Carolina Panthers

The Titans are the Panthers of the AFC — but worse. Carolina can’t afford to lose

Maybe it’s just because Halloween looms, but the resemblances between what happened Sunday to the Carolina Panthers at San Francisco and a year ago at Pittsburgh are eerie.

In 2018, the Panthers had a huge offensive day to whip Tampa Bay, moved to 6-2, went on to play a very good team on the road and got eviscerated, 52-21. After that, everything crumbled.

In 2019, the Panthers had a huge offensive day to whip Tampa Bay, moved to 4-2, went on to play a very good team on the road and got eviscerated, 51-13.

Will everything crumble again?

Much of the answer to that question will hinge on whether Carolina does what it should and beats Tennessee at home Sunday.

The Titans are the Panthers of the AFC. Maybe a little worse. They have journeyed through a bunch of ups and downs, their own quarterback change (Ryan Tannehill now plays instead of Marcus Mariota) and have ended up pitching their tent once again in the Land of Average. The Titans are 4-4 overall — 2-2 at home, 2-2 on the road.

Carolina (4-3) needs this one. Because the game after that — at Green Bay on Nov. 10, which just got moved to 4:25 p.m. due to the effect a healthy Aaron Rodgers has on TV ratings — would require a near-perfect day for a win.

Sunday won’t require perfection. But it is a game the Panthers have to have to avoid the implosion of 2018. If they don’t get it, the Packers will undoubtedly extend Carolina’s losing streak to three games. History shows that almost every Ron Rivera team that loses three games in a row at any point in the season ends up toasted. The best three Rivera teams — 2013, 2015 and 2017 — never lost three straight.

Sunday, Panthers tight end Greg Olsen called concerns of a 2018 repeat of the post-Pittsburgh problem “totally legitimate.”

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San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Nick Bosa, left, avoids Kyle Allen after intercepting Allen’s pass Sunday. Allen hadn’t thrown a single interception in his first five NFL starts, but he threw three Sunday. Allen will start his sixth straight game Sunday at home against Tennessee. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

“We allowed it to happen last year, never got our momentum back and it tanked our season,” Olsen said of the Steelers’ game. “So we’re going to find out if this group is better. Is this group going to respond better than last year? Is it going to be just one bad game? That’s the plan, but it doesn’t just happen. You’ve got to make that happen.”

Rivera knows the possibility of a repeat exists. No one is coming to save the Panthers, including quarterback Cam Newton, who is still rehabbing his injured foot. Kyle Allen, knocked back into the real world by the 49ers but still 4-1 as a starter this season, will start his sixth straight game against Tennessee Sunday at 1 p.m.

“I think the biggest thing is there’s going to be comparisons to what happened last year and what could potentially happen this year,” Rivera said Monday. “The key word there is ‘potential.’ I believe with some of the leadership we have, and having experienced it, the guys understand what it’s going to take…. So I think we have enough experience in that locker room to prevent it.”

The Panthers had a ton of experience last year — remember, graybeards Julius Peppers, Thomas Davis, Mike Davis and Ryan Kalil were on that 2018 team, too. Didn’t matter. No one could stop the avalanche.

In a seven-game span, the Panthers went from 6-2 to 6-9, playing basically the same game over and over again. After the Pittsburgh debacle, they lost five straight by seven or fewer points — always having a chance at the end, always blowing it. The worst one likely was Newton’s misfire on an open two-point conversion pass at Detroit, but they were all pretty bad.

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen, right, is sacked by San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Nick Bosa during the Panthers’ 51-13 loss Sunday. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The TV show that was secretly being taped all that year inside Carolina’s facilities — Amazon Prime’s “All or Nothing” — documented a squad that thought it was going for it all and ended up with nothing whatsoever.

Sunday is critical.

The pain of a 38-point loss to the 49ers will sting for awhile. Defensive end Mario Addison said that “when a team puts 50 on you” that “it’s going to hurt for the core.”

But while the pain may linger, the hangover cannot.

The Panthers need Sunday’s game for a lot of reasons, but the most important is this: Their faith in themselves got shaken by San Francisco. Another loss or two will push it even further toward the door.

And no NFL team wins a thing without faith.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.
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