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Only thing that could have happened to Carolina Panthers, did

Buffalo Bills 24, Carolina Panthers 23

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. As bad as Carolina’s loss is, the aftermath is worse.

Fans don’t want to leave Ralph Wilson Stadium. A guy in a Buffalo hard hat screams “Bills!” at the fans walking the concourse beneath him, and at least a dozen stop and return the cheer.

Smiles are huge, fans as big as linemen dance and a man in a Bills’ jersey says, “We found our guy.” He could mean first-year Buffalo general manager Doug Whaley or first-year head coach Doug Marrone. He probably means rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel.

Here’s the reason the aftermath is painful: Close your eyes and imagine such a scene at Bank of America Stadium. Imagine happy, dancing, chanting, cheering and optimistic Panthers fans who don’t want to leave.

You can’t.

And you certainly can’t imagine a Carolina fan saying, “We found our guy.”

The Panthers haven’t found their guy. They have a talented quarterback who has yet to establish he’s a winning quarterback.

They have a head coach who invariably is on the wrong side of the play or the series that determines the outcome.

Buffalo is a team whose mission statement has long been to offer opponents a soft place to land.

The Bills have no right to expect to win football games. They haven’t earned it. Yet they won. The Panthers allowed them to.

Carolina’s 24-23 loss Sunday is one of the most devastating in Panthers history.

Yes, the Panthers have played only two games. But this one could undermine the season and cost Carolina head coach Ron Rivera his job.

Of course Rivera will get another week, and should. But what if the New York Giants beat Carolina in Charlotte on Sunday and the Panthers go into their bye week and into October 0-3?

If Jerry Richardson and Dave Gettleman choose to make a coaching change, the bye week is an opportunity or excuse. I don’t know who they have on the staff that looks like a head coach, but unfortunately it does not appear to be Rivera – at least not now.

I say unfortunately because there are middle-school gym teachers with a whistle around their neck who think they’re a big deal. Rivera doesn’t. He is respected and liked. To his credit, his team didn’t give up on him after the high expectations with which they entered last season and the miserable start that wrecked it.

They started 2-8 last season and 2-8 the season before. They finished fast, and if they saw the playoffs, they watched on TV.

“I don’t even know at this point what to even say anymore,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “We need to change it, and that’s our only option. That’s the only direction we can go from here. We can’t continue to sit around and feel sorry for ourselves, continue to say, ‘Man, why does this happen to us?’ It happens to us because we allow it.”

Said linebacker Jon Beason: “It’s more so what we didn’t do as opposed to what they did.”

Yes.

The Panthers have the ball fourth-and-1 on the Buffalo 21 with 1:42 remaining. They lead 20-17.

They’ve driven 59 yards, and used up an impressive five minutes and 31 seconds.

So: Kick the easy field goal or go for the first down and remind the Bills who they are?

The Panthers kicked. They reminded us who the Panthers are.

Asked if he considered going for the first down, Rivera said: “I did. But again, putting yourself in a situation where you like to believe you’re forcing (the Bills) to do something, and unfortunately it ended in their favor.”

The Panthers kicked the field goal and pushed their lead to 23-17.

The decision was understandable in that only 98 seconds remained and the Bills and their rookie quarterback had not a single timeout.

But in three of their last five drives, they had moved 72, 76 and 50 yards for scores. The only time they were stopped was when they turned the ball over.

I’m not one of those people who believe a team should always go for it. But this felt like an opportunity.

It was for the Bills, who calmly drove 80 yards and scored.

As I watched, I thought: This can’t happen.

Then I thought: This is the only thing that can happen.

Give me a reason why it won’t continue to.

Sorensen: 704-358-5129; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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