ATLANTA — It was the kind of loss that scars the soul a preposterous, humbling, devastating defeat that Panthers fans will remember not only in 2012 but also in 2032.
Carolina gave away a one-point lead in the final minute to Atlanta Sunday in the Georgia Dome, as a three-part miniseries of Panthers mistakes ended with the Falcons winning 30-28 over Carolina with a last-second field goal.
The largest of those three monstrous mistakes in that final minute was made by safety Haruki Nakamura, who gave up a 59-yard pass and played one of the worst games a Panthers defensive back has ever had.
But that mistake and it was hardly unexpected, given Nakamuras previous errors never had a chance of happening had either Cam Newton not fumbled on a third-and-short run or head coach Ron Rivera had gambled on his offense instead of his defense and had gone for it on fourth-and-1 from the Atlanta 45.
Riveras call was understandable in a vacuum. A great Panthers punt meant the Falcons took over at their 1, with just 59 seconds left and no timeouts.
But the coach has also seen the Panthers defense for two years. He knows its weakness against the deep ball (Nakamura had already given up a 49-yard touchdown earlier) and the big play (Carolina had also allowed a short dump pass to Michael Turner to go for a 60-yard TD).
And Rivera knows how good Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan is. Yet the coach played the same percentages John Fox and every other conservative NFL coach undoubtedly would have in the same situation. Instead of trying to seal the game by running the ball for a single yard and the Panthers already had 199 rushing yards Rivera punted.
It was, simply, a bad call a play not to lose sort of call.
Still, Rivera wouldnt have even had to make the decision had Newton not fumbled on third-and-2 on his way to a run that would have finished the game.
I clearly had the first down, but I have got to hold onto the football, Newton said, later adding: I failed. Teammate Mike Tolbert recovered, but the ball cant be advanced on such a play in the last two minutes, and so Carolina faced fourth-and-1.
So then came the punt, Nakamuras blunder and Atlantas 40-yard field goal from Matt Bryant.
Basically cost us the football game, Nakamura said. He thought he had an interception, but Roddy White yanked the ball away.
All we had to do was keep the ball in front of us and not let anyone behind us and we screwed that up, said Rivera, whose Panthers dropped to 1-3.
It almost made you long for Sherrod Martin, who whiffed on a lot of tackles in 2011 but at least was better at tracking the ball in the air than the overmatched Nakamura.
To Panthers fans with short memories, it may have felt like the worst loss in team history. It wasnt. This game wasnt nearly as significant as the Super Bowl loss following the 2003 season.
But in terms of inspiring anger and sadness, this was the worst Carolina defeat since the Panthers lopsided home loss to Arizona in the 2008 playoffs.
To say the Panthers did everything wrong Sunday would be far from the truth. In fact, they did many, many things right enough to lead the undefeated Falcons for much of the game and tease Panthers fans for three hours.
Despite the fumble, Newton played what I thought was one of the best games of his young career, accounting for three touchdowns (two passes, one run) and no turnovers. The Panthers defense sacked Ryan an astonishing seven times to tie a Carolina record.
But if Ryan wasnt sacked, bad things happened. He threw for 369 yards, as the Panthers defensive backs once again showed they are only four solid starters away from having a good secondary.
So the Panthers suffered one more dispiriting loss in what has been a monumentally disappointing September.
I do believe on Sunday they actually played their best game of the season Atlanta is a legitimate Super Bowl contender. But that doesnt help much, does it?
Its tough to play your heart out, as Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy said, and come out with nothing.
Well, not quite nothing. The scar will always be there.