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If loss to Saints leaves Panthers with hangover, playoffs get dicey

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

NEW ORLEANS Was the blowout a blip?

That is the key question surrounding the 31-13 beatdown the Carolina Panthers sustained Sunday night at the hands of the New Orleans Saints.

It was a sound thrashing, one that took the NFC South out of Carolina’s control and embarrassed the Panthers in front of a national TV audience. New Orleans scored 31 consecutive points after the Panthers took an early 6-0 lead.

But the loss ultimately won’t do irreparable harm – if the Panthers rebound quickly. At 9-4, they maintain a lead over everyone else in the NFC wild-card race and boast a fairly favorable schedule in the final three weeks of the regular season.

“It’s not the end of the world,” linebacker Thomas Davis insisted early Monday in a somber Panthers locker room. “We’re sitting at 9-4. Everything we set out to accomplish is still ahead of us. We’ve got the New York Jets coming to town Sunday. We know they are a physical team, and we’ve got to bring our big-boy pads and get ready.”

Said Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross: “It was just tough. But I feel good that we can learn from this and get a little bit revitalized. You win eight in a row and everything is peaches and cream every Monday. ... When you lose, you get reminded of all your little faults. It might not be bad for us.”

Gross added that the Panthers’ record is “great” compared to where it’s been from 2009-12 this time of year. Said Gross: “The worst thing we could do is hang our heads and mope around and let one loss turn into two. ... We might have a better sense of urgency now than had we won. I’d rather get my butt kicked this week than three weeks from now or four weeks from now (in the playoffs).”

Sunday night was indeed a butt-kicking. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees laid bare the Panthers’ defense, which entered the game No. 1 in scoring defense but allowed Brees those 31 points, 313 passing yards and four passing touchdowns while never causing a turnover. Many of Brees’ throws could have been completed from a rocking chair, so indiscernible was the Panthers’ pass rush.

And on the offensive side, the Panthers had to settle for field goals early and never got a completion of more than 17 yards from quarterback Cam Newton, who was constantly under pressure and had an underwhelming game. His receivers didn’t help him by not creating enough separation, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.

Said Newton afterward: “I felt as if those guys were just better than us today. Are they better than us? No. But today it showed. The name of the game is score more points than the other team, and those guys did.”

So what now? The Panthers have the New York Jets (6-7) at home Sunday, New Orleans (10-3) at home Dec. 22 and Atlanta (3-10) on the road Dec. 29.

Win two of those three and a wild-card berth will be virtually assured for what would be an 11-5 Panthers team, with a first-round playoff trip to Detroit, Dallas or Philadelphia on the weekend of Jan. 4-5 the most likely scenario.

Lose two of those three, however, and things get dicey. San Francisco is also 9-4, although Carolina holds the tiebreaker with the 49ers. Arizona is 8-5 but beat the Panthers earlier this season.

Remember, Chicago didn’t make the playoffs with a 10-6 season in 2012 and ultimately fired coach Lovie Smith right after that. Somebody in the NFC may not make it with a 10-6 record this season, either, and the Panthers can’t let it be them.

The best-case scenario? Carolina wins its last three, including the New Orleans rematch Dec. 22, and the Saints also stumble vs. the schizophrenic St. Louis Rams (5-8) this Sunday on the road. That would push the Panthers back in front in the NFC South.

That’s a long shot, but the Panthers do know at the least that they get another shot at the Saints. “It’s a great measuring stick for who we are and where we have to go,” a stern-faced Newton said after Sunday night’s loss. “The best thing about this tonight is we have the opportunity to face this same team in two weeks.”

No, the best thing is that the Panthers are still in the middle of everything, even after taking one on the chin.

They can’t afford a holiday hangover, though. Sunday night has to be a blip, or else all sorts of dark possibilities that had seemingly been banished from sight will rear their heads once more.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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