Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen has played a decade in the NFL, on two teams that have lost a total of 68 regular-season games.
Olsen said they don’t get any worse than Sunday’s come-from-ahead 20-17 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, a dispiriting defeat in which the Panthers coughed up a 17-point, first-half lead.
The 2015 Panthers found new and different ways to win on the way to the franchise’s second Super Bowl appearance.
This year’s version keeps finding ways to lose them on the way to what is looking increasingly like a postseason-less January.
“That’s as bad a loss as I’ve ever had in 10 years,” Olsen said. “To be in complete control of the game in the fourth quarter and just self-destruct. It’s tough.”
The Panthers had won a modest two games in a row coming in, with the hope that consecutive home wins against Kansas City (7-2) and New Orleans during a five-day span would get them to .500 and give them a fighters’ chance at making the playoffs.
After allowing the Chiefs to score 20 unanswered points – including 17 in the fourth quarter – the Panthers fell to 3-6 and the playoffs look like a pipe dream.
“What we have done is put our backs completely against the wall,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “There is no room for error now.”
The Panthers played nearly error-free for three quarters.
Quarterback Cam Newton ran for a touchdown, threw for a touchdown and even brought back the dab, his celebratory dance step he retired during the offseason. All was right in the Panthers’ lair.
Most importantly, the Panthers had protected the football against a Chiefs team ranked first in the NFL in takeaways and turnover margin.
The first sign of trouble came during the third quarter, when Carolina held the ball for 20 plays and 10 minutes on a series that ended with a punt. The drive was doomed by the same things that have killed Carolina all season – shoddy protection combined with Newton holding the ball too long.
Back-to-back sacks took the Panthers out of field goal range and brought on emergency punter Graham Gano, subbing for an injured Andy Lee. Gano promptly buried the ball in the end zone for a net punt of 20.
Newton saw the punting situation – Lee was hurt warming up for his first kick – as a microcosm of the Panthers’ struggles. “It’s been this kind of season,” he said.
Things fell apart during the fourth quarter.
Chiefs safety Eric Berry, Newton’s south Atlanta buddy, intercepted a throw-it-up heave and weaved his way through several overmatched offensive linemen for a 42-yard return for a touchdown.
“There were so many big linemen that were coming my way,” Berry said. “I didn’t want to get hit by them so I just tried to use that momentum against them.”
The Chiefs had all the momentum during the final quarter. A two-point conversion and Cairo Santos’ 33-yard field goal pulled Kansas City even at 17 with a little more than four minutes left.
After the teams traded punts, it looked like overtime – especially after a block-in-the-back penalty on David Mayo wiped out a good return by Ted Ginn Jr.
The Panthers had the ball at their 20, out of timeouts with 29 seconds left.
Rather than try to run the clock out – the Chiefs had all their timeouts – offensive coordinator Mike Shula called for a slant route to Kelvin Benjamin, who had dominated the smaller defensive backs on that pattern all day.
Cornerback Marcus Peters was right on Benjamin this time, though, and ripped the ball away to set up Santos’ winning, 37-yard field goal.
Benjamin didn’t question the play-calling.
“I think we were just trying to get it going, hurry back out and try to take some more chunks out of the field,” he said. “But it didn’t go our way.”
It hasn’t gone the Panthers’ way all season.
While the Panthers blew Sunday’s game, NFC South rivals Atlanta and New Orleans lost to Philadelphia and Denver, respectively.
Someone mentioned to Olsen the results of the Falcons and Saints games.
“Of course,” he said. “We’re going to have to earn everything we get.”
Newton – quite unlike his pout-fests after the Super Bowl and at New Orleans this season – put on a brave face.
“There’s no need to panic,” said Newton, who referenced the “key losses” by the Saints and Falcons.
“So that’s our optimism,” he added. “Whatever our record is, it’s not good. But yet we have a locker room full of winners and a locker room full of fight still, and I know I’m willing to go to battle with those guys. I can’t wait until Thursday.”
Thursday night’s game against the Saints is like the start of the Panthers’ postseason.
Win and live to fight another game; lose and move a step closer to the trash bin of history.