Carolina Panthers

Another close loss reinforces reality: Magic is gone for Carolina Panthers

This is what 4-7 looks like for the Carolina Panthers:

No. 1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin throwing a hissy fit – and his helmet – after being taken out of the game.

The same receiver going out of bounds after a 9-yard catch on third-and-10 on the potential game-winning drive.

A.J. Klein, a run-stopping, backup middle linebacker, getting matched against the fleet wide receiver Michael Crabtree twice with the game on the line.

Normally sure-handed tight end Greg Olsen dropping two passes in critical situations in the second half.

And the Panthers finding another way to lose – this time spoiling a spirited second-half comeback to fall 35-32 to the Oakland Raiders on Sunday at the crumbling Oakland Coliseum.

With every other NFC South team winning Sunday, Carolina fell three games behind the first-place Atlanta Falcons (7-4) with five to play.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera pointed out his team is mathematically still alive. It didn’t feel that way after Carolina fell to 2-5 in games decided by a field goal less.

The Panthers were 7-1 (including the playoffs) in games decided by a touchdown or less during their Super Bowl season of 2015.

But as has been made abundantly clear since Graham Gano’s 50-yard field goal hooked wide left on that September night in Denver, the magic is gone.

“I think everyone’s tired of comparing everything to last year. Last year’s over. We’ve been saying that since the beginning of the year,” Olsen said. “We’re done comparing everything to last year. The reality is we’re 4-7. It’s a tough loss.”

It’s a loss that will stick with the Panthers throughout their week in northern California.

Rivera said before the 10-day, two-game trip the Panthers were coming West for “two reasons – and two reasons only.”

That’s now a one-item to-do list, with the Seahawks (7-3-1) waiting next Sunday in Seattle.

The Panthers went through the motions during a jet-lagged first half, trailing 24-7 behind some terribly inept play by quarterback and 2015 league MVP Cam Newton.

Newton completed three passes for 18 yards and had a first-half passer rating of 1.7 that teetered dangerously close to the Randy Fasani line in terms of quarterback rating.

Newton was not helped much by an offensive line that was losing starters like Pat McCrory keeps losing votes.

By game’s end, the Panthers were down to their third-team center (Tyler Larsen) and had Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner playing right tackle.

But somehow they roared back with an 18-point, third-quarter barrage – fueled by two big plays by ageless linebacker Thomas Davis and a stroke of good fortune.

The football gods handed backup quarterback Matt McGloin to Carolina on a silver (and black) platter after MVP candidate Derek Carr injured the pinkie finger on his throwing hand on the second play of the second half.

Davis pounced on the ensuing fumble and later intercepted Carr after David Carr’s little brother returned after missing one series. Davis’ takeaways both led to touchdowns, the first of which was followed by a blocked extra point by Graham Gano that had the Panthers chasing points the rest of the half.

But when Benjamin shook off his earlier frustrations and caught a 44-yard touchdown pass from Newton early in the fourth quarter, the Panthers led 32-24 and it looked like they might escape falling into a playoffs hopes-killing Black Hole.

Of course, the good times didn’t last.

Olsen dropped a perfect Newton throw on a two-point conversion that would have given the Panthers a 27-24 lead and (presumably) a 10-point cushion after Benjamin’s touchdown.

Olsen had a tougher play on a third-down pass from Newton when the Panthers tried to rally in the final two minutes down by 3.

Olsen was open across the middle and leaped to grab Newton’s throw, but couldn’t quite hang on. On the following play, Newton was sacked when Khalil Mack overpowered Turner.

Game over.

Olsen was tough on himself after the game.

“I kind of (screwed) us on the two-point conversion. That ended up being the difference,” he said.

Explaining the third-down play, Olsen said: “I’d like to have that one back obviously, too. It’s usually a play that I make. I just couldn’t quite get my left hand on the ball. And couldn’t get enough of the ball with my other hand to hold it.”

Carolina wideout Ted Ginn offered up a Yogi-ism when asked about Olsen.

“There’s only two words you can say,” Ginn said. “He’s a pro.”

There were plenty of other plays, players and decisions that led to another winless Sunday.

Klein, subbing for Luke Kuechly, drew the tough coverage assignment against Crabtree, whose 49-yard reception (despite a pass interference penalty on Klein) converted a third-and-9 at the Raiders’ 14 on their game-winning drive.

As to why Klein was on Crabtree and not, say, Shaq Thompson, Rivera said Klein was the middle linebacker in the package.

Ginn described a season in which the Panthers will be cold for a half, hot for the other and never seem to get the offense and defense clicking at the same time.

And then he offered a schoolyard analogy to sum up the Panthers’ woes.

“It’s like what they said back in the day: When you’re getting punched, they come and punch you even more,” Ginn said. “We’ve just got to learn to put our backs against the wall and start punching out of the crowd.”

Staggered, bloodied and beaten, these Panthers are close to being knocked out for good.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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