On a gray, late-October day in Chicago, the Panthers kept losing the football and ultimately lost the game.
But that dismal defeat helped the Panthers find their way again.
If you’re searching for the turning point for the playoff-bound Panthers, look no further than Week 7 at Soldier Field, where Carolina dropped a listless, 17-3 decision to a Bears team that wasn’t good then and isn’t much better now.
“We lost a game that we didn’t take them serious enough and we didn’t play our type of football,” Panthers receiver Devin Funchess said this week. “After that we just tried to get back to playing our game and make sure we do the right things.”
The loss to the Bears – who are 5-10 entering their final game Sunday – left the Panthers with a 4-3 record and served as an eye-opener.
Carolina (11-4) has won seven of eight games since and head to Atlanta as one of the league’s hottest teams.
The Panthers have clinched at least a wild-card spot, and can capture the NFC South title with a win against the Falcons (9-6) and a Saints loss at Tampa Bay.
Given what’s transpired the past two months – the trade of No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin, owner Jerry Richardson’s decision to sell the team amid sexual and racial misconduct allegations – Chicago seems like a long time ago.
“It was eating at us,” Funchess said of the loss at Chicago. “We made too many mistakes. Defense played lights out. We had too many turnovers on offense. After that, we tried to minimalize the turnovers and mistakes, and just play Panther football.”
The Panthers pulled a rare daily double against the Bears – holding Chicago without an offensive touchdown but also failing to score one of their own.
Both of the Bears’ touchdowns came on defensive scores by rookie safety Eddie Jackson, including a 76-yard interception return on a pass Benjamin said he could have attacked more aggressively.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera didn’t get the sense his players took the Bears lightly, but says they have definitely picked up their level of play since then.
Rivera credits much of the turnaround to Cam Newton’s surgically repaired throwing shoulder, which limited Newton during practices early in the season.
“I think once he got healthier … I think our timing started to come,” Rivera said. “I think we were able to open the book even more and get him back involved in the running game.”
After averaging seven carries during the first seven games, Newton has run nearly 10 times a game during the past eight games – including a season-high 14 rushes against both Green Bay and Tampa Bay the past two weeks.
Newton’s emergence has sparked the rushing attack.
The Panthers were tied for 21st in the league in rushing following the loss to the Bears, averaging 97.3 yards a game. Carolina has rushed for 166.8 yards a game over the past eight games, tops in the league over that span.
The Panthers’ hot stretch coincided with the Oct. 31 trade of Benjamin, who was shipped to Buffalo for a pair of draft picks. Newton’s passing numbers have been roughly the same since Benjamin was traded, although the move created more passing lanes for receivers like Funchess and Damiere Byrd, who went on injured reserve this week with a leg injury.
“I don’t want to take away from what Kelvin did for us,” said tight end Greg Olsen, noting Benjamin’s production in Carolina. “But you just kind of take a new shape. You have different bodies, different things that guys do well. And you kind of mold your offense to go in that direction.”
Olsen says this year is another example of how the Panthers typically get stronger as the season progresses under Rivera, whose 23 wins in December are second behind only Bill Belichick’s 24 since Rivera was hired in 2011.
“We’ve had a good ability to get better as the year’s gone on,” Olsen said. “Find ways to improve. Find things that work better. Find things that don’t work (and) get rid of them. Kind of find our groove as we continue to move forward and improve.”
The Panthers lost the turnover battle 3-0 in the Chicago game, which was emblematic of the Panthers’ early-season turnover and takeaway issues. Carolina was near the bottom of the league in turnover differential through the first seven games, but is second in turnover margin (plus-11) and third in takeaways (17) over the past eight games.
“The Bears’ game was a game that we fully expected to win. We just didn’t perform well enough,” linebacker Thomas Davis said.
“But for us as a football team, it was kind of a point where we just refocused in on the minor details and the things that we needed to get better at. And I feel like we got better at some of those things and we’ve played some really good football down the stretch.”
That regular-season stretch will wrap up Sunday at Atlanta, which can secure a playoff spot with a victory against Carolina or a Seattle loss to Arizona.
Rivera says he won’t rest his starters against the Falcons and wants to carry momentum into the playoffs.
Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn isn’t interested in having the Falcons join the NFC South’s playoff party.
“We don’t want that scenario. But that shows you how strong this division is,” Munnerlyn said. “We’ve got one of the best divisions in football.”
Told that the Falcons could back into the playoffs with a loss, Munnerlyn smiled and said: “I’d be OK with that. But they definitely need to lose.”