The track record for 0-2 teams making the playoffs since 2008 may tell the Carolina Panthers their season is over. But let’s hold off on that. The NFL is full of 1-1 teams right now, including San Francisco, Green Bay and the Super Bowl champions, the Baltimore Ravens. What is telling is that the Panthers continue to lose games they should win.
The 24-23 loss to the resurgent Buffalo Bills Sunday (with just :02 seconds remaining in the game) now makes head coach Ron Rivera a huge target. Under his leadership, the Panthers are 2-14 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, teams that started the season 0-2 have made the playoffs 11.6% of the time.
While the Panthers have been slow starters for the past two, now three, seasons, speculation, of course, is how long will Rivera remain in charge. Personally, he’s a nice guy who is very open to the media. You can see this team is hurting. But this is a “win now” league, and with Atlanta and New Orleans the big dogs in the NFC South, this team cannot afford to lose Sunday to the similarly smarting New York Football Giants and Eli Manning.
If you thought EJ Manuel, the Bills rookie quarterback had an up-and-down day, maybe you’re right. In the Panthers’ defense, they did lose three-fourths of their secondary to injuries. Free safety Charles Godfrey is probably lost for the season with an Achilles injury. However, Manuel was 27-of-39 for 296 yards and did lead the Bills on a game-winning 80-yard drive to close out the game. So…what do you think Eli will do to the Panthers’ secondary?
The offensive line was destroyed by Buffalo, as the Bills sacked Cam Newton six times. The Panthers’ offense needs to provide more protection for Newton as they do not want him to run like he did last season. But, without time to find open receivers, his options are limited. Run or be sacked. This is an area that needs to be addressed and quickly.
Here’s what they’re saying about the loss:
Head coach Ron Rivera: “It’s very excruciating. You put yourself in position to win a football game, and you’ve got to close them out. That’s probably the toughest thing that we’ve got to learn to do – finish it off. How to punish somebody and end the game.”
Cam Newton, when the Panthers faced a fourth-and-one, from the Bills’ 21 yard line, with 1 minute, 42 seconds remaining on the call by Rivera, who opted for a field goal instead of going for the first down. “If we would have went for it on fourth-and-short, then obviously guys would have gritted their teeth and said, ‘Let’s get it’. And I have no doubt in my mind that we would have gotten it. But I have full confidence in our coaches’ decisions.”
On the Bills’ final drive, it appeared that the Panthers had stopped them on third-and-6 from the Panthers’ 31 with 21 seconds left. Manuel floated a pass that third-team safety Colin Jones intercepted. But officials ruled Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly interfered with Johnson, who was Manuel’s target.
Kuechly on the call: “He was running down the middle of the field, he crossed my face and I had my arm out and he ran into my arm. Everything happened quick. I’ll take a quick peak at it (Monday) to see what it looked like.”
The Bills were able to run another play…and this one, from the 2-yard line, was the dagger. Stevie Johnson, lined up in the slot, ran a corner route, with wideout Chris Hogan coming across the middle. The Panthers were in man coverage, with cornerback Josh Norman lined up across from Hogan and defensive back D.J. Moore on Johnson in the slot.
Moore yelled for a switch, meaning Norman was to pick up Johnson in the corner. Johnson said he heard the call, but Norman said he never did.
Moore on the play: “They ran the play earlier in two-minute, and we’re supposed to switch it off. It was virtually the same thing. It was probably on me. I have to make sure the corner gets (the call). If he didn’t get it, it’s on me.”
Tight end Greg Olsen, who had a 13-yard touchdown reception Sunday, on being 0-2, and losing another game the Panthers should have won: “I don’t even know at this point what to say anymore. We need to change it, and that’s our only option. … We can’t continue to sit around and feel sorry for ourselves and continue to say, ‘Man, why did this happen to us?’ It happens to us because we allow it.”
The Giants will also be seeking their first win of the season, which makes the upcoming game absolutely crucial for two teams expecting to be in the playoffs this year. Only one will have any kind of chance.