Scott Fowler

Was Panthers’ humiliating defeat to Steelers a blip on radar? Or, is worse to come?

Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid, right, and cornerback James Bradberry, left, try to slow down Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner during Thursday’s NFL game in Pittsburgh. The Steelers won 52-21.
Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid, right, and cornerback James Bradberry, left, try to slow down Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner during Thursday’s NFL game in Pittsburgh. The Steelers won 52-21. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The Carolina Panthers had their minds on a certain type of pie after getting blitzed 52-21 by Pittsburgh Thursday night.

“I’ll tell you what, it sure enough was a humbling piece of pie,” Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said after the 31-point loss.

“This is a nice dose of humble pie for us today,” Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said.

So after getting themselves served on a platter to the Steelers, the Panthers now don’t have another game until Nov. 18, when they go on the road again at Detroit. They – and their fans – have to sit on this one a long time.

So the most relevant overall question to ponder during this mini-break is this: Was that a blip on the radar Thursday night, or was that the first sign of a huge storm that’s coming and is about to wipe out the Panthers’ power for the rest of the season?

It really could go either way at this point. Carolina is 6-3 and remains firmly in the playoff race. But the sort of beatdown the Panthers took Thursday night showed evidence of a defense that suddenly looked old and outmatched and an offensive line that finally came down off the mountain and sank into the valley that had long been predicted for it this season.

“This (expletive) happens,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said a few minutes after the game. “And I’m going to put it just like that. ...This is my 30th year in the NFL. ...I told the players in the locker room, ‘At the end of the day, get this one out of your system and move forward.’ We as coaches have got to go to work, figure out what happened, get those things corrected and start preparing for the next team. And that’s the only thing we can do. I’m not going to go in there and beat them (the players) down. They’re down already.”

And they were down, as they should have been after losing a game in which they allowed seven different Steelers to score touchdowns. It wasn’t a great surprise that Pittsburgh (6-2-1) won – the Steelers are in first place in the AFC North – but the margin was a shocker. The Panthers had entered the game on a three-game win streak, and had won the most recent two by double-digit margins. Then to give up what tied for the most points in franchise history – Oakland also scored 52 againstCarolina in 2000 – was a major prime-time flop.

“I think we realize now that maybe this isn’t so easy, right?” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. “I think guys all of a sudden start winning and think things are so easy and everything is hunky-dory. This league is hard. This league will humble you real fast.

“Hopefully, that’s the lesson we get out of tonight. (The game) still only counts for one loss. They don’t count how much you lose by - thankfully.”

Here is a silver lining from Thursday, though: The Panthers didn’t appear to sustain major injuries. I worried about Newton in particular. He was sacked five times but it seemed more like a dozen.

Newton seemed OK after the game, though, and said the right sorts of things about bouncing back from the loss.

“Just got whupped, man,” Newton said when I asked him in his news conference what had just happened. “Just got whupped. But you know - it happens. You’ll have those type of games in the league. It’s going to be about how we rebound and get ready for our next opponent.”

I thought Newton should have been benched for the entire fourth quarter – there was no point in risking injury at that juncture. Rivera compromised by keeping Newton in for part of the fourth quarter but then trying to play it safe, with handoffs and quick drops.

“It don’t matter, bro,” Newton said when asked about it. “My job is to be the best football player possible. If I’m still in there, then I am still supposed to be in there. I’m not going to complain or bicker about it.”

Newton ended up throwing at least two TD passes for the eighth consecutive game, setting a team record. Although he had a nasty pick-six interception early in the game, in general Newton wasn’t the issue.

The issues were endless: The Panthers got thumped on both lines, and their secondary gave up two touchdowns of more than 50 yards, and Carolina’s coaches were thoroughly outcoached.

Maybe it’s just one game. Maybe the Panthers can figure it out.

“The way we came out and got smacked today,” wide receiver Jarius Wright said, “makes you never want to get smacked like that again.”

But they better figure it out quickly. Because the Panthers still play New Orleans twice in their final seven games.

“We can’t pretend it didn’t happen,” Olsen said. “Because it did - and it happened for a reason. If we don’t get better, when we play good teams, it will happen again.”

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler

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