Maybe it was the approaching weekend or the “mini-bye” they’ll enjoy over the next few days, but things didn’t seem as bad for the Carolina Panthers on Friday as they did late Thursday.
Questionable late-game play calling and some ill-timed miscommunication doomed the Panthers in a 28-23 loss to Philadelphia that kept Carolina from taking an early upper hand in NFC playoff positioning.
The loss of middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to a third concussion loomed over the loss to the Eagles. But there was guarded optimism from coaches and teammates about Kuechly on Friday, when Kuechly joined the other linebackers for their usual day-after-game meetings at Bank of America Stadium.
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks spoke with Kuechly and was encouraged by his demeanor a day after Kuechly the middle linebacker entered the NFL’s concussion protocol for the third time in the past 25 months.
“I talked to him (Friday) morning and he’s perfectly fine in the conversation he and I had,” Wilks said.
“It’s always encouraging, not just from a standpoint of Luke getting back on the field. But just from the standpoint of his health, with any of our players,” Wilks added. “It’s good to know he was feeling a lot better today, in good spirits and just being his old self. I’m excited about that.”
Backup linebacker Ben Jacobs echoed Wilks’ comments on Kuechly, who left in the second quarter against the Eagles after the side of his helmet struck the shoulder of Philadelphia pulling guard Brandon Brooks.
“He’s in the meeting,” Jacobs said of Kuechly. “Looks good, looks healthy, looks in good spirits.”
And while that may be true, it’s also worth noting that post-concussion symptoms often don’t occur until two or three days later. So the Panthers will have a clearer picture of Kuechly’s health by Tuesday, when players reconvene following their break.
Jacobs said it would have been nice to head into the weekend coming off a win.
But Panthers coach Ron Rivera pointed out that the Eagles (5-1) own the NFC’s best record, with Green Bay (4-1) and Atlanta (3-1) the only other one-loss teams in the conference.
“We’re a pretty good football team. We’re 4-2. We just lost to the best team in the NFC right now. ... , or second-best behind Green Bay. And we battled,” Rivera said. “We had a chance to win at the very end twice. There is reason to be disappointed. But there most certainly isn’t any reason to come back and think we’re not good enough.”
The Panthers had two late scoring chances that bogged down in Eagles’ territory.
Carolina reached the Eagles’ 41 with more than three minutes remaining when Cam Newton – because Philadelphia did not have a deep safety – launched three bombs, the last of which was intercepted by Jalen Mills.
Newton was looking for wideout Kelvin Benjamin, who stopped his route short as the ball sailed well past him.
“I think the route could have been held a little bit longer through the zone,” Rivera said. “I think Kelvin bent it maybe a little bit sooner than Cam anticipated.”
After a three-and-out by the Eagles’ offense, Carolina got the ball back and drove to the Eagles’ 48. Needing a yard on third and fourth downs with less than 90 seconds remaining, offensive coordinator Mike Shula called for pass plays rather than keeping the ball in the hands of Newton, the game’s leading rusher with 71 yards on 11 carries.
Shula said tight end Ed Dickson was open on the third-down play, but linebacker Nigel Bradham knocked the pass down. Rivera, out of timeouts, said he was concerned about losing time off the clock had Newton run on third down and not made it.
But Rivera and his players said they’re ready to flush the loss over their free weekend before getting ready for next week’s game at Chicago.
During his post-game press conference, Newton caught himself reliving too many of the negatives (including his three interceptions) from the loss.
“I don’t want to sound depressing and I know I’m coming off like that, but as a whole we are in a good position,” Newton said. “That was a good team that we played tonight. We just have to find a way to win these types of games. The tough, grinding-out games.”
Jacobs, the backup linebacker, said Rivera’s parting message Friday was: Don’t panic.
“It’s early. There’s still 10 games left, a lot of football. We’re 4-2. Of course, (Thursday) didn’t go the way we wanted it to and we’re all pissed off about that,” Jacobs said.
“This is a damn good football team. We’re going to come back strong.”