They say the most dangerous animal in the wild is the one with its back against the wall.
With their backs against the closest thing to a metaphorical wall a football field has to offer Monday night, the Carolina Panthers fought like a team on the brink of extinction.
On one side of the ball, at least.
The Panthers’ defense repeatedly held firm where it mattered most in their 12-9 loss to the New Orleans Saints, limiting second-highest scoring offense to one touchdown, one field goal and one turnover in the red zone.
Five-game (now six) losing streak be damned, the NFL’s second-worst red zone defense decided to make a statement against the league’s fourth-best red zone offense. Give the Panthers their place alongside the Spartans from 300 — neither of them won the battle but they made defeat a lot harder than it could’ve been.
“We had the mentality that we might bend a little bit but we wasn’t going to break,” Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “We haven’t been good in the red zone all year and I felt like we played our tails off in the red zone this game.”
The Saints didn’t get their first opportunity inside the 20 until early in the second quarter, but the Panthers’ “bend don’t break” philosophy was clear from their second defensive possession.
Alvin Kamara’s 50-yard kick return set New Orleans up on its 49 late in the first quarter, and Mark Ingram rambled to the Carolina 29 on the Saints’ first play of the drive. Their next four plays included two incomplete passes, a 1-yard run and a 46-yard field goal.
New Orleans made it to the Carolina 9 on its next drive before settling for a field goal.
Even when they allowed a red zone touchdown on Kamara’s 16-yard, go-ahead score in the fourth quarter, the Panthers were resilient. Donte Jackson intercepted Drew Brees’ pass on the following two-point conversion attempt and returned it the length of the field for a pick-two.
It was a rare big play for a defense that, in their desperation to make them, failed all too often over the past six weeks.
“We just want to come out here and make plays,” Jackson said. “Regardless of who makes the play on defense, that’s all we want to do. That’s the mission and what we preach all week when we’re preparing — go out there and make plays and don’t be afraid to make the big play.”
Carolina’s best stand came with the Saints marching toward a game-sealing touchdown with just under two minutes left in the game. Tommylee Lewis took a jet sweep 4 yards to the Carolina 1 — literally one step away from knocking down the Panthers’ wall.
Instead, James Bradberry forced Smith to fumble at the 1, sending the ball through the end zone for a touchback.
Can’t bend much further than that.
“I would most certainly give them praise. I thought they competed,” Ron Rivera said about his team’s defense. “I thought they did some good things. They took the ball away when they had to.”
After shouldering most of the blame during their past five losses, the Panthers defense deserves credit for keeping them in this one. But of course, after six straight losses it’s difficult to heap much praise.
Jackson said the loss overshadowed any of the fun from his pick-two. Bradberry was quicker to point out the defense’s biggest flaw than either of his two forced turnovers — even if that flaw was as innocuous as giving up 12 points when your offense could only score seven.
Meanwhile, the four other teams with a realistic shot at the NFC wild card all won this week and as impressive as this defensive performance was, the Panthers simply bent too far over the past six weeks.
Their chance at the postseason is all but broken.