The Carolina Panthers went to New Orleans sitting on eight straight wins, and left with their tail between their legs. It's tempting to find endless reasons why the Panthers lost, but apply Occam's razor and it's simple -- the Saints are better, at least at home.
Sunday Night Football was a lesson in masked weaknesses. A revealing game for Carolina that showed the depth of how important an elite pass rush can be. Myriad issues were solved with overwhelming pressure, making the secondary look better than it was and hiding the offensive line problems by making the opponent look worse.
There are three key reasons why Carolina lost on Sunday night:
1. Poor offensive line play
2. Bad secondary
3. Lack of big plays on offense
None of these factors are new. There are platitudes inside each, but these shouldn't surprise anyone. Mike Shula's offense has been successful at controlling the clock and grinding out first downs, but its not built to hang in a shootout with a top offensive team. The offense lacks creative deep passing schemes, which isn't anything new. It's a system good enough to beat most teams, but the Saints are an anomaly.
Jon Gruden gave the secondary a cute nickname, but they're a mess. It's hard to pick anyone worthy of keeping long term outside of Mike Mitchell, Robert Lester and Captain Munnerlyn -- which says a lot. It will take a couple of drafts to fix the issues, but that needs to be a primary concern moving forward.
There's no logical reason the offensive line should keep Cam Newton upright at all. The right side of the line is laughable, and Nate Chandler rarely appears to understand what he's doing. It's astonishing Newton isn't sacked six times per game.
The moral of this story? It's going to be okay. This is the same team that won eight games, they just met a better team. Carolina is a playoff team that met a potential Super Bowl team at home. No need to over complicate it.
Glass half full...
It's Dec. 9 and the Carolina Panthers are 9-4. Would I have taken that preseason? I sure would have.
Losing focus is simple, and entitlement tends to set in after a long win streak -- but this team has already surpassed its season projection and excelled past the talent they have. Plenty of teams have more total talent yet are under performing, so enjoy the product we have.
I know everyone wants the Panthers to take that step to hang with Seattle and New Orleans, but they're not there yet. The good news is that they're getting closer, and are a few pieces away from evolving.
There's more work to do on the offensive line, secondary and they could grab another receiver. It's fairly simple and easily achieved.
Also, Hogwarts.... frigging Hogwarts. Probably my favorite moment of the season so far.
Glass half empty...
There is a clear blueprint for beating the Panthers now. Overwhelm the secondary with multiple receivers, throw the ball quickly, and blitz a lot on defense.
New Orleans and Arizona succeeded equally in pressuring Newton and using their receivers. It wouldn't be concerning if there wasn't a good chance Carolina would meet the Cardinals in the playoffs. It's the nightmare scenario for them, a team that matches up well and has deep passing ability.
It's too early for Carolina to make a deep playoff run, but the fan base really needs at least one playoff win.
Sports radio will be abuzz with upset fans, while national flapping heads will race to the top of the mountain to shout the loudest about how "they didn't buy the hype" surrounding Carolina.
The best possible thing is cooling the madness and returning the Panthers to overlooked underdog. Being in the limelight was fun, but it felt odd. This is where the team operates best, and they're still positioned to make a playoff run -- even with the losses.
My advice is to take the loss in stride. Don't let it bother you too much and understand there's a chance to even up the head-to-head series.