Rookie cornerback Josh Norman stood in the rapidly emptying Panthers locker room late Sunday afternoon, still absorbing the emotional impact of a 19-14 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
Norman had been beaten on the Cowboys’ only touchdown play, allowing Miles Austin to catch a 26-yard rainbow from quarterback Tony Romo in the back corner of the Carolina end zone midway through the third quarter.
But the rookie from Coastal Carolina had also been part of a defense that limited the Cowboys to 312 yards, 75 fewer than they were averaging. Still, there was a missed interception, too many third-down conversions allowed and a bitterly familiar feeling.
“Every week, every week, man,” Norman said, closing his eyes and rubbing a hand across his face.
“And it just bites at you. It kinda rips at you so bad.”
The Cowboys were without leading rusher DeMarco Murray and relied instead on Felix Jones and Phillip Tanner for 74 rushing yards in 28 carries. A 10-yard scramble by Romo was the Cowboys’ longest run of the day.
With the Panthers unable to get consistent pressure on Romo, the Dallas quarterback was able to pick his spots, often throwing underneath to tight end Jason Witten and Jones.
Dangerous Dez Bryant caught just two passes but Austin gashed the Panthers for 97 receiving yards, the bulk of it coming on consecutive passes on the Cowboys’ lone touchdown drive. Austin had a 36-yard reception down the middle of the field that moved Dallas to the Carolina 26.
On the next play, Austin got a step on Norman and Romo floated the ball into the back corner of the end zone for a touchdown that put the Cowboys ahead 10-7.
“I kind of let up a little bit,” Norman said. “I got on my heels. Got caught and kind of undercut it a little bit and (Romo) threw it over the top of me. As a DB, you don’t want that to happen. It’s one of those things you learn a lesson the hard way.
“The ball was outside, over the top to the back pylon. What can you do? At the same time, I should have gotten it. … The defense was playing so, so good. To give up that touchdown rips at you.”
It was a familiar theme through the locker room and through a season that has tipped dramatically in the wrong direction.
Considered the biggest question mark when the season began, the Panthers defense has been solid but not spectacular. The bruise of a last-minute big play that cost the team a victory in Atlanta still lingers, as do other misses, big and small, that have contributed to the Panthers’ situation.
Head coach Ron Rivera pointed to a dropped interception by linebacker James Anderson on the second play of the fourth quarter as a missed opportunity. The Cowboys punted on the next play and the Panthers drove for a touchdown but it was symbolic of what the Panthers haven’t been able to make happen this season.
“When it rains, it pours,” Anderson said.
Playing without starting middle linebacker Jon Beason (out with a knee injury), rookie Luke Kuechly had 15 tackles. Anderson and Thomas Davis combined for 22 more tackles.
The numbers rang hollow.
“When you lose this much, it doesn’t really matter about the one play. You just want the overall result,” defensive end Greg Hardy said.
“After (five) losses like that, you get over stats. You get over the good plays. You get over the good drives. You get over the good three quarters. It’s about winning. I don’t care if you win badly. I’d rather have no stats, no tackles, no stats and win than be like this.
“Almost doesn’t count, man. Hand grenades and horseshoes, right?”
With four straight losses, the Panthers now face consecutive road games at Chicago and Washington. That means dealing with the Bears’ dangerous offense, then facing rookie sensation Robert Griffin III.
“We’ve gotta go out there and get some respect,” Hardy said. “I know a lot of people don’t respect us. They shouldn’t respect us. We need to play and not lay down.”
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