The defending NFC champs are seeing their season slip away faster than anyone could have predicted. After last night’s 17-14 loss to the Buccaneers, Carolina is now just the fifth team (of 100) to make a Super Bowl appearance and start the next season 1-4 or worse—the first since the 2004 Panthers.
“Missed opportunities,” mused Greg Olsen. “Self-inflicted wounds...Obviously, turnovers are big.”
Obviously. And none bigger than Derek Anderson’s fourth-quarter interception, on first-and-goal from the 1.
First, the play call: woof. If Cam Newton were in the game instead of out with a concussion, he’d likely have handled this himself. Not only his ability to run, but the mere threat of him running would have prevented the Bucs from being able to double-cover two of the three Panthers in the end zone. But this was a called pass nonetheless, and judging from how Anderson never looked elsewhere, it was a pass to Olsen (who had a career high 181 yards on nine catches) all the way, coverage be damned.
And yet, why not just run the ball in? Cameron Artis-Payne was a bruiser, racking up 85 yards on 18 carries for two touchdowns, including a fourth-and-goal from the 1. Fozzy Whittaker averaged nine yards per carry. Mike Tolbert is large. “It was a good play call,” Ron Rivera insisted, but in a situation where the only thing that cannot happen is a turnover, and Derek Anderson had already turned the ball over twice, the odds would have looked kindly upon three handoffs.
Second, that was just a flat-out bad throw from Anderson. (Fun[?] fact: Anderson has started three games in his six years with Carolina, and they’ve all been against Tampa Bay. Last night saw his first two interceptions, and his first loss.)
“If I could have it back,” Anderson said, “I would obviously throw it away,” but it’s not even that he tried to force it into Olsen. In the corner of the end one, you want to put the ball where only your receiver can reach it, but Anderson woefully underthrew it. Nobody could have reached it but Bucs corner Brent Grimes, and he didn’t drop it. The Panthers gained seven yards of offense the rest of the game.
“When you’re 12-0, balls get tipped and hit the ground,” Anderson said.
“When you’re 1-4, though, they get picked off.”
I think he’s got the cause and effect backward: Picks like that are what lead to losses, and bad records, and failed attempts to repeat, and to the fraud-ass Falcons winning this sorry division at 12-4 and losing their first playoff game, same as it ever was.
The 2013 Panthers started 1-3 before winning eight straight and 11 of 12, but these Panthers, even when Cam Newton is in, are fundamentally flawed. They had three new starters in their secondary last night, and they’ve been woefully bad at getting to opposing quarterbacks, and they are running out of time to right the ship. A date with New Orleans next Sunday will sorely test their wounded defense, and that’s followed up by games against the Cardinals, Rams, Chiefs, the Saints again, the Raiders, and the Seahawks—not a gimme among them. They’d have to win five of those seven to get back to .500. They just don’t look capable of it.