Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse for the Carolina Panthers in 2018 – well, it didn’t.
Instead, the Panthers ended a bitter season on a sweet note Sunday, whipping the New Orleans Saints 33-14. So Carolina finished 7-9, avoided an eight-game losing streak to close 2018 but also worsened its draft position by beating a New Orleans team that sat out Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara to rest them for the playoffs.
It was a weird finish to what has been a weird year, a “Where has that been?” slap in the face for a team that hadn’t awoken for nearly two months.
“The big questions that will linger for us is ‘What if? What if? What if?’” head coach Ron Rivera said afterward. “I get that part of it.”
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Carolina finally won a game when winning a game no longer mattered. The game was completely meaningless for playoff seeding but quite meaningful for players like undrafted rookie quarterback Kyle Allen.
Allen accounted for three touchdowns and threw a 53-yard strike on one of them to wide receiver Curtis Samuel. He looked to me very much like the guy who should be backing up Cam Newton in 2019.
That 2019 team will almost certainly be coached by Rivera, who said he felt “very good” about his chances of returning after multiple conversations with new owner David Tepper.
Rivera sounded like a man who’s been unofficially told he will return for season No. 9. I think that’s ultimately the right call, but the Panthers have so much work to do in the offseason to avoid another disappointment like this one. They need a rejuvenated offensive line, another edge rusher and a playmaking safety, just for starters.
And if the Panthers disintegrate like this once again in 2019, then you can’t give Rivera another mulligan. In that case, he and general manager Marty Hurney would both need to exit, stage right.
As with every NFL season, the finality is somewhat startling. Center Ryan Kalil played for the last time in a Panthers uniform and stayed out there for every offensive snap, even when it was just Garrett Gilbert handing off to Travaris Cadet.
Defensive end Julius Peppers surely finished up his Panthers career, too, although the future hall of famer didn’t speak to the media afterward to confirm this (Rivera, though, said the win was “probably the best way to send Ryan and Pep off on their way”).
Linebacker Thomas Davis would like to come back, but the Panthers will have to think twice about doing that unless the price is really low.
And wide receiver Devin Funchess didn’t even play on what had to be the final Sunday of his Panthers career. Rivera made Funchess inactive, and Carolina obviously will move on from the last remnant of the “big and slow” Kelvin Benjamin-Funchess era at wide receiver.
Like so many Panthers games this season, this one was completely unpredictable. Carolina led 23-0 at halftime and scored on all four first-half possessions — and most of that was against New Orleans’ first team on defense.
“I’m overly irritated about it,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said.
“We can spin it any way we want to,” said New Orleans coach Sean Payton, whose Saints finished the season 13-3 but were shut out at home in the first half for the first time in 17 years. “We didn’t play well.”
Allen, in the meantime, was pretty spectacular. With another former undrafted quarterback watching from the stands in Jake Delhomme, Allen played turnover-free football and ran for one score while throwing for two more.
“He was calm, cool and collected,” wide receiver DJ Moore said of Allen, who spent seven weeks of this season at his parents’ house, hoping for NFL work and trying to convince former high school teammates to go throw the football around with him on a local soccer field.
The Panthers signed Allen to the active roster as a backup to their backup (Taylor Heinicke), and then Allen became the quarterback by default this past week when Heinicke got hurt last Sunday.
Allen missed on a few throws, but in general he looked poised. He completely outplayed Saints backup Teddy Bridgewater, who couldn’t get his team into the end zone until the fourth quarter.
So it was a feel-good Sunday in a feel-bad season. The Panthers did everything right, seemed to get the benefit of every officiating call and sent Kalil and a number of other Panthers gently into the good night.
It didn’t make up for those seven losses in a row, of course. It didn’t answer those “What if” questions. It didn’t change the tone for a season that history will always regard as a disappointment.
For three hours, though — for a Panthers team and a fan base that hadn’t seen a win since Nov. 4 — it was pretty nice.