It’s an open secret now in the NFL – the 2016 Carolina Panthers are simply a bad team.
Monday night clinched it. Unlike the teams the Panthers took their first three losses of the season to, Tampa Bay just isn’t very good. The Buccaneers (2-3) will not make the playoffs.
Yet Carolina managed to mess up just enough to lose again, dropping to 1-4 when Tampa Bay’s Roberto Aguayo made a 38-yard field goal on the final play of the game to beat the Panthers 17-14.
Maybe the Panthers rebound. Maybe they don’t. At the moment, they are floundering in the cellar of the NFC South and deserve to be there.
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Aguayo’s game-winner came after the facemask penalty, the three straight run plays the last time Carolina had the ball and the two third-down conversions Tampa Bay made on its last drive.
It also came after Carolina’s defense could never force Jameis Winston to give the ball up and Teddy Williams ran into his own punt returner and made him fumble. It came after Graham Gano’s missed field goal. It came after Derek Anderson threw his first interception, later tried to dive for a first down and fumbled and, worst of all, threw the ball too low into double coverage into the end zone on first-and-goal from the 1 in the fourth quarter for his third and final turnover.
Said Anderson afterward: “Unfortunately we had bad plays at the wrong time. ... That’s kind of what it came down to.”
You can say that again. The Panthers were a point-a-minute team last year; now they are a mistake-a-minute team. Other than Greg Olsen, who had 181 yards receiving in a glorious performance, it’s hard to point to anyone who is playing well.
It also seems like the Panthers used up all their luck last season, when they went 15-1 in the regular season. Anderson had exactly one ball tipped Monday, and it was picked off.
“When you’re 12-0, balls get tipped and hit the ground,” Anderson said.
When you’re 1-4, though, they get picked off.
That’s not to blame this all on bad breaks; the Panthers are doing this to themselves most of the time. Carolina’s offense had 414 yards and Anderson was never sacked, but the Panthers also went 1-for-8 on third down. When the going got tough, the Panthers offense got going – back to the sideline again after another unsuccessful third down.
After their last third-down miss – on that terribly conservative, three-run-plays-and-punt that drew loads of well-deserved boos on Carolina’s final possession – the Panthers sent out a defense that was no better.
Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and company couldn’t get the Buccaneers off the field. After Kony Ealy’s facemask penalty, Carolina’s only hope turned out to be for Aguayo to miss his third field goal of the night. Aguayo was bad, but not that bad.
With a concussed Cam Newton nowhere in sight during the game – he didn’t make an appearance on the sideline – Anderson was left to start the third game in his six-year Panthers career.
All of them, ironically, have been against Tampa Bay, and Anderson is now 2-1 against the Bucs. This time he made far more mistakes than in his two wins in 2014, and the Panthers couldn’t recover.
Said Anderson: “It wasn’t good enough, plain and simple. ... They didn’t turn it over. We turned it over four times.”
And what of the game’s most important play – Anderson’s interception in the fourth quarter on first-and-goal from the 1?
Anderson and coach Ron Rivera defended the play call, but c’mon. Carolina’s Cameron Artis-Payne had both of the Panthers’ TDs, both on runs. Artis-Payne should have gotten the ball on first down.
Olsen was double-covered on the play, and then Anderson underthrew the tight end as he tried to guide the ball in there.
“If I could have it back,” Anderson said, “I would obviously throw it away.”
He can’t have it back, and the Panthers can’t start their season over. They are stuck with this 1-4 record. They have lost three straight games.
The Panthers played in the Super Bowl only eight months ago.
It feels more like eight years.