An Abrupt End To The Panthers Remarkable Season
By Blake Baxter
Bank of America Stadium was the venue for seven of the Carolina Panthers franchise record-tying twelve wins this season. The past four months, it was host of four dominant blowouts, three close games (two of which were absolute nail biters) and, of course, the ever-faithful Panther Nation. It was the home of an imperfect team of overachievers – a team with a heavily scrutinized head coach, an embattled quarterback, numerous unproven youngsters, relatively few veterans and more than enough castoffs and spare parts. It was the home of both a frustrating season opening loss and an uplifting division clinching victory. And, for most of the season, it was the home of unanticipated perseverance.
But on Sunday, Bank of America Stadium was the home of an abrupt and dispiriting end.
That withstanding, the first half of the Panthers’ first playoff game in five seasons was an entertaining and tenacious battle that lived up to the hype. It is just a shame that the whole game could not stay that way. The Panthers offense struggled to get much going in the first quarter, but QB Cam Newton still started the game off strong, completing eight of his first ten passes and making a couple of nice scrambles for sizable gains. Carolina’s reputable defense – the Panthers defense was the second best in all of football in 2013 – did its part as well, making key stops that forced the San Francisco 49ers to settle for field goals.
The problem, or at least one of them, was that the 49ers beat them at their own game. San Francisco’s defense only allowed one touchdown the whole day, a beautiful second quarter heave by Newton from 40 yards out that fell perfectly into the hands of the banged up warrior Steve Smith. But it was also in the second quarter that they came up with what was perhaps the most crucial stop of the game. On fourth down and just a scant yard away from the end zone, “Riverboat” Ron Rivera, as has been his signature move this season, decided to go for it 49ers LB Ahmad Brooks halted a lunging Newton about a foot and half away from making a game-changing touchdown. Not only did it prevent the Panthers from putting points on the board; it deterred Rivera from going for it in a similar situation later on. The ensuing field goal was enough to put the Panthers ahead for the time being but it turned out to be their last score of the day.
The second half of the game, the Panthers defense was repeatedly bludgeoned by long and painful San Francisco drives led by QB Colin Kaepernick and RB Frank Gore that took precious time off the clock. Carolina was marred by an inordinate amount of penalties, finishing the game with a total of eight for a sum of 73 yards. Safety Mike Mitchell and CB Captain Munnerlyn each committed one in the first quarter. It was evident from that point on that emotions would run high throughout the afternoon, but in the playoffs, that is not always a good thing.
San Francisco had its share of trash talk and cheap shots, too. Even so, they had the look of a much more experienced and composed team. The 49ers have been there the past three seasons. They have the benefit of knowing what it is like to be on both sides to some extent at least – they have played on the world’s biggest stage but they have not won it all yet. The 49ers are hungrier than ever and are currently hitting on all cylinders. Although the Panthers made their share of mistakes on Sunday, a lot of it can be chalked up to what often happens when a green upstart meets a red-hot powerhouse in the month of January.
As frustrating and disappointing as the season-ending loss was though, it does not diminish everything – or anything – that this team accomplished this season.
When the 2013 season began, Rivera was certainly on the hot seat. The Panthers were coming off two straight seasons that saw the team finish under .500. In 2011, despite a remarkable rookie season by Newton, the Panthers stumbled to a 6-10 record. In 2012, the team lost eight of its first 10 games. Rivera was almost certainly going to get canned if it was not for an unexpected 5-1 streak to end the season. The streak saved his job, but it did not inspire much confidence in his or his team’s abilities.
In the offseason, the Panthers had very little cap space to make a big splash in free agency, so they supplemented by acquiring castoffs whom other teams did not want anymore like WRs Ted Ginn Jr., a speed demon with a reputation for having slippery hands, and Domenik Hixon, a two-time Super Bowl winner who had fallen out of favor with the New York Giants. Carolina also drafted well, beefing up its defensive line with the addition of DTs Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. With the strong and long-legged Newton, veteran RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and the human bowling bowl that is Mike Tolbert, the Panthers had the bones for a solid running game. With DEs Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, and LBs Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, they had what could be an enticing mix for a defensive core.
However, the Panthers were in what was supposed to be a tough division, and an even tougher conference. For Carolina to make a postseason run, everything would have to break just right – and basically, it did. The Atlanta Falcons suffered from injuries and struggled from the get go. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers dwelled at the bottom of the division alone for most of the season and struggled with their own coaching drama. Astonishingly, the New Orleans Saints ended up being the only team in the division that was a challenge for the surprising Panthers. The Panthers themselves benefited from a mostly favorable schedule. Even after they got on a roll, they did not beat a winning team until they knocked off San Francisco in an ultra-physical 10-9 game in Week 10.
But before Carolina looked anything like a playoff team, it had yet another frustratingly slow start to the season. The Panthers dropped their first two close games before getting on track against the Giants in what would be their most lopsided win of the year. However, a careless loss to the Arizona Cardinals put their season in doubt yet again in Week 5. After that though, the Panthers silenced their doubters with a thrilling eight game win streak. The Saints put an end to their streak in Week 14, but it did not dampen their spirits. Carolina finished the regular season with three emphatic wins – a bounce-back win over the New York Jets, an impressive comeback to edge New Orleans and to leapfrog them in the division and a Week 17 victory over the rival Falcons to clinch the division and snag the second first-round bye.
The Panthers showed in November that they could beat the 49ers, but beating them again with more at stake proved to be too tall of an order. Now that the season is over, the whispers of whether or not they will be able to do it again have already begun. Some think the Panthers missed their window, and they very well may have. There are a plethora of things to worry about just as there tends to be for any ambitious team that gets a taste of success and falls short. But there are plenty of months to be spent discussing, speculating and planning for the future of the Carolina Panthers.
Now, however, is the time to sit back, take a deep breath and appreciate the remarkable season that was.