To paraphrase Kenny Rogers, you got to know when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em, and you gotta know when to just kick the extra point.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera has officially taken the Riverboat thing a little far. The once famously conservative coach who began zealously taking risks in down-and-distance situations several years back took a giant one at the conclusion of last Sunday’s 20–19 loss to Detroit, one that may cast a pall over the team’s postseason chances. Having just completed a magnificent drive to pull nearly even with the Lions in a back-and-forth contest, Rivera decided to go for the two-point conversion rather than letting Graham Gano kick the extra point and send the game into overtime. The rather unwieldy conversion try fell by the wayside, and the Panthers lost their second straight game. At 6–4 they remain in the wild card hunt, but in that ill-fated flash of bravado, things just got much more complicated.
I’m not sure what to say about the decision that doesn’t appear obvious in retrospect. Rivera was no doubt frustrated with Gano, who had already missed an extra point and a field goal on the day. The thought of a walk-off victory following a tense and more-difficult-than-expected road win must have been enticing. And two yards never seems like an overly ambitious obstacle with Cam Newton at the helm.
And yet, it was not a good idea—and my neighbors will no doubt attest that my full-throated screaming at the television was an indication of my view in the moment. Despite a frequently frustrating game, the Panthers had momentum, were the better team on both sides of the ball for the majority of the day, and were likely to prevail in overtime. This was not a situation where the defense was gassed and the Lions couldn’t be stopped. If anything, the opposite was true. Rivera lost his patience and his poise, and the Panthers may have lost the pole position in the NFC wild-card race.
All of the sudden this coming Sunday’s home game against a surging Seattle Seahawks team is rife with postseason implications. The Seahawks are 5–5 and trail Carolina by a single game in the playoff race. A win over the Panthers would bring them even and give them a tie-breaker advantage. The Redskins are 6–5 and already hold a tiebreaker advantage, owing to another road loss that probably should have been a victory. Two of the Panthers’ remaining six games are against the Saints, who have won ten straight and are looking more and more like a wrecking ball for all who cross their paths. For a season that started with enormous promise, it’s getting late a little early.
How will the Panthers respond on Sunday? Like most things in the NFL, it’s difficult to say with anything much more than arbitrary conjecture. This remains a fundamentally very good football team. While they didn’t put up points in bunches in Detroit, Cam Newton continued to excel in the passing game, throwing for 357 yards and three touchdowns while making great use of the increasingly dangerous rookie receiver D.J. Moore, who was dominant at times. Despite giving up a late score that gave the Lions the lead with 5:09 to play, the defense was largely stout and improved by orders of magnitude after their no-show two weeks ago in Pittsburgh. It should have been enough, and maybe it would have been, had cooler heads prevailed.
In Seattle, they will face a quality opponent with some similar attributes. Like the Panthers, the Seahawks possess a dual threat quarterback in Russel Wilson, who is capable of making you choose between emphasizing run or pass defense and making you pay whatever direction you elect to go. Receivers Tyler Lockett and Doug Baldwin are not dynamic game changers, but they will reliably move the chains. A stable of running backs including Chris Carson, Mike Davis, and emerging rookie Rashaad Penny has coalesced into a highly effective committee. The defense does not possess the overarching star power or intimidation factor of Seattle’s Legion of Boom Super Bowl teams, but they are willing and well coached.
To paraphrase Kenny Rogers (again), it all depends on what condition the Panthers’ condition is in. Carolina is typically a very good home team, and this year’s 5–0 record is a reflection of that tendency. It is also helpful to have Seattle travel cross country only to play a 1:00 p.m. start, a daunting task for any West Coast team. All of this should set up well for a Carolina victory, but following last week’s heartbreak in Motown and the previous week’s humiliation in Pittsburgh, there is no real telling the frame of mind the team will be in when it takes the field on Sunday.
If the Panthers’ head isn’t straight, the Seahawks have the capacity to put this season on life support. That’s another chance Riverboat Ron can’t afford to take.
The Record: 6-4
Next Up: Seattle Seahawks
Odds: Carolina -3.5
Where to See It: 1:00 p.m., Fox
Prediction: Carolina 30–Seattle 27