So it happened again. With roughly four minutes remaining in a crucial contest in Cleveland this past Sunday, the Panthers found themselves with a first-and-goal at their opponent’s nine-yard line in a game they trailed 26–20. Despite an ailing shoulder, Cam Newton had driven the team down the field and appeared poised to pull Carolina on top of the Browns in what might have constituted a season-saving victory.

Then things got strange.

A first down inside handoff to Christian McCaffrey netted six yards. Putting the ball in McCaffrey’s hands made sense. He is the Panthers’ best offensive player besides Newton, and he had already scored twice. The effective run made matters enticingly simple: three plays to get three yards and take the lead with an extra point.

On second down, offensive coordinator Norv Turner drew up a fly sweep to D.J. Moore, who was stuffed for no gain. If you’re intent on trying a gimmick play inside the five-yard line, this was probably the time to do it, but with McCaffrey and Newton in the backfield, it’s fair to wonder why you’re handing the ball off to a rookie wideout with the season on the line.

Not to worry, I thought as I watched this unfold. The misdirection to Moore was obviously setting up Newton on a draw or McCaffrey on an option or some other logical approach to settling the matter. Sore shoulder or no, anyone who has watched football over the past several years is accustomed to the spectacle of Cam Newton barreling over helpless defenders with key yards on the line.

I am all for limiting the number of collisions the Panthers’ franchise quarterback is subjected to, but his capacity to impose his will as a runner when required has always been the special ingredient that makes Carolina close to impossible to defend in short yardage. It is difficult to think of a more high-leverage situation than the one unfolding on Sunday. So I was flabbergasted to see Newton drop back and make two ineffective throws to Curtis Samuel and Jarius Wright on the third and fourth down, resulting in zero points, a change of possession, and Carolina’s fifth straight defeat.

Listen: By and large, questioning play-calling after the fact is the lowest form of analysis. I am sure Turner had his reasons—Cleveland stacking the box, a perceived man-to-man advantage on the edge—but the fact is, this has been a recurring issue in the Panthers second-half swoon. Against Detroit, after exuberantly electing to try to win the game with a two-point conversion rather than tie it with an extra point following a last-second touchdown, the Panthers ran a similarly ugly-looking crossing route that never came close to working.

Missed chances in the red zone have occurred frequently during the Panthers’ losing streak. Four of those losses have been by seven points or less. It doesn’t take a math major to calculate the cost of turning what was one of the team’s great advantages over the first half of the season into a liability. Should Carolina find themselves in a meaningful game with a chance to win or tie late, let’s hope the lesson has been learned to put the ball in the hands of your best players.

About those meaningful games: We’re running out of them. Carolina remains technically alive for an NFC wildcard berth, but the margin for error is essentially nonexistent. In all likelihood, only a sweep of the team’s final three games—a home and home with the NFC-leading Saints and a rematch of an early-season loss to Atlanta—will turn the trick. Is it likely? Obviously not. The very idea of having to take down formidable New Orleans twice in three weeks feels like a Nixon-McGovern situation.

Is it possible? Sure! Following a midseason stretch of dominance, the Saints have looked as vulnerable in their last two games as they have all year. Atlanta is always dangerous but appears mainly to have tapped out in a lost season. And as I wrote last week in predicting the Panthers’ loss to Cleveland, they really haven’t played that badly during the losing streak. There has been plenty of poor execution, coaching blunders, and bad luck. But it hasn’t broken the spirit of this team, and I expect them to play well in Monday’s Last Stand In Charlotte. A sixth straight loss might bring about wholesale changes.

The Record: 6–7

This Week: Monday Night, New Orleans at Carolina

The Odds: New Orleans -6

Prediction: Carolina 30 New Orleans 27