You can feel the buzz in Charlotte

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was time for the usual hole-in-the-wall Friday evening hangout, a local spot where for the longest time you could go and never hear a word about the Carolina Panthers.

Not on this night.

Sitting to my left was a couple that recently moved to Charlotte from New England. Sitting to my right was a couple that spent most of their lives in the Queen City.

Once they realized they were adversaries -- another term not typically found in this establishment -- it was game on.

The New England couple began screaming that Tom Brady was the best quarterback in NFL history, that he would put up 35 points against a Carolina defense allowing 12.7 points a game when the teams meet on Monday night.

The Charlotte couple replied that the Carolina defense would eat Brady alive and that quarterback Cam Newton would run all over the Patriots.

It went on. And on. And on.

And on.

There's a buzz in Charlotte, in the Carolinas in general, as the streaking Panthers (6-3) prepare for their first home Monday night game since 2008. That it's against the Patriots, a team that deprived the city of winning the Super Bowl in 2003, adds a little more spice to it.

It's a buzz that for the most part hasn't been this strong since the Panthers lost 32-29 to New England on a last-second kick in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

It's a buzz that's been waiting to happen since the 2008 team had its heart ripped out in a 33-13 home playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals.

My email has been busier than normal from fans who are re-energized by the five-game winning streak that has Carolina above .500 for the first time in five years.

They are from fans such as this one who lives about 30 miles away from Bank of America Stadium, in South Carolina.

"I cannot wait for the game Monday night,'' she wrote me. "I think Cam Newton is the best. Let me set you straight, I could be Cam’s mother or grandma, too old to have a crush on him, but I just love Cam Newton.

"I am sure they will be going to the Super Bowl this year and they will win. This Monday night game is really a big major event happening in the Carolinas. Everyone is all hyped and can wait until Monday.''

This is what Newton meant on Wednesday when he said the Carolinas have been waiting for this game, this potentially magical season, for a long time. This is what this game, in many ways, is all about.

If the Panthers lose, they still will be in position to make a run at the playoffs -- maybe even the NFC South with two games left against the division-leading New Orleans Saints (7-2).

But not every game gets hyped like this one, and the city is abuzz about it.

The players are trying to keep things in perspective, but they feel it. Newton's comment about the locker room scene after last Sunday's 10-9 victory at San Francisco said it all.

"In that locker room after that game, you would have thought doggone Jesus came back,'' Newton said.

The Carolinas are known for their revivals, and there will be a big one on Monday night. This is a litmus test for a Carolina team that this coaching staff, people in general, still are trying to gauge.

"Very much so,'' third-year coach Ron Rivera said. "Absolutely. And we've approached it that way.''

This also is a litmus test for a city starved for playoff football. Rivera feels the buzz like everyone else, whether it's from friends he hasn't heard from in years wanting tickets or strangers on the street.

And tickets are a hot item. Those that typically go for $100 are going for $1,000 and up.

"It's exciting,'' Rivera said. "These folks really want to get behind us and show their support.''

You can't escape it, even in hole-in-the-wall hangouts where the Panthers aren't typically the conversation.