The charade is over.
Nothing that has happened since opening day has suggested the Carolina Panthers deserve to make the playoffs -- and now they definitely won't.
There will be no more ridiculous chatter about which other teams need to lose and what has to happen for Carolina to earn a wild-card berth.
The Panthers were eliminated from playoff contention Sunday when they got pounded 31-10 by the Green Bay Packers at Ericsson Stadium. The loss dropped their record to 2-5 at home and 0-6 against teams with winning records.
All that's left to salvage from this substandard season is a .500 record, which the Panthers can attain if they beat St. Louis at home Saturday. Otherwise, they'll be stuck with the same 7-9 record they had in their 1995 expansion season.
``Today is like an ending,'' said tight end Wesley Walls. ``You're sad. You're frustrated. You're disappointed. We had high expectations and high goals when this season began, but we failed.
``So that's how we all feel right now -- like failures.''
And that's hardly what the Panthers expected when the season began, when they set out to go one step further than last year, when they lost to the Packers in the NFC Championship Game.
``Coming into the season, we really thought winning the Super Bowl was realistic,'' said linebacker Sam Mills. ``If you're a game away the year before, why wouldn't it be?''
But Sunday's loss was another sobering blow to that dream that now seems like nothing more than a fantasy. In their six losses to teams that have winning records, the Panthers have been outscored 206-91.
``We've been bitten so many times,'' said Mills. ``This feels like another bite -- only it's a little bit bigger one than the others.''
Green Bay (12-3) looked like the part of defending Super Bowl champions and the favorites to win a second straight title.
The Packers' powerful offense totaled 458 yards, the most Carolina has ever allowed in a regular-season game. That included 218 yards rushing, 17 more than Green Bay compiled in last season's NFC title game and one shy of the record 219 gained by San Francisco against the Panthers on Sept. 29.
``Green Bay just physically kicked our (butts),'' said linebacker Lamar Lathon. ``It hurts to say it, but we got whipped out there.''
The Carolina offense fared no better than the defense, compiling 172 yards, the team's second lowest total of the season. You can thank running back Fred Lane's 119 rushing yards keeping that number from being lower.
Lane needed to have a big day because quarterback Kerry Collins and his receivers were about as cohesive as a couple on a blind date unable to understand the other's language. Collins' misfired throws and the receivers' inability to get open resulted in some atrocious passing stats: 7 of 26 for 56 yards.
``Our passing game left a lot to be desired tonight,'' said coach Dom Capers, again demonstrating his mastery of understatement.
The Panthers' passing left so much to be desired that you have to go back to the early days of the '95 season, when Collins was a rookie and Frank Reich was his veteran mentor, to find a more inept showing (12 yards passing vs. Buffalo and 29 vs. New Orleans that season).
The final insult on a gray-sky day came in the final two minutes, when the several thousand Packers fans, many wearing ``cheesehead'' hats, claimed Ericsson for their own. While Carolina fans were quietly leaving, the Packers' faithful stood up, surrounding the field, and chanted loudly ``Go Pack Go!''
It was never a game.
The Panthers punted on their first five possessions. The Packers countered with two touchdown drives for a 14-0 lead.
``You can't give a team with an offense like that that kind of lead,'' said Walls.
Green Bay's first score was directed at the most vulnerable area of the Carolina defense -- where cornerback Rod Smith roamed. Smith, subbing for injured star Eric Davis, was making his first start of the season.
Packers wide receiver Antonio Freeman flew downfield, past Smith and past safety Chad Cota, who was supposed to pick him up in deep coverage, and caught a rocket-like pass from quarterback Brett Favre.
Freeman practically walked the final 10 yards into the end zone on the 58-yard scoring pass with 7:38 remaining in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead.
The Panthers were playing a ``Cover Two'' zone that worked nothing like it was designed. Smith failed to jam Freeman at the line of scrimmage and Cota never got close enough to cover him once he ran downfield.
``It was just a vertical,'' said Favre. ``We expected something to come open and it just happened to be Free. They rolled their coverage to both sides and left two safeties to cover four guys. It's hard to cover that.''
Favre struck again less than five minutes later, passing Green Bay downfield on a 61-yard drive that was capped by his 20-yard pass to Robert Brooks. Again, Smith was the primary defender.
The Panthers finally got on the scoreboard with 8:05 left in the first half when John Kasay kicked a 43-yard field goal, cutting the lead to 14-3.
But Green Bay got the points back moments later when Ryan Longwell made a 31-yard field goal for a 17-3 lead that stood at halftime.
Any chance the Panthers had from there was doomed by Green Bay's opening possession of the third period -- a statement drive if there has ever been one.
The Packers ran 12 plays in 7:10, covering 65 yards, en route to a 6-yard touchdown pass from Favre to Freeman that put the Packers ahead 24-3.
About the only highlight Carolina had after that was a 35-yard touchdown run by Lane. The Packers added another score on a 6-yard run by Aaron Hayden.
When it was over, Lathon remembered the skeptic he had laughed at months ago, the one who said Carolina's schedule was so difficult this season the team could go 8-8.
``I thought it was a joke,'' said Lathon. ``But I guess it's going to work out that way because I know we can beat the Rams.''
Sadly, it doesn't really matter much what happens Saturday when Carolina hosts St. Louis.
The Panthers will be home for the holidays, exactly where they belong.