What a difference one lousy week in the NFL can make.
Last Thursday, the Panthers were 6–2, riding a three-game win streak and a single game behind the NFC-leading Saints with two games on the schedule against them. Following a 52–21 shellacking at the Steelers, coupled with the Saints’ methodical 51–14 demolition of the Bengals in Cincinnati, the teams are separated by two full games in the standings—and perhaps more important, don’t appear as evenly matched as we’d previously thought.
Exactly what happened last Thursday has been the subject of an unpleasant weeklong autopsy since the Cats slinked off of Heinz Field with their fur ruffled and their tails between their legs. In predicting a Panthers upset, I expressed the view that Carolina would be able to slow the game down by taking away Pittsburgh’s big-strike capability and force them into a more conservative, ball-control approach on offense. Not only did that not happen, something like the mathematical inverse took place. The Steelers scored three touchdowns in the first eleven minutes and appeared capable of lighting up the scoreboard at will. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed twentu=two of twenty-five passes for five touchdowns while spreading the ball around to nine different players.
Against an explosive offense like Pittsburgh’s, it’s common for coaches to concentrate on taking one element away in order to make their opponent at least somewhat less multi-dimensional. Instead, Carolina seemed to adopt the strategy of taking nothing away from the Steelers—not the deep passing game, not the running game, not intermediate and underneath throws—perhaps on the theory that Roethlisberger and company would be paralyzed by having so many options. They weren’t, and the fifty-two points allowed ties the franchise record.
With the exception of another terrific performance by Christian McCaffrey, the offense wasn’t much better. Finding themselves behind early, the Panthers were largely forced to abandon their balanced run-and-pass attack in favor of catch-up mode, with ugly consequences. The Steelers sacked Cam Newton five times and harassed him into a pick six. They ultimately held the Panthers to a paltry 257 total yards and created real concerns about whether Carolina is capable of fighting back when they find themselves in a deep hole. Anyone who doesn’t think the Saints took note of the Panthers’ feckless struggle after giving up three quick scores is delusional. The blueprint for beating this team now becomes burying them early.
Ultimately, it’s just one game and not the end of the world. Pittsburgh is white hot, and an out-of-conference road game on a short week is the sort of thing that tends to provide anomalous results. Carolina is still a very good team, and 6–3 is not a record to be ashamed of. Unfortunately, the Saints’ eight-game win streak coupled with a tough wild card race in the NFC means the Panthers have precious little room for error. Football Outsiders still gives the Panthers a 76.2 percent chance of qualifying for the postseason, but another poor performance this week could see those odds fall precipitously.
The long rest and this week’s matchup against a struggling Detroit Lions team should provide a salve for their wounds. The Lions are an odd and disappointing 3–6 under first-year coach Matt Patricia, and they’ve struggled badly on offense at times despite the dynamic presence of veteran quarterback Matt Stafford. They’ve occasionally appeared inept over the course of their current three-game losing streak and, with little to play for, represent a ripe opportunity for a significant Panthers bounce-back. Carolina has responded well to their previous two defeats and figure to be well-prepared after a long break.
They head into the Motor City as four-and-a-half-point favorites. Should they take care of business as expected, the farrago in Pittsburgh can be filed away as a bad night in a tough office. Another no-show of that caliber would represent the first real signs of significant anxiety during a what has been a promising season to date.
The Record: 6–3
Next Up: Carolina Panthers at Detroit Lions, 1 p.m. Sunday, Fox Television
Odds: Panthers -4.5
Prediction: Carolina 30–Detroit 21