Stop me if youve heard this one: There was a moment Sunday, deep in the fourth quarter, where the Carolina Panthers nearly had the game won.
Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams had the ball and was sprinting toward the goal line, determined to erase a 12-7 Seattle lead. He was inside the Seahawks 20. The 15. The 10.
And then Williams got crushed by two Seattle tacklers.
The ball popped out. And with it, so did the Panthers best chance of winning their NFL opener for the first time since 2008.
When the ball came out, no one else was more (upset) than I was, Williams said. The hopes and dreams of the 11 guys on offense resided in that ball.
It wasnt just the offense that saw a dream die. There were close to 70,000 people in Bank of America Stadium whose hearts dropped on that play. Drinks spilled and angry words spewed on couches all over the Carolinas.
Seattle recovered the fumble, then happily ran out the games last five minutes and 25 seconds. The Panthers never got the ball again, as a Carolina defense that had played brilliantly for much of the game finally ran out of fuel.
The heart-wrenching defeat on a sunny Sunday dropped Carolina head coach Ron Rivera to 2-13 in games decided by seven points or less. It was deja boo all over again for the Panthers.
The Panthers insisted afterward, however, that no one should overreact to a five-point loss to a Seattle team that Sports Illustrated picked to make the next Super Bowl.
Lets not panic now, quarterback Cam Newton said. Were going to be all right.
But will they?
The Panthers have only posted four winning records in their 18 seasons. The word is they will need a fifth one this season to save Riveras job.
This is the most talent a Carolina team has had since the 2008 squad, which was also the Panthers last playoff team. But the first-team offense looked bad most of the preseason and was bad again on Sunday in the place where it counted most: the scoreboard.
Our defense, I thought, just played lights out, offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. You hold a team to 12 points, you should win a lot of games. But offensively weve got to score more points.
Newton had no turnovers but threw for only 125 yards. That was a career low, surpassing the 141 yards he threw for against Seattle in October 2012. In that game which played out very similarly to this one the Panthers offense only netted three of Carolinas points in a 16-12 loss.
This time the Carolina offense scored a paltry seven, on a 3-yard pass from Newton to Steve Smith that gave the Panthers a 7-3 halftime lead. The world still felt light then to Carolina fans.
And then came the weight. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, the former N.C. State quarterback, got hot (he would finish with 320 passing yards 195 more than Newton). Seattle got a field goal. Then Wilson went after Panthers cornerback Josh Thomas on two consecutive deep plays from the Panthers 43. He overthrew the first one, then connected with Jermaine Kearse on the second for a TD as an admittedly winded Thomas got burned.
Ive made that play a million times, Thomas said.
Not that time. Still, for a defense to give up 12 points thats a winning effort for most NFL games.
The Panthers, helped by two Seattle penalties, rolled down to the Seahawks 8 and then Williams fumbled.
Said a distraught Williams: When it came down to it on making a play, I didnt make my play. ... And it cost us the game. Its a real tough one. Its going to linger with me.
It will linger with a lot of people. Williams has fumbled only nine times in his eight-year career, or slightly more than once per season.
That is no consolation, however.
The Panthers lost the ball and lost the game, and with those losses came another scar on the bruised psyche of all loyal Panther fans.
They dont want to give up hope. Not yet. But days like Sunday make it hard.
Scott Fowler: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler
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