If the Carolina Panthers play like that again, their stay in the upcoming NFL playoffs will be nasty, brutish and short.
The Atlanta Falcons throttled Carolina 22-10 Sunday in Georgia, and the defeat meant the Panthers took a golden opportunity for a home playoff game and turned it into pig iron.
Because of Sunday’s loss, the Panthers must now travel to New Orleans for a 4:40 p.m. kickoff Sunday against a Saints team that has already beaten them twice this season.
It’s far from ideal. Given Sunday’s other results, a Carolina victory over Atlanta would have pushed the Panthers from a No. 5 seed to a No. 3, provided another NFC South championship trophy and earned Carolina a home playoff game in the first round (it would have been against Atlanta – again).
But instead, Cam Newton threw nine incompletions in a row to start the game and later fired three interceptions in one of the most miserable games of his career. The Panthers never led and never really looked like they had much of a chance.
Then again, it’s worth standing back for a moment and realizing that for Panthers fans, this could all be a lot worse. Yes, the team’s 81-year-old owner is embroiled in an NFL investigation and has announced his intention to sell the team. And the Panthers fell flat on their helmets Sunday.
But at this time last year, the Panthers had just completed a 6-10 season and fans only had the NFL draft and free agency to look forward to. They climbed up the ladder for a five-game improvement in 2017 – to 11-5 – and have made the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
The NFL field was culled from 32 to 12 teams over the course of the past four months. The Panthers made that cut. And, ultimately, I think the new ownership group will keep the team in Charlotte.
The New Orleans problem
However, there’s no getting around the fact that New Orleans beat the Panthers handily twice already this season – by scores of 34-13 and 31-21. The Panthers do not match up well with the Saints, whose quarterback, Drew Brees, has a quick-release passing game that negates one of Carolina’s biggest defensive strengths, its pass rush.
But the Saints will also come into this playoff game licking their own wounds. Leading 24-23 Sunday against Tampa Bay, New Orleans allowed a 95-yard touchdown drive to the Buccaneers (who only won five games all season) in the game’s final two minutes.
If the Panthers were to upset New Orleans on Sunday in the Superdome, they would play another game on the road the next weekend – either at Philadelphia or at Minnesota, depending on how the Atlanta-Los Angeles playoff game Saturday night turns out.
The only way the Panthers can now host a playoff game would be the NFC Championship on Jan. 21, and that would happen only if No. 6 seed Atlanta also advances with two consecutive upsets. In other words, you can basically consider Bank of America Stadium to be about 99 percent certain to be shut down to the public for this NFL season.
As for the Panthers, though, they aren’t shut down at all. On the right day, Carolina can play with anybody. Evidence? Their regular-season victories over the No. 1 playoff seed in the AFC (New England) and the No. 2 playoff seed in the NFC (Minnesota). They are terrific in close games – going 8-1 in contests decided by eight points or fewer.
Which Panthers team will show?
On the other hand, the Panthers can sometimes look fragile and overmatched. Their losses this season – including two to New Orleans and the one Sunday at Atlanta – usually follow a familiar pattern. The offense has all sorts of trouble moving the ball consistently and the defense finally wears down, particularly in the secondary.
To beat New Orleans – really to beat anybody in these playoffs – the Panthers will probably need to score 24 or more points. You’re just not going to win an NFL playoff game by a 10-7 score. So a lot of work must be done in the next six days.
But ready or not, here we go, into a new year and into what is commonly called the NFL’s second season.
The Panthers are a little embarrassed after Sunday. But – and this bears repeating – they are still alive.
Carolina at New Orleans
Sunday, Jan. 7, 4:40 p.m.