Panthers struggling but control their destiny

The team can earn an unlikely playoff spot by winning out to close a wild season

Quarterback Sam Darnold and the Panthers’ playoff hopes took a hit after Sunday’s home loss to Pittsburgh. (Rusty Jones / AP Photo)

The Carolina Panthers hit the closing stretch of the 2022 campaign in the only way this topsy-turvy season could possibly end — in all directions at once.

The Panthers clinched a losing record on the season with Sunday’s home loss to the Steelers, dropping to 5-9. So, naturally, they control their own destiny as they hold out hope for not just a playoff berth but the NFC South divisional title.

With Tampa Bay’s loss to the Bengals, the Panthers sit just a game out of first place in a three-way tie for second (and also last) place in the division. This is nothing new for the Panthers, who won the division with a 7-8-1 record in 2014, the year before they went to the Super Bowl.

That year, the Panthers closed with four straight wins to salvage a 3-8-1 start to the season. This year doesn’t have quite the same momentum, as Carolina has won just two of its last six games. The Panthers have already fired their coach and traded their top running back, then reversed course on what seemed like a preparation to tank for a better draft pick. Carolina has also cut its opening-day starting quarterback, acquired in a high-profile offseason deal.

Sunday’s loss brought back echoes of the darker days at the end of Matt Rhule’s tenure as coach. The last straw for management was a home loss to San Francisco in which Bank of America Stadium had more 49ers fans than Panther fans. When the Panthers hosted the Steelers in Week 15, it made that game look like a Carolina pep rally as the stadium was filled with black and gold-wearing, towel-waving Steelers fans who reacted to positive plays as if the game were in Pittsburgh.

“You know, I was focused on the game,” said interim coach Steve Wilks. “I really didn’t pay attention to it once I get in the mindset of game life. I’m not affected by it.”

Quarterback Sam Darnold also downplayed the crowd, saying, “It didn’t affect us at all. I think that the way that our guys were able to just focus on what we could control, which is going out there and executing. Obviously, we didn’t do enough of that, but the crowd didn’t have a factor in it. I was able to use my cadence, we didn’t have to go silent. So, yeah, it wasn’t a factor in that area.”

In addition to the crowd, the Panthers suffered another indignity in the game when they appeared to be the far less physical team. Particularly under Wilks, the team had been exhibiting toughness and grit as it fought to salvage a season from the potential temptation to tank. That was absent on Sunday as the Steelers opened the second half with a 21-play, 91-yard drive that took nearly the entire third quarter, running 11:43 off the clock. The team couldn’t find a longer drive surrendered by the Panthers in at least the last 20 years.

“It’s a long drive,” said defensive end Brian Burns. “Fatigue sets in, things like that. It’s just tough when they keep converting. … I didn’t know that they took the whole third quarter. I wasn’t aware.”

For the game, the Steelers converted 12 of 16 third downs, while the Panthers managed just four of 11, including just one of their last seven attempts.

“Starting with the defense, with our run fits, you know, 157 yards rushing. Definitely not good enough,” Wilks said. “On the offensive side of the ball, we couldn’t create any momentum. Didn’t establish the run game at all. We’ve got to do a much better job in our protection and giving Sam an opportunity to be able to go through his progressions to get down the field.

“Third down was horrendous, to say the least, on both sides. We were … not good enough in regards to affecting time of possession which they had 36 minutes to our 23 and it all results with that.”

Now the Panthers have a short week before hosting the Lions on Christmas Eve in what amounts to a must-win game in a divisional race that someone must win, right?

Not that the playoff push will be a focus for a Panthers team who has far bigger problems to address.

“Not worrying about (playoffs) last week,” said Wilks, “not worrying about it now. We’ve got to worry about trying to get ourselves right to win a football game. I don’t want anybody in this building talking playoffs.”

In a season like this one has been, that might be just the attitude that gets the Panthers there.