The Carolina Panthers entered the 2013 season with a lot of question marks. The biggest, though, was their inability to win close games.
In head coach Ron Rivera's first two seasons, the Panthers went 2-12 in games decided by seven or fewer points. Time and again, they got close, only to lose at the end.
And in the first two weeks of the regular season, nothing had changed.
The first game of the season was a blockbuster: Seattle and Carolina would end up being the No.1 and No.2 seeds, respectively, in the NFC playoffs. But no one knew that then. All they knew is that Carolina lost, 12-7. The Panthers wasted a fine defensive performance with an inconsistent offensive one.
The play everyone remembers? DeAngelo Williams broke inside the Seattle 10 on a run with 5:25 to go, only to fumble the ball away.
Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith predicted at game's end that the two teams would see each other again in January in the playoffs, but few believed that after the following week.
Carolina dropped to 0-2 with a horrid loss to Buffalo. Up 20-17 deep in the fourth quarter, coach Ron Rivera decided to count on his defense and kicked a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Buffalo 21 to take a 23-17 lead when a first down would have sealed the game.
The Bills then rocketed 80 yards in the final 98 seconds behind a rookie quarterback to win. Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson would later say this was the most important sequence of the year, because it taught the defense a hard lesson.
"We really started grinding after that," Johnson said. "We didn't have guys going a lot of different ways and all that type of stuff after that game."
In Week 3, as speculation swirled about Rivera's future, the Panthers played the New York Giants. There they showed the first real indication of the team they could be, shutting out the Giants, 38-0, behind Cam Newton's four touchdowns (three passing, one rushing) and a stalwart defense.
But after a bye week, the Panthers played poorly again. A 22-6 loss on the road to Arizona turned into a complete beatdown, as Newton was sacked seven times and threw three interceptions. After the first quarter of the season, the Panthers stood 1-3, and fans thought that the same ol' Panthers had surfaced once again.
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