Carolina Panthers

No other way to describe Panthers’ fourth straight loss than what it was — ugly

If the past three losses weren’t pretty, this one might break a mirror or two.

There was the blowout against Pittsburgh, the almost-comeback against Detroit, and the late-game collapse against Seattle, but Carolina’s 24-17 loss Sunday to Tampa Bay was just all-around ugly.

The Panthers, despite 444 yards of offense, turned the ball over four times, couldn’t stay on the field — or get off it, depending on which unit was in the game — on third down, and couldn’t protect Cam Newton, who couldn’t stop turning the ball over.

But it’s not what they couldn’t do that made the loss so frustrating from the Panthers’ perspective — it was the unforgivable number of opportunities they afforded a struggling Buccaneer team.

After cutting its deficit to one touchdown, Carolina turned the ball over on what could’ve been a game-tying drive not once, not twice, but three times.

And still, the Panthers got the ball back with a chance to tie the game with 1:05 left. What followed were a series of short passes toward their sideline and two desperation heaves en route to a fourth straight loss.

So here Carolina sits, at 6-6 and falling further out of playoff contention every week. No longer are games a given for this once-contender. That game at Cleveland next week? Don’t place any bets. Home game against a struggling Atlanta squad in three weeks? Nope.

The Panthers now need four straight wins — and some incredible luck — to make the postseason.

Unfortunately, luck hasn’t been to Charlotte since October.

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Three who mattered

Andrew Adams: Bucs safety had three of the four interceptions of Newton.

Christian McCaffrey: The second-year running back continues to be a (sometimes lone) bright spot for Carolina. He ran for more than 100 yards for the second consecutive game, marking the first time he’s done so in his brief career.

Jameis Winston: He wasn’t flashy but man, was he good. The former first overall pick completed 20-of-30 passes for 249 yards and two scores, adding another 48 rushing yards on five carries. He kept the sticks moving and that’s all Tampa Bay needed him to do in a game where Carolina failed to apply much pressure.

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Tampa Bay’s attempt to fill its stadium by giving season ticket holders free tickets .... didn’t work. The upper deck at Raymond James Stadium was sparsely populated and the lower bowl wasn’t a heck of a lot better.

Efe Obada, active for the first time since Week 10, recorded one of the Panthers’ four sacks of Winston.

The Panthers didn’t convert their first third down until midway through the third quarter. After the conversion, they gained 11, 11, 11, 18, 8 and 5 yards on consecutive plays before scoring on a 10-yard pass from Newton to Devin Funchess.

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera had a play sheet in hand on the sideline and appeared to call the defensive plays throughout the game.

Worth mentioning

McCaffrey has scored 10 touchdowns over the Panthers’ past six games.

Winston became Tampa Bay’s all-time leader in touchdown passes with 81.

Curtis Samuel set a career-high with 88 receiving yards.

They said it

“It was one of things that was just a matter of time. We’ve kind of pushed this foot as far as possible these past two seasons and today I think it just had enough.” – Greg Olsen, who left the game with a ruptured plantar fascia.

“At the end of the day you learn from it, take this one of the chin — it hurts — and keep moving forward. We just have to find ways to get back in the win column and I feel we’re on the brink.” – Cam Newton.

Marcel Louis-Jacques, 704-358-5015: @Marcel_LJ