Suddenly, the Carolina Panthers look very vulnerable.
Minnesota put a 22-10 beatdown on the Panthers Sunday, and now we are left to wonder why.
Why was Cam Newton sacked eight times?
Why could Carolina not win at home against a Minnesota team that didn’t have its starting quarterback, running back or left tackle?
Why, with much the same cast, has Carolina lost more games in three weeks this season than it did for the entire regular season in 2015?
Look, the Denver loss could be excused. The Broncos are fantastic, they were playing at home and Carolina still would have won except Graham Gano missed a 50-yard field goal at the end.
But this game was much different. In this game, the mistakes came from everywhere. The Panthers looked lethargic, confused and not very talented.
It was only a week ago that Carolina bombarded San Francisco 46-27 despite four turnovers. Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who tore up the 49ers, opined that the Panthers could score 60 or 70 points if they could cut down on the mistakes. Hardly anyone laughed.
This time, the Panthers only scored 10 – and they got those in the game’s first 10 minutes. For the game, Benjamin had zero catches and was called for an illegal block to negate a 56-yard touchdown pass. It was undoubtedly the worst game he has ever played as a Panther.
‘Baffling and wowing’
Benjamin was only targeted once as the Vikings decided to shade their coverage that way and see if anybody else on Carolina could beat them. They couldn’t.
“For him not to have any touches is, you know, really baffling and wowing,” Newton said of Benjamin.
In fact, the game’s final 50 minutes were baffling and wowing. Minnesota scored the game’s final 22 points, and the Vikings looked like the vintage Purple People Eaters of old as they ransacked the offensive line again and again.
The Panthers have a number of problems, but one of them is that they aren’t burning teams that blitz them like they used to. The receivers aren’t winning in one-on-one coverage often enough, Newton is patting the ball too long and then – BAM! – down he goes again.
Denver did it in the Super Bowl, which was another game in which Carolina scored only 10 points. Now everyone else is trying it. Because Minnesota has such a fearsome rush – “I’ve said this all along, we can rush the quarterback,” Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said Sunday – the Vikings did it beautifully.
The downfall began with Newton dropping into the end zone and taking a safety on a sack. It was still 10-2 Carolina at that point. At halftime, Carolina still led 10-8 and had outgained the Vikings by 205 yards to 34. Minnesota’s lone touchdown had come on a punt return.
But Minnesota steadily overtook Carolina in the second half. The Panthers defense played the best of the three units – not saying much, given that the offense only scored one TD and the special teams allowed one – but also didn’t cause a single turnover.
Sam Bradford, under far less duress than Newton, also made far fewer mistakes. Newton had three interceptions. Bradford didn’t have a single pass of 20 or more yards but never turned the ball over, either.
“We got beat because we didn’t do the things we are supposed to,” growled Panthers head coach Ron Rivera.
“We were bad,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “Just all around, we were really bad.”
Olsen had that right. Carolina’s 14-game home win streak (including the playoffs) sank with a thud. By the end, the lower bowl had a few thousand Vikings fans clad in purple and not a lot else.
It can be fixed, but will it be?
Carolina’s players had hoped to be able to give Charlotte a victgory after one of the most jarring weeks in the city’s history, with numerous and sometimes violent protests ever since a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer shot and killed a man named Keith Lamont Scott under unclear circumstances.
For 10 minutes, it looked like it would happen. Then the Panthers eroded, bit by bit, and Minnesota took over and looked like a real Super Bowl contender.
It can all be fixed, of course. The Panthers have the talent to make it work. That’s why I picked them to win the next Super Bowl a few weeks ago.
But maybe I was very wrong. Maybe we all were.
Because if the Panthers play anything like that the rest of the season, we’re looking at a 7-9 team.