The Carolina Panthers’ dream of an undefeated season died a slow and painful death Sunday. There was nothing fluky about it.
“We got our a-- kicked,” quarterback Cam Newton said.
Yes, the Panthers did. Atlanta’s 20-13 victory came on a day where the Falcons simply played better football than Carolina, dropping the Panthers to 14-1 this season.
That 14-1 record remains the best in the NFL, but Sunday beamed a spotlight on Panthers problems that have edged into the picture for much of the past month. Carolina had to escape twice in the previous three weeks with narrow road wins. This time there was no escaping a Falcons team that Carolina had blasted 38-0 only two weeks before.
Every other dream the Panthers still have – a No. 1 playoff seed, an NFC championship won at home in Charlotte, a first-ever Super Bowl victory – is still possible.
Said coach Ron Rivera: “To be 14-1 at this point in the season is tremendous. Let’s not lose sight of that. It’s not the end of the world, obviously. ... It’s not even the end of the season.”
But now the Panthers must win on Sunday at home in the regular-season finale against Tampa Bay to guarantee that No. 1 playoff seed over surging Arizona (13-2). There will be no talk of possibly resting Panthers players anymore. Every hand is needed on deck.
Sunday also pointed out what Panthers fans who haven’t seen their team lose since the Seattle playoff game way back in January had forgotten.
There are no guarantees in the NFL. No castles are built of stone. No matter how pretty they are, every one of them is made of sand. Anybody can truly beat anybody when the wind blows the right way.
“We are not perfect,” Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said.
This all left the Falcons flying high and getting in the last word about the Panthers. Said wide receiver Roddy White of what he perceived as the Panthers’ over-celebratory nature during Sunday’s game: “I didn’t like that, but that’s what they are as a team. They have guys parading back and forth and jumping around. We tend to save stuff like that for after the game.”
Carolina couldn’t say much back to White or anyone else after Sunday’s flop.
The Panthers were an equal-opportunity employer of ineptitude on Sunday, with notable errors coming from every corner of the Georgia Dome.
With two chances to score a game-winning or game-tying touchdown in the final 2:23, Carolina’s offense could not move the ball past its 40. The Panthers’ 13 points represented their lowest total of the season.
The defense laid the groundwork for a nasty day on its first series. Three plays netted Atlanta minus-5 yards and the Falcons were about to punt. But veteran cornerback Charles Tillman let himself get sucked into a scuffle with White, and Tillman got caught, and there came a 15-yard penalty. Atlanta ended up driving for a touchdown, helped by separate third-down whiffs on attempted tackles by Pro Bowl linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
It was that kind of afternoon. About 30,000 Panthers fans filled nearly half the seats at the Georgia Dome, and for about 15 minutes it looked like they would all go home happy. Carolina easily drove the ball 80 yards on its first possession for a TD – Newton’s 8-yard draw that he ended by pretending to rock a baby in the end zone.
But that was it for Carolina TDs. The Panthers had the ball seven more times and never saw the end zone again. Atlanta’s defense too often overran Carolina’s blockers. Newton (17-for-30 for 142 yards) wasn’t sharp and did not help his MVP candidacy. None of his receivers caught more than 40 yards worth of passes.
On the game’s biggest play, Kuechly and safety Kurt Coleman had Atlanta’s Julio Jones on a long prayer tossed up by Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan.
But Coleman fell down. Kuechly seemed to be in good position until Jones plucked the ball off the top of his head and then trotted into the end zone. And suddenly, the Falcons had a 70-yard touchdown and enough momentum to find the finish line.
“I think this will be a real learning experience,” Panthers safety Roman Harper said. “Some of the young guys haven’t lost all year. Coach Rivera hasn’t had to give the ‘loss talk.’ These things are good for us. We’ll be better because of it.”
All of that may be true. But on Sunday, it stung. As Newton said when asked how much losing the undefeated season hurt: “It didn’t tickle.”
No, this was not tickling.
This was a shot to the gut. And now we all get to see how well the Panthers can take a punch.