The Carolina Panthers were nowhere near ready for their close-up on Sunday.
They made errors large and small in every phase of the game. New Orleans won 31-21, and did so because the Saints were clearly the better team on this day.
So where does that leave the Panthers? After all, as quarterback Cam Newton said later: “The world doesn’t stop because the Panthers lost today.”
No, it doesn’t. The Panthers remain in good position to make the playoffs, but the odds of having a home playoff game have dropped dramatically.
This loss means the Panthers almost certainly won’t win the NFC South, barring a collapse by the Saints. Now that New Orleans (9-3) holds both a one-game lead and the tiebreaker over Carolina (8-4), even if the Panthers won all the rest of their games they might only end up as a playoff wildcard.
And those final four games are going to be very tough for Carolina. The Panthers face 10-2 Minnesota on Sunday at home, followed by a Green Bay team likely to be quarterbacked by Aaron Rodgers, followed by Tampa Bay at home and Atlanta on the road. Only the Tampa Bay game in Charlotte on Christmas Eve seems like a near-certain victory.
Of the three-game homestand the Panthers are about to have, linebacker Luke Kuechly said: “Yeah – we’ve got to win them all.”
To do that, Carolina will have to play far better than it did Sunday. The special teams made two egregious errors.
First, punter Michael Palardy dropped the football just before he was going to kick it. Then, punt returner Kaelin Clay – who had a punt-return touchdown to help win the game against the New York Jets the week before – fumbled the ball away on a fourth-quarter return.
“Just didn’t take care of the ball,” Clay said. “I feel like that was a costly mistake.”
Those miscues led directly to 10 New Orleans points.
Defensive end Julius Peppers committed an unnecessary roughness penalty that he called “ticky tack,” but it extended a Saints touchdown drive. The Panthers once put up an eight-man front in the second quarter to stop an expected New Orleans run and then got gashed for a 72-yard rush anyway by New Orleans running back Mark Ingram.
The Panthers offense only had one play of more than 25 yards, and that was Newton’s desperation 32-yard scramble in the final minutes when the Panthers already trailed 31-14. It all left Panthers coach Ron Rivera bemoaning “missed opportunities” and “self-inflicted mistakes” and adding “that’s why you get beat.”
There was some good work thrown in for the Panthers as well – Newton didn’t turn the ball over and the Carolina defense caused one fumble that led to a TD. The Panthers lost by 10 points on the road this time after losing by 21 in Charlotte to the same team in September.
But it wasn’t enough.
Carolina’s most likely road to the playoffs in January will now end up literally on the road. If the Panthers go 2-2 or 3-1 in their final four games, they are probably looking at a No. 5 or No. 6 seed in the NFC and a first-round game in an opposing team’s building.
“If everything pans out right, we may see that team again,” Newton said, referring to a possible third game against the Saints in the playoffs.
The Panthers are inside the playoff picture at the moment, but if they go 1-3 or 0-4 through the rest of December, they could easily find themselves outside the frame. Atlanta (7-5) lost Sunday, but the Falcons are lurking close by. So is Seattle.
Said Newton just before he walked out the Superdome door and toward a plane back to Charlotte: “We just have to catch fire in a good way. And I believe that we will.”