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TNF Takeaways: Panthers Keep Hope Alive in Messy NFC South

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Coming off a dominant run to last year’s Super Bowl, big things were expected of the Carolina Panthers for 2016. Instead, on Thursday night, the Panthers found themselves in a must-win situation to keep their already slim postseason hopes from completely vanishing.

Carolina got that win, holding off a fierce comeback attempt by the New Orleans Saints, to grind out a 23-20 victory. But while the result kept the Panthers afloat, in theory, with six games left to play, it also continued to expose what we’ve long known about the defending NFC Champions: they’re a mediocre team in a mostly mediocre division that doesn’t have much chance to make the playoffs or win in them if by some miracle they were to get a spot.

Against a Saints defense that ranks near the bottom of the league, the Panthers managed just 223 yards of total offense and got into the end zone just twice, both late in the first half. Those two scores did help them build a 17-point halftime lead, but after kicking a field goal to end their first drive of the second half, Carolina ceased scoring and New Orleans nearly came all the way back to win.

And in those desperate final minutes, the Panthers suffered a significant blow when linebacker Luke Kuechly, the heart and soul of an already decimated Carolina defense, went down with an apparent head injury. Kuechly was in such bad shape after the hit that he had to be carted off the field. He is now in the league’s concussion protocol, awaiting further evaluation.

The star defender was in tears as he struggled to catch his breath following the awkward play, that came on a tackle of Saints running back Tim Hightower. Teammates convened with Kuechly as he was carted off and safety Kurt Coleman noted that Kuechly was still leading the defense despite his state.

“He was yelling to us to continue to fight,” Coleman said. “It’s remarkable in a sense.”

With or without Kuechly, the Panthers will have to continue to fight, and win, if they have any hope of reaching the postseason after their porous 1-5 start. They’re 3-1 since their Week 7 bye, but that one loss is a tough one to swallow, as they let the Kansas City Chiefs come all the way back from a 17-0 deficit to win just five days ago. A similar scenario nearly played out on Thursday night.

Carolina controlled the game early, thanks to a couple turnovers forced by their defense. The score was 3-3 when Coleman intercepted Drew Brees five-and-a-half minutes into the second quarter. But it took just eight plays for them to take the lead for good after that turnover. They tacked on a field goal after a three-and-out, to go up 13-3, then blocked a New Orleans field goal attempt with just seconds left in the half and needed only one-play, a 40-yard touchdown pass from Cam Newton to Ted Ginn, to go up 20-3 and seize complete control of the game right before the half.

But their momentum vanished early in the third quarter. The teams traded field goals on their first drives of the second half, which took the entirety of the third quarter, but the fourth was all New Orleans. The Carolina offense went three-and-out three straight times while the Saints pulled back into the game and it wasn’t until New Orleans pulled back within three that the Panthers mounted a real drive to salt some time off the clock. They left just 14 seconds for New Orleans, and were able to keep them from getting into field goal range.

Still, blowing one huge lead and then four days later nearly blowing another one is an alarming trend for the defending NFC Champions as they hit the homestretch needing to win five, if not all six, of their final six games to stand a chance of qualifying for the playoffs. Next Sunday’s game against the 7-2 Oakland Raiders will be a huge test, with the annual showdown with the Seattle Seahawks looming a week later. It seems unlikely that a team that blows those kind of second half leads can stand up to two of the top teams in the league back-to-back, but in this 2016 season, where nothing happens as expected, anything is possible.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys