At this point in a lost season, there’s probably little value in attempting to quantify which of the accumulated losses is the worst in the Panthers’ growing collection.
What’s the good in counting bruises?
That’s probably why tight end Greg Olsen cut to the bone as he buttoned his shirt in the muffled confines of the Carolina locker room Sunday afternoon in Arrowhead Stadium.
“It’s all the things we’ve talked about all season long,” Olsen said after the Panthers ended Kansas City’s eight-game losing streak with a 27-21 loss to the emotionally churning Chiefs. “Nothing’s changed. We’ve got to figure it out.”
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On one level, this game was unlike any the Panthers or any other NFL team has played, going off as scheduled about 28 hours after and a few hundred yards from where Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, having already murdered his girlfriend and mother of their 3-month old daughter, killed himself in front of head coach Romeo Crennel and others Saturday.
It meant, particularly for the Chiefs, coping with a tragic human story that came into play perhaps as much as any play call. The Chiefs found an inspiration, relied on their emotion and won at home for the first time this season, though approximately half the seats in their stadium were empty.
On a purely football level, however, this was too familiar.
The Panthers found ways to lose. Again.
It has become their identifying mark, like Julia Roberts’ smile or Santa’s beard.
The Chiefs hadn’t scored more than 16 points in a game since Sept. 30, but they equaled their season high against the Panthers.
They played keep-away from Cam Newton. Nothing neutralizes the other team’s offense better than not allowing it to have the ball. That’s what the Chiefs did to the Panthers, keeping the ball for more than 37 of the 60 minutes.
The Panthers had the ball five times in the first three quarters. They scored three touchdowns, but it’s the one they didn’t score, when Brandon LaFell flat out dropped a Newton pass near the Chiefs goal line on the opening possession of the second half, that lingered.
They could have flipped a 17-14 halftime deficit into a 21-17 lead. Instead, the Panthers punted and the Chiefs went on a 17-play, 87-yard touchdown drive that took four seconds shy of 10 minutes.
Twice in the drive, the Chiefs converted on fourth down. At 2-10, the Chiefs don’t qualify as a good team, but they did the things it takes to win in that drive.
What does that say about the Panthers?
It says they’re 3-9 and a team of mistakes waiting to happen.
In the Chiefs’ 13-play, second-quarter touchdown drive, the Panthers committed three penalties, two of them offside calls.
On the drive that produced a field goal that stretched the Chiefs’ lead to six in the fourth quarter, cornerback Josh Thomas picked up a senseless personal foul penalty for shoving a Kansas City player after the whistle had blown. Thomas did it in front of the officials. That’s never a good idea, as head coach Ron Rivera made clear when he immediately pulled Thomas from the game.
Needing a stop on third and 6 to get the ball back with more than two minutes remaining to allow a reasonable chance for a potential game-winning drive, the Panthers allowed Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn to light foot it for exactly six yards after Carolina had cashed in its final timeout.
Those miscues weren’t about emotion. They were about technical failures.
“It was 100 percent us players not making plays,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “That’s what it boils down to. The team that makes the most plays wins the game.”
Hence, Kansas City 27, Carolina 21.
The Panthers’ offense did some good things. It averaged 7.5 yards per play. The problem was the Panthers ran only 51 plays.
They rushed for 165 yards and Cam Newton’s passer rating of 121.2 included three touchdown passes but didn’t account for his 78 rushing yards.
With three possessions in the final 11 minutes, the Panthers couldn’t generate a score. They started from their own 17, 19 and 14, the last beginning with just 18 seconds remaining, and failed to summon any magic.
It’s tempting to say this was the worst of the Panthers’ nine losses this season considering it came against the team with the worst record in the league when the day began. But, honestly, what difference does it make if this one was worse than the home loss to Tampa Bay or the one at Chicago?
“A loss is a loss,” Newton said.