The Carolina Panthers lost a 41-38 heartbreaker in the Big Easy to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday after rookie kicker Wil Lutz drilled a 52-yard field goal right down the goalposts’ guts and the Panthers failed to answer in the final 10 seconds.
Who saw this coming?
Haters and naysayers and Atlanta Falcons fans in our midst may relish this downturn in the Carolina Panthers’ good fortunes. But can any of them say with any seriousness that they predicted this sputtering tailspin of a season as a rational, educated calculation based on the team’s performance last year?
We held our breath as the Panthers refused to lose over the course of a nearly flawless 2015 season. We watched in awe the swelling playoff victories, a cresting tide of rising momentum leading to a tragic end in Super Bowl 50.
But once the sheriff had ridden off into the sunset, we all figured, “Wait ’til next year.”
Pundits across the board favored Carolina in the ensuing months. As the resident sportswriter in my friends’ lives, I’d tell them with all the confidence in the world: “The drive and talent we have doesn’t go away.”
I figured we’d be something like the Buffalo Bills of the late ’80s and early ’90s, dominating our division, running riot in the NFC and appearing in the Super Bowl multiple times in a few years, except in my mind’s eye, the Panthers would take the Lombardi Trophy home with them at some point.
I analyzed the 2016-’17 schedule in April with as stern and discerning an objective eye as I could and — humbly recognizing a repetition of last year’s greatness impossible — conservatively projected 12 wins.
For a moment, it seemed insane, predicting the lowly Panthers could accomplish such a feat.
Maybe it was crazy, for here we are, six games into the season, going into our bye week with just one lone win and five depressing losses.
What the hell happened?
I touched on the Super Bowl 50 rematch debacle against the Denver Broncos in a previous iteration of this column, and it deserves further analysis in this diagnosis of the Panthers’ ills. That game set the tone for what I’ve seen in subsequent matches: Momentum stalled, the opposition took the opportunity to run up the score on crucial drives and Carolina failed to convert.
Of course, two factors came into play.
For one, Denver head coach Gary Kubiak iced Panthers kicker Graham Gano at the very second that he aced a last-second, 52-yard field goal attempt that would’ve won Carolina Game One; Gano missed the try for keeps. More on the Golden Toe later.
Secondly — I loathe to sound like this, but it’s true — referees turned many blind eyes to the shellacking quarterback Cam Newton took from the Broncos defense. These officiating failures prove more egregious than simple broken nerves by a kicker, considering the flak NFL officiating crews have received over lack of response towards clear headhunting against the reigning MVP, let alone players across the league.
I barely caught glimpses of that game, being on an airplane for much of its runtime. And, truth be told, I’ve missed the majority of this season.
I count myself lucky, considering we fell to a resurgent Falcons squad— at least a serious threat — and bumbled pathetically sans Cam and running back Jonathan Stewart through a pitiful 17-14 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But I didn’t catch the Sept. 18 matchup against the San Francisco 49ers, a 46-27 mirage of a return to form.
I did however witness our disappointing loss on Sept. 25 against a Minnesota Vikings team somehow decimating the NFL without its star offensive threats (running back Adrian Peterson and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had earlier sustained season-ending injuries).
This New Orleans game affected me more grievously.
The Saints, a team as misfortunate as Carolina, scored three unanswered touchdowns early in the game, and Newton’s only stab into the end zone went to New Orleans cornerback Sterling Moore.
Carolina has never won after trailing by 21; it’s typically impossible to come back.
Yet we did… for a second.
Scrapping and scrambling through the second half, Carolina got close enough for Stewart to heave himself over the line for a 1-yard running touchdown. The score was 30-31. If Gano could clinch the extra point, he’d put the fear of God into the Saints.
His kick couldn’t have been straighter… but he’d set up a bit to the right. His kick went narrowly amiss as I moaned, “NOOO!” and the Cats remained down.
Sure, Carolina’s offense recovered and we truly tied the game with a 2-point conversion on the next drive. But Gano’s miss solidified the loss, especially since our defense couldn’t hold up down the stretch.
New Orleans took advantage of a woefully young secondary. Considering their room for improvement, I would’ve paid former star cornerback Josh Norman a trillion dollars to stay with Carolina. He was but one man, but his fire drove the Panthers’ defensive intensity last season.
So where do the Panthers go from here?
We may need to win the rest of the season in order to remain in contention for the playoffs, with perhaps one dropped game for wiggle room. Five losses already accrued, Carolina must play with the desperate confidence possessed by men with nothing left to lose.
That worked last year.