Packers' final field goal.
``I thought I was gone for at least a 20- or 30-yard gain,'' said Johnson. ``I should have had the ball tucked away tighter. It hurt because we had a chance to cut it to within seven again and get back in the game. It was a sinking feeling for me.''
When the game was over, the Panthers quietly went back to their locker room. Their season was over.
``We really believed we could come up here and win this game,'' said Walls, who was limited to three receptions for 34 yards. ``To lose, with the finality that goes along with it, is a sudden shock.''
Cornerback Eric Davis said he knew no words to describe the disappointment he and his teammates were feeling.
``To understand, you'd have to go out there and take those licks in the cold,'' Davis. ``You'd have to run around in training camp when it's 100 degrees. You'd have to see the guys crying in the huddle and deal with the frustrations in the locker room.
``So much goes on during a season. You put everything you have into it, in front of the whole world, and you failed. It hurts.
``Everybody will talk about all the great things we've gone through and accomplished this year. But as a player, this is what you remember, that you lost your last game.''
There is always next year, and the Panthers already have set their sights on having the same celebration at Ericsson Stadium next January that Green Bay enjoyed Sunday.
``We'll learn from this experience,'' said safety Brett Maxie.
In the darkness of a chilling defeat, a new dream was born.