Panthers try to rebound from embarrassing loss

Carolina has been able to bounce back in recent years

Panthers coach Ron Rivera called his team’s 52-21 loss in Pittsburgh last Thursday “humbling.” (Keith Srakocic / AP Photo)

The Carolina Panthers are in a relatively unfamiliar position — coming off of a blowout loss.

The Panthers lost in Pittsburgh on Thursday Night Football by an embarrassing 52-21 final score. The Steelers dominated the game almost from the outset, leaving the Panthers with nowhere to look but forward.

“We just got whupped, man,” said quarterback Cam Newton. “It happens. You have those kind of games in this league. It’s going to be about how we rebound and get ready for the next opponent. We’ve just got to be better next time.”

Getting beaten so soundly has been a rare occurrence for the Panthers, at least in recent seasons, and the team has done a good job bouncing back.

Last year, the Panthers lost at home to the Saints, 34-13. The following week, they traveled to New England and toppled Tom Brady and the Patriots. Newton was 22-of-29 for 316 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for a score.

Following a 40-7 loss in Seattle in 2016, the Panthers returned east to beat San Diego, 28-16, at Bank of America Stadium. Newton didn’t star in that game, passing 10-for-27 for 160 yards.

Obviously, there have been other Panther losses, but those are the only times since Carolina’s Super Bowl run that the team laid an egg.

Carolina has been able to avoid stringing together bad performances in recent years. The team won both weeks following losses this year and are 5-2 following losses over the last two seasons — they dropped consecutive games to Philadelphia and Chicago last October and lost their playoff opener in New Orleans after losing in Atlanta to close the regular season.

That has much to do with the team’s level-headed approach to losses, which starts with head coach Ron Rivera.

The message from the head coach following losses is not to call for major changes, but rather to remind the team of what each player should be doing.

“Guys trying to do things that they don’t need to try to do,” he said of the reasons behind the Pittsburgh loss. “There were a couple situations early on where guys tried to do more. That just cost us. Stick to fundamentals.”

The loss was disappointing to Rivera, but the fact that the team lost by 31 could actually help refocus the locker room.

“It was important for the entire team,” he said. “This was a humbling learning experience. A lot of good things happened for our three-game streak. Then we had some mistakes.

“At the end of the day,” he added, “sometimes you’ve got to take your medicine.”

Feeling the pain and embarrassment of the loss can also drive the players.

“I hope they’re upset,” Rivera said. “I do. Probably a better word is disappointed. I’m disappointed we didn’t play better.”

Rivera’s quarterback is on the same page.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “It sure enough was a humbling piece of pie. Not only that, it was a learning experience for a lot of guys. If we expect us to be as good as we expect us to be, we have to find a way to win games like these. Your nose is bleeding early on. You’ve just got to stop it.”

Over the last two years, Newton has improved his play following a loss, but following Rivera’s directive, it’s not a huge step forward, just a refocusing and upgrade to his performance.

In losses, Newton has a 70.9 passer rating. That improves to 87.1 the following week. His yards per pass improve from 5.4 to 6.8, yards per completion from 8.6 to 10.9. In losses over the last two years, he’s thrown eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The following week, that improves to 9 scores and six picks.

Again, it’s nothing major. He throws fewer passes and runs a little more. It’s just a matter of doing his job, not trying to do too much.

This week, Rivera has another tool available to him — time. With the Panthers playing on Thursday, they have 10 days between games.

“I told them to get away from football,” he said. “It’s a very humbling experience to be beat the way we were. I’ve been in the league 30 years. I’ve been on both sides of it. It happens. The best medicine is to get away from it, forget about it and come back ready to roll.”

Now, after feeling the loss, learning a lesson, and getting away for a while, the Panthers head to Detroit this week.

“It happens sometimes, and I’m OK with that,” Newton said. “What I’m not OK with is people not learning from it.”