When Carolina Panthers players trudged into work Monday following one of the more dispiriting losses in franchise history, they could perhaps find comfort in the old adage that no matter how bad it is, someone else has it worse.
In this case it’s Thursday’s opponent, the New Orleans Saints.
As bad as the Panthers’ 20-17 defeat to Kansas City was Sunday, New Orleans’ 25-23 loss to Denver might have been more excruciatingly painful. Having a Broncos’ defender return a blocked extra point for the go-ahead score with 1:22 left – after the Saints scored a game-tying touchdown – qualifies as pretty miserable.
But the NFL doesn’t do empathy.
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“That’s ball,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of the Saints’ defeat. “That’s the way it is.”
This is where the Panthers (3-6) find themselves – delighting in the misfortunes of other teams, particularly those who happen to play in the NFC South.
If this sort of seasonal schadenfreude has a familiar ring, then you were following the Panthers in 2014.
Those Panthers had a makeshift offensive line and a quarterback who never looked comfortable in the pocket as a result. Carolina went two months without a victory and stood 3-8-1 when general manager Dave Gettleman sent a couple of underperforming veterans packing, making way for an influx of young blood.
What followed was a four-game winning streak that vaulted the Panthers into the playoffs with a losing record.
It helped that the rest of the division stunk.
Fast forward two years (sorry to skip over the Super Bowl season): The Panthers again are playing with a patched-together O-line that understandably makes Cam Newton a little skittish.
And no one is running away with the NFC South.
The Falcons (6-4) are the only team in the division with a winning record, and they’ve dropped three of their past five.
Free safety Tre Boston was a rookie in 2014 and part of the youth movement that helped propel the Panthers into the postseason. Boston says it’s beginning to look a lot like ’14.
“That season we had to win out. And we did that. Teams lost and we were in the playoffs,” Boston said. “We’re almost about there this year.”
One big difference
The 2014 Panthers took charge of a weak division by stringing together several victories, something this team has not yet proven it can do.
Carolina had a 17-point lead against the Chiefs on Sunday and looked to be headed for its third win in a row. But after two turnovers – including Eric Berry’s 42-yard interception return for a touchdown – the Panthers lost for just the second time in franchise history when they’d led by 14 points or more in the fourth quarter.
Carolina coughed up a two-touchdown lead in a 17-14 loss at Washington in 2001. That game that also turned on a pick-6 – LaVar Arrington’s 67-yard return of a Chris Weinke interception.
Around the time Panthers wideout Kelvin Benjamin was fumbling Sunday, New Orleans kicker Wil Lutz was having an extra point attempt blocked, and Broncos safety Will Parks was tight-roping the sideline on the game-winning runback.
“A loss is a loss,” Panthers safety Kurt Coleman said of the Saints (4-5). “They’re going to be regrouping and I’m sure Drew (Brees) is going to be getting his troops ready, especially with the type of game they had the first time against us.”
Coleman was referring to Brees’ 465 passing yards and four touchdowns in the Saints’ 41-38 victory in New Orleans last month.
Brees, the NFL’s second-highest rated passer behind Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, leads a New Orleans offense ranked No. 1 in total offense (427.7 yards per game), No. 1 in passing offense (322.7 yards per game) and third in scoring (29.4 points per game).
Those numbers left Rivera looking for a little help from the heavens Thursday at Bank of America Stadium.
“It’s a dynamic passing game that they run,” Rivera said. “Shoot, I’d be all for bad weather to come in here.”
Unfortunately for Rivera, forecasters are calling for clear skies and a game-time temperature of 58 degrees in Charlotte.
If the Panthers are going to start clawing their way back Thursday, they’re on their own.
“We can’t think about other teams. Of course, we need other teams to lose out,” said Boston, a third-year safety. “But nothing matters unless we win out our games.”