CHARLOTTE — On paper, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Panthers would lose last Sunday’s game.
Carolina had more yards than Seattle — 476 to 397. The Panthers held the Seahawks to 75 yards on the ground while gaining nearly three times that. Christian McCaffrey topped the 100-yard mark in both rushing and receiving yards. Cam Newton didn’t throw an incompletion in the first half and was 25-of-30 for the game.
Drilling down, the Panthers also had the edge in red zone efficiency, more first downs, fewer penalties and even an edge in return yardage.
Yet, somehow, the Seahawks took the game, 30-27, at the buzzer.
“That’s what happened,” receiver Jarius Wright agreed. “You can go for every stat in the world, but if you don’t win, at the end of the day, all of those stats don’t mean a thing. We’re all about winning. That’s No. 1.”
On paper, what once was a promising season for the Panthers is now looking like one that may end short of the postseason. The loss was the third straight for Carolina, putting the team one game above .500 and currently out of the playoff running, thanks to losses to fellow 6-5 teams Washington and Seattle.
“6-5 is not great,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “You’re 6-2, and now you’re 6-5? I don’t know if that’s how anybody saw it going.”
The Panthers can still make it to the playoffs, as coach Ron Rivera pointed out to the team and media after the game.
“The truth is, we still control our own destiny. … We still have five games to go. We control it. Go out and play.”
Of the teams that made the last 10 Super Bowls, half lost back-to-back games, but only three suffered a losing streak of three games or more — the 2012 Ravens, the 2011 Giants and the 2009 Saints. All three ended up winning the Super Bowl.
The Giants are perhaps the best model for the Panthers to consider. New York lost three straight to drop to 6-5, then lost to Green Bay the following week to run the streak to four games and drop to .500.
On the other hand, the Giants benefitted from being in a very weak NFC East. New York’s 9-7 record made it the only winning team in a division whose other three squads combined to go 21-27. The Giants had a worse record than both NFC wild-card teams that season.
A 9-7 mark won’t work for the Panthers, since New Orleans has already posted 10 wins and are running away with the division. That means Carolina needs to qualify for the wild card.
The schedule ahead includes two games against those Saints, currently blowing teams out and cruising with just one loss, so five more wins are far from guaranteed for the Panthers. There are also scenarios where an 11-5 Carolina team might still get edged out for the final spot, but Rivera’s message is clear. The team’s goals are still well within reach. First, however, the Panthers need to stop the bleeding.
“We don’t have a choice,” Olsen said. “We’ve got a lot of (stuff) to figure out before we worry about winning five games. I told you guys last week, we have to worry about one game, and we haven’t won one game in three weeks. Forget about five. We’ve got to win one.”
Rivera also cautioned the team not to look too far ahead.
“One game series from here on out,” he said, adding in Monday’s press conference “Win one. We’ve got to win one.”
Other than the Saints, the upcoming schedule should help the Panthers find the elusive wins. The team’s other three opponents are all sub-.500. Nothing is guaranteed, however. Carolina lost to Detroit — currently 4-7 — last week, and two of the upcoming foes with losing records are Tampa, who nearly upset the Panthers with an epic comeback at Bank of America Stadium earlier this month, and the Falcons, who beat them in Atlanta near the start of the season.
Rivera doesn’t plan to make any major personnel changes.
“Continue to stay the course,” he said when asked about the potential of tinkering with the lineup.
“We had guys that played really well,” he said of the Seattle game. “But you can point to critical mistakes those guys made. That’s the biggest thing. Everybody that played well, you could say there’s two or three plays they could have done better.”
That’s the difference between games — and seasons — that look good on paper and ones that actually end successfully.