Those tread marks all over the back of the Carolina jerseys today are courtesy of the New Orleans Saints, who ran over the Panthers on Thursday night 28-10 and permanently changed the balance of power in the NFC South in 2014.
The Panthers had held at least a share of first place all season, but they now are in second place in a division that will send only one team to the playoffs.
And believe me, they won’t catch New Orleans. Not after that.
The Saints (4-4) clearly were better than Carolina (3-5-1) as they zoomed past the Panthers. Carolina once again looked badly out-manned in the secondary and on the offensive line – the team’s sorest spots for most of the year.
Couple that with what was Cam Newton’s worst game ever as a passer – in terms of completions, completion percentage and quarterback rating – and you have the recipe for another embarrassing loss for the home team. By halftime, when the Saints led 14-0, the Panthers left the field to a shower of boos.
“We’ve all got to shoulder the responsibility on this one,” coach Ron Rivera said.
“I know I missed a lot of throws,” Newton said, “and I’m not blaming anybody but myself.”
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees was so much better than Newton it was as if the two were playing in different leagues. Of course, Brees did have the benefit of a tailback who ran for 100 yards and an offensive line that regularly gave him time – Newton had neither one.
Still, he had chances – including the first play, when he airmailed a potential 50-yard pass to Kelvin Benjamin well over the rookie’s head.
Carolina’s only real chance came early. The Panthers caused Brees to turn the ball over on his first two possessions. But they got zero points out of that. The score stayed 0-0 until late in the second quarter.
Then Newton fumbled inside his own 5 after a jailbreak pass rush overwhelmed him, and the rout began.
New Orleans scored touchdowns on three straight possessions spanning the second and third quarters and would play most of the second half with a double-digit lead.
Newton, who was 10-for-28 for 151 yards and an interception, did have a couple of dazzling moments. The best was a 10-yard scramble for Carolina’s lone touchdown. But he mostly was just wild and unsteady.
Most obvious was Newton’s faulty connection with Benjamin, who also dropped a pass in the end zone and ended up catching only two of the 10 Newton threw his way for just 18 yards.
Several of those throws weren’t reachable with a step ladder, but others were exactly the sort of ball Benjamin was brought in to catch. He wasn’t the only receiver dropping the ball, though. Brenton Bersin had one go right through his hands that ended up as an interception.
The Panthers only have scored nine and 10 points in their past two games, and that’s not going to get it done in the NFL. But let’s not lay the blame purely on the offense.
Cornerback Antoine Cason had a critical pass-interference penalty that cost the Panthers 32 yards and ultimately a touchdown just before halftime. He got benched for that.
Brees had one interception, on a tipped ball, but he also threw for 297 yards, many times to wide open receivers. And he outfoxed the Panthers on a fourth-and-goal from the 1 when he simply jumped high and held the point of the ball over the goal line.
New Orleans only led 14-7 in the third quarter before Brees’ sneak, but instead of taking the sure field goal, it tried to bury the Panthers.
It worked. Carolina never cut the lead to less than 11 after that, and a lot of disappointed fans filed out to go get some sleep as the fourth quarter continued.
The Panthers were the second high-profile home team in Charlotte to be booed in two nights. A number of fans also booed Wednesday night when the Charlotte Hornets got down by 24 points midway through the third quarter against Milwaukee.
The Hornets, though, mounted a monumental comeback and won.
The Panthers don’t seem to have such a comeback in their DNA. They have only won one time in their past seven games.
It is time to say it: This year looks nothing like 2013 for Carolina. It looks exactly like the non-playoff seasons of 2009-12.
Many names have changed. But those teams all share one thing in common with the 2014 Panthers.
They simply aren’t good enough.