Luke DeCock

Carolina Panthers are about to implode or shock the NFL — there’s no middle ground

It’s always a long way home. Even after a win, the overnight flight from the West Coast is a slog. The Carolina Panthers had an even longer way home Sunday night. They had to get all the way back from rock bottom.

Seasons can hinge on a loss like this, when everything goes wrong, when every flaw is exposed by a superior opponent the way the San Francisco 49ers did in a 51-13 dismantling that never felt that close.

It’s hard to imagine the Panthers playing much worse than this, no matter how good the 49ers’ defensive line is (it’s really good) or how clever their offense is (it’s infuriatingly clever). They never established the run, put Kyle Allen into impossible situations, twisted themselves into knots on defense, somehow managed to be too aggressive and too passive at the same time.

This shouldn’t be the same Carolina team that unraveled last season after a similar blowout loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers — with an influx of older free agents, it should be better equipped to handle this adversity — but the challenge this version of the Panthers face is no less taxing.

The four-game winning streak — against inferior opposition, to be sure — is forgotten. All that’s left is a team that left a lot of weaknesses on tape and will look utterly vulnerable to the Tennessee Titans in a week. That’s the NFL. Two weeks after the Panthers breezed home from London on a four-game winning streak, they’re dragging themselves back to Charlotte to do it all over again.

“Tennessee smells blood,” Panthers guard Greg Van Roten said. “They’re going to attack us. We need to play our best game at home next week.”

This was the kind of loss that leaves players stumbling over each other to put the devastation in perspective.

Everything from self-flagellation:

“We didn’t play how we were supposed to play,” Panthers defensive lineman Gerald McCoy said. “It showed out there.”

To self-examination:

“We have to be honest with ourselves about what happened in this game,” Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “We have to be honest with ourselves about how we can get better.”

To self-rationalization:

“You ask me, they’re a good team, but they’re not any better than us,” Panthers linebacker Bruce Irvin said. “We gave them a lot of stuff today.”

In the big picture, the Panthers are 4-3 with everything still out there. They’re 4-1 without Cam Newton and 0-2 with him; not how anyone would have expected them to get here, but this is still probably where they would have been expected to end up.

“I think what it showed us is what it’s going to take to be a good football team,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “I think we’re still a very good football team.”

The 49ers do so much of what the Panthers try to do, they just do it so much better. A bad team will collapse after a loss like this. A good team will do what it can to play like the 49ers did against them.

Where do the Panthers fall? They’re about to find out.

“We just got beat, top to bottom, in every facet of the game,” McCoy said. “I’ve been playing this game a long time. You play this game long enough, games like that happen to everybody. You can’t allow it to be that way and stay that way.”

The Panthers will go one of two ways from here. There’s no middle ground. Just a long late-night flight home and a week of figuring out where they’re really headed.