The Carolina Panthers were supposed to be riding a wave of confidence after finishing last season on a roll by winning four in a row and five of their last six. Sadly, they reverted back to when they struggled dropping a 12-7 heartbreaker to the Seattle Seahawks at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday. Of their last ten losses, eight have come by a touchdown or less.
It was a game of lost opportunities and mistakes, but overall the Panthers will take a lot of positives from this game like the evolving maturity of quarterback Cam Newton, the reemergence of a running game and a defense that may be better than last year’s squad that was ranked 10th in the NFL. That defense was also the best in the NFC South ahead of the Falcons (24th), Buccaneers (29th) and Saints (dead last).
“We had missed opportunities to put some points on the board and we didn’t do it,” said head coach Ron Rivera. “We got down to the red zone and unfortunately we turned it over. We can’t have that, especially in the situation we were in. We were driving down, had the chance to take the lead. That was disappointing just because we had done a nice job.”
What Rivera was talking about was a critical turnover by DeAngelo Williams with less than six minutes remaining in the contest. Williams slipped away from one defender and was in the open headed toward the end zone, but that player, Earl Thomas, did not give up on the play and came from behind to strip the ball loose. Tony McDaniel recovered at the eight with 5:25 left. Carolina never touched the ball again.
“It ultimately came down to that fumble, let’s just get that out of the way, it was my fault,” said Williams. “In that situation, I’ve watched countless film on them and I know that’s what they do, they strip and go for the ball. Unfortunately, today they got the ball out and it cost my team and the fans a hard fought win and I want to apologize.”
Rivera was a bit more conciliatory.
“It was big obviously,” the coach said. “We were driving and we got a chance to light up and see if we can score a touchdown. It was a great run. He made a nice cut and got to the outside. The first guy missed him with a glancing blow but it was the guy that came in behind that cleaned him up. Unfortunately, DeAngelo lost the ball. I’ll be honest with you, I’ll put the ball in DeAngelo’s hands any time of the day.”
Williams had a solid day with 86 yards rushing, a 5.1 average, and grabbed three passes for 14 more.
While that may be the most glaring incident due to its timing, Williams is not alone because blame can be spread out in other areas, including special teams. Armond Smith was twice flagged for going out of bounds on returns and that got veteran wideout Steve Smith to excoriate him in front of the crowd and cameras.
That was not the only gaffe. The Panthers lost the ball after Josh Thomas did not get out of the way of a bouncing punt. It hit him in the foot and Seattle recovered.
Another incident could cost a player his job if Rivera thinks it was egregious enough. Frank Alexander was ejected in the first half when he retaliated against Seattle tackle Breno Giacomini throwing a punch right in front of referee Jeff Triplette.
“We talked about them being chipper, we talked about things that they do to try and get you out of your game and he fell for it,” said Rivera. “To me it was the case of the second man getting caught. Again, we have to get those things corrected because you can’t let that happen.”
Things were not all gloom and doom for the Panthers. Allowing 12 points to a team some have predicted will be Super Bowl bound shows just how far the defense has come. They did allow Russell Wilson to throw for 320 yards, the first 300-plus of his career, but a couple of desperation passes on third down padded his stats just a bit.
Marshawn Lynch was shut down – he had just 43 yards and a 2.1 average – as was the ground game. Seattle managed just 70 yards in the game. The front seven, led by Luke Kuechly, Charles Godfrey and Thomas Davis who had nine tackles each, gave Russell Wilson fits all afternoon even with his gaudy numbers.
“We played great,” said Kuechly. “Obviously there are things that we did bad, and we did good. We played well in certain situations and there were certain plays we wish we could have back. That last series on offense, we should have done a better job getting off so the offense could have a chance to get back on the field.”
“We’ve got a great defense on our side, and their defense is known around the League,” said fullback Mike Tolbert. “Points are going to be one of those things that’s hard to come by in this game.”
Panthers’ fans may be lamenting the loss, but not Cam Newton. He didn’t have the kind of stats that jump off the page – he was 16-23 for 125 yards, a TD and no interceptions – except for his quarterback rating of 97.2. He took what the Seahawks gave him and executed offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s game plan the way it was drawn up. In addition he ran the ball only five times, three on designed plays for him, and maybe more importantly, he did not lead the team in rushing.
Newton’s newfound maturity was on display during and after the game. He was poised and patient to the very last and when he had a chance to talk about what happened, he was as eloquent as any man who has said he is not a public speaker.
“As an offense we had our opportunities, second and short, I got to lead the ball, lead Steve (Smith) on the over route in the first quarter,” he said. “It’s a couple things that I feel like it was a 50/50 chance. Any time when you are put in that opportunity or put in that situation, it can go either way. For us we just have to be more aggressive and take the bull by its horns and go. I’m speaking for myself, the offense, team, everybody.
“We had an unbelievable crowd out there today that was backing us and was extremely loud on third downs. But for us, it’s not about starting fast. It’s about making each and every opportunity that we get and making the most of it. Whether that’s practice or the game, first down, second down or third down. If we do that, we’re going to be alright.”