The Carolina Panthers wrote the obituary to their 2016 playoff hopes on Sunday.
They remain technically alive after a disheartening 35-32 road loss to Oakland, but only technically. On a day everyone else in the NFC South won, the Panthers (4-7) desperately needed to win just to keep pace.
Instead, they dropped to three games behind first-place Atlanta with five games to go, and we saw the familiar and disturbing dramatic arc of the 2016 season play out one more time.
“It’s been very frustrating,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “The health of this football team is very frustrating. The missed opportunities are very frustrating. And now five games that you’ve lost in the last few minutes – that’s disappointing.”
The Panthers came back from 17 points down at halftime, scored a shocking 25 points in a row to take a 32-24 fourth-quarter lead, and then gave up 11 consecutive points in the final nine minutes to lose again.
If you like to quantify misery, it was most like the game at New Orleans this season, when Carolina made up every bit of a 21-0 deficit, only to lose 41-38.
If you wanted to chart the 60 minutes in terms of how Panthers fans felt like their team was going to do Sunday, it went like this: lose-lose-lose-lose-win?-win?!-LOSE.
The Panthers played terribly, then wonderfully, and then badly one last time as they were sucked into Oakland’s Black Hole.
Down three points, Cam Newton and an offense that had resurrected itself had the ball on Oakland’s 44 with a first-and-10 and 1:15 to go. Another 10 yards and, at the least, the Panthers would be trying to kick a field goal to force overtime – no sure thing, either, given that Graham Gano had already had an extra point blocked.
But the Panthers would not be able to move a single yard after that, as Greg Olsen’s inability to haul in a pass on his fingertips at the Oakland 20 short-circuited their best chance. Newton, hamstrung by an offensive line that by necessity had to be slapped together like Frankenstein’s monster, was sacked on fourth down and lost a fumble.
Oakland (9-2) got 315 passing yards from Derek Carr, who had to come out with a finger injury on his throwing hand in the third quarter but came back in wearing a glove and was able to do just enough to win.
In many ways, the Raiders are like the Panthers from a year ago. They have a powerful offense and some defensive flaws, but they have become experts at winning the close ones.
The Panthers, though, seemed to lose their mojo from the moment Gano’s game-winning field goal attempt at Denver went awry in Week 1. They seem to have been playing from behind all season.
The Panthers still show heart, no doubt about that. This game looked like it was going to be a 30-point loss at halftime, and instead Carolina rebounded and came all the way back behind big-time performances from players such as Ted Ginn Jr., Thomas Davis and Jonathan Stewart.
But, as has so often been the case this season, it was not enough. The Panthers had all kinds of spectacular plays – Ginn’s 88-yard touchdown catch, Stewart’s 47-yard run, Kelvin Benjamin’s 44-yard touchdown catch from Newton, Davis grabbing both a fumble and an interception – but at the end, they couldn’t win, and that’s really all that counts in the NFL.
As Panthers coach Ron Rivera pointed out after the game Sunday, there is absolutely no room for error any longer. The Panthers would need to both win their five remaining games and also get a lot of help to make the playoffs.
“Mathematically, we still have an opportunity,” Rivera said. “We’ll see what happens. ... There’s that glimmer of hope, and that’s all you need sometimes.”
Rivera has to say that, and he has to believe it.
But for those of us unburdened by being paid by the Panthers, we don’t have to try to squint to see that glimmer of hope any longer.
This can be a good team once again, and will be – the talent is there, especially once linebacker Luke Kuechly returns.
But the Panthers are not a good team now. And for the first time in four years, they are not going to make the postseason.