Admittedly, I’ve been irritated by those who said fans should have seen this coming. They told us Carolina was going to regress, and while this is a little bigger step back than even they expected, this is just the way it had to be. Clearly, they were right. Carolina has taken a step back, and it just so happened to be off a cliff. I’m still not convinced it had to be this bad, but I’ve been told over and over it had to be this way. It is what it is, I guess. The Panthers can’t win. Today’s punch to the gut only makes that reality that much harder to swallow.
Today was bound to be a hard day from the very first snap, where Tyson Jackson mugged Cam Newton nearly the same time the ball was snapped. Cam sorely walked to the huddle, and all we could see was his grass-stained jersey. One dirtier from the first play, than Peyton Manning’s has gotten all season.
The next three quarters didn’t go much better for the Carolina Panthers. The defense held on as best as they could, allowing only 16 points after two Newton interceptions. The Panthers offense continued it’s slumber, scoring a mere 3 points in the opening three quarters.
By the end of the third, Carolina’s defense was throwing everything they had at Atlanta. At times, it seemed as the sheer will of Thomas Davis alone was keeping Carolina in it. His tenacity infectiously spread. Kuechly plastered any receiver that tested the middle, and Josh Norman played Julio Jones as good as anyone could ask. Playing like a wounded animal, Carolina fought. Even “chippy” Roman Harper made a brief appearance, receiving a 15-yard personal foul for mashing Roddy White’s helmet into the ground as the play ended. Carolina’s defensive fight became more than metaphoric, as the several pushing and shoving matches neared fighting. Thomas Davis quieted the schoolyard brawl with a punishing hit on Devon Hester, forcing a momentum changing fumble.
The Panthers offense found new life entering the fourth quarter. Cam broke a 15-yard run and seemed to reestablish some chemistry with Kelvin Benjamin. Following one of the Panthers most effective offensive plays of the day (a 15-yard Falcon roughing the passer penalty), Cam connected with Benjamin for a 22-yard TD. The touchdown came during the no huddle drill, where Cam finally relied on instinct rather than falling prey to his own anxiety. Another Atlanta short drive and punt put Carolina’s offense back on the field with a little breeze behind them. The offense, which has been allergic to big plays and scoring, surprised the Falcons secondary with a 47-yard deep strike touchdown to Philly Brown to take a one-point lead.
The momentum had shifted, and Carolina’s defense needed one last stand. They had been on the field for more than thirty minutes. They had fought hard, but there wasn’t much gas left in the tank. Unfortunately, Matt Ryan went on to methodically pick apart Carolina’s zone, leading a 9 play 58-yard drive ending with a 44-yard field goal. Atlanta had the lead, but the defense had done enough. With inspirational play from Davis and Keuchly, the defense had kept Carolina in it.
With two minutes left, three timeouts and the two-minute warning, it was on Cam Newton and the offense. Newton stepped into the shotgun on the Panthers 36 yard-line after an opportune return by Brandon Swole Bones Williams. He’d been shaky for a good part of the game; he had been shaky really for weeks. Newton immediately went to his most trusted option, Greg Olsen, moving the ball 15 yards across midfield. Newton and the Panthers offense showed some fight of their own, moving the ball close enough for a field goal attempt. Rivera chose to play it safe, settling with a Graham Gano with a field goal attempt. Commenting afterwards about considering a more aggressive play-call, Rivera defended,“If we tried for another first down and threw an incompletion the clock stops. There are a lot of things that go into it. I made the decision that I felt was best at that point in the game. That is why I made that decision.”
Gano lined up for a kick that is usually routine for him, and he pulled it left. NO GANOOO! The usually sure-footed kicker made no excuses about the miss, stating, "I have to pull through and make the kick…..My job is to put it through the uprights."
The game’s ending was typical of the season. After Carolina’s embarrassing loss to the Eagles, Rivera stated the team had been on “the cusp,” but just couldn’t find ways to make plays and win. “Today’s loss, is a tough pill to swallow obviously,” Rivera noted after the game. Recounting his talk with the team, Rivera stated, “we’re still right in the middle of this believe it or not, but we have to start taking care of our own business...We have to win a football game. We have to beat Minnesota.”
Taking care of “business” and “winning” football games has been the hard part, however. The Panthers limp into their bye hobbled and hurt. Strangely, on paper this team is still in the divisional race. It hasn’t been pretty, but Carolina isn’t out of it. The Panthers will have to take care of their own business and win a football game to make this paper excuse valid for much longer, however. Carolina rightfully seemed desperate today. I’m not sure if they have much more to give than what we saw against the Falcons. Carolina has to do the two things they haven’t been able to do for the last six weeks, put it together on both sides of the ball for four quarters and win a football game. Aside from harnessing that intensity, that desperation, for four quarters over the next four week, the fight may be futile.
Follow the Professor, aka Tony Dunn, on Twitter @Cat_Chronicles