Losing to New Orleans in New Orleans last week was less than catastrophic for the Carolina Panthers. The Saints had won 14 straight at home under Sean Payton. It wasn’t a shock that against Carolina they ran their streak to 15.
Troubling, though, was the Panthers’ offense. Limitations were apparent. When they had to open up, they couldn’t.
Ball control had been sufficient since mid-October. The Panthers gave up an average of 12.3 points during their eight-game winning streak and only New England scored as many as 20. Carolina could patiently work its way down field, convert essential third- and fourth-down opportunities and reel off another victory.
Against the Saints, however, the Panthers encountered an elite offense on a field built for speed.
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After Carolina opened with a pair of field goals, the Saints scored touchdowns on three successive second-quarter drives. They would score 31 straight points on their way to a 31-13 victory. When Carolina’s offense had to go to overdrive, it failed.
The Mississippi River is little more than a mile from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. It’s as if Drew Brees and the fellows were roaring across the water in a powerboat while the Panthers were putting oars in the water, lost in the wake.
Cam Newton’s longest completion was 17 yards. Brees completed passes of at least 20 yards to five receivers.
Brees averaged 7.5 yards per attempt and 10.4 per completion.
Newton averaged 4.7 per attempt and 7.3 per completion.
Newton has to be savvier. He held the ball too long. He and his line were often overwhelmed by the New Orleans’ rush.
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula has to offer Newton more to work with. Ted Ginn Jr. and Steve Smith are capable of beating anybody deep when offered the opportunity.
Carolina’s offense is not designed to outscore high-scoring teams. But a team can’t win playoff games moving down the field in baby steps.
Look at Baltimore, last season’s surprise Super Bowl champs. The Ravens were a hard-running team that featured Ray Rice and a tough tackling team that featured defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, linebacker Ray Lewis, safety Ed Reed and – then the playoffs began.
Running and defense no longer were enough. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco threw for 282 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-9 wild-card victory against Indianapolis.
In a double-overtime, 38-35 divisional victory against Denver, Flacco threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns.
In a 28-13 AFC Championship Game victory against New England, Flacco passed for 240 yards and three touchdowns.
In Baltimore’s 34-31 Super Bowl victory against San Francisco, Flacco threw for 287 yards and three touchdowns and was the game’s MVP.
If the Ravens don’t entrust the offense to Flacco and commit to the deep ball, the Ravens’ season ends in Denver.
No matter where the Panthers open the playoffs, assuming they make the playoffs and assuming they open on the road, points will be required, which is to say passes will be required.
The New York Jets, a tough team to run against, visit Bank of America Stadium on Sunday.
Maybe open up a little.
Receivers are standing by.