I've never been one to prescribe to this idea that the Carolina Panthers HAD to lose. There was value in staying loose and confident, but that said I'm quite glad the Panthers lost on Sunday, especially that way. The Falcons played a great football game - the Panthers did not, and by having the tar thoroughly beat out of them it sets the tone for a more serious postseason run. Yes, the team is no longer undefeated but things are still very good.
It's not that the Panthers lost in embarrassing fashion, but they were embarrassed. Those aren't concepts that have to be linked. The truth is that the game and the score are far closer than the game appeared because the early Cam Newton touchdown hid a multitude of sins. The offense was never able to click for a variety of reasons, and while Josh Norman has been great this year he got exposed against Julio Jones.
At the end of the day Atlanta had a lot more to fight for than the Panthers -- and it showed.
It's tempting to say the offensive problems started with the line on Sunday, but in reality the running back position is where the Panthers had the most trouble. I'm very excited about Cameron Artis-Payne from a big picture, he can be the future perspective -- but he's just not ready to be a full time back yet. This has nothing to do with how he runs the football and everything to do with what he adds when the ball isn't going to him.
Some of Jonathan Stewart's least-appreciated talents are those that have nothing to do with carrying the football. He's a wonderful blocker in the backfield and his familiarity with Newton in the read option is a huge aspect to what makes the Panthers offense tick. I've seen a lot of people criticize Mike Shula's playcalling or wonder why Artis-Payne can't run the read option this quickly given his experience at Auburn, but the truth is that it's a very complex scheme to run in the NFL, one that can go very poorly in an instant. It's actually a good thing they're not putting too much on him too quickly.
For the read option to work in the NFL it requires an innate understanding between the running back and the quarterback. The two need to intimately understand how each other operate and pick up on the small things that allow the ball to be cleanly pulled back to the QB or handed to the runner. These aspects aren't learned overnight, and even with years together we still occasionally see screwups with the system. The college game moves slowly enough that these guys can adjust, but in the NFL there's no margin for error. Fear of Artis-Payne being unable to handle it (as he showed against the Giants) caused the Panthers to go back to a standard, no-nonsense offensive game plan -- which is fine, but it puts more pressure on the offensive line and receivers. That's where things broke down.
This has been the secret to the Panthers season: There has been nothing remarkable about the offensive line or the receiving corps. At times we've all fallen prey to believing this isn't the case, but there has been a ton of work done on the back end to mask the deficiencies at both positions. This isn't a knock on the players, but rather a credit to the coaching that has made everything tick. It would be foolish to run a traditional offense when you have a mobile quarterback like Newton, or a running back who can execute the read option as well as Jonathan Stewart. Especially when doing so takes pressure off your weaker positions.
That fell apart and the Falcons attacked it. Carolina was predictable offensively and all it took was blanketing Greg Olsen for the entire passing game to fall apart. Ted Ginn has improved a ton this season, but don't confuse that with an ability to put the entire receiving corps on his back when things are falling apart. He's not that kind of player. The Panthers won't have that kind of player until Kelvin Benjamin returns.
Defense is another issue entirely and it was equally problematic. The absence of Bene Benwikere is obviously a huge blow, but everything starts up front and the pressure was bad. The return of Charles Johnson wasn't all it was cracked up to be, and the line played like a unit who haven't had many reps together. It will take time to get Johnson back into the rotation and for Sean McDermott to find rotations he likes, so Sunday's goose egg was largely a product of growing pains. That said: This can't continue. The defensive line have been playing very well leaning on Kony Ealy, Mario Addison and company. It's a tough situation to be in, and honestly I don't know what the right course of action is, should the pass rush problems continue.
Josh Norman will be the focal point of criticism, but a lot like this game as a whole, it will be largely misguided. He was exposed, and Julio Jones demolished him -- but it's important to recognize how Jones won this matchup. Norman's skill is in covering receivers downfield who like long developing routes. That's one of the reasons he won so big against Odell Beckham Jr, but what Jones likes to do is catch those quick-twitch slant routes and use his incredible speed to turn upfield. These are the receivers most corners in the league struggle with, and unlike the first meeting where Atlanta tried to throw deep to Jones they flipped the script and levereged his ability in the short game. It was a great plan that worked perfectly. In other games the Panthers would have stuck Benwikere on Jones in response to that tactic, but without him they were exposed.
Is this the end of the world? Hell no it's not. Who precisely should the Panthers be terrified of? The six loss Seahawks who got beat by the Rams twice? What about Arizona? Okay yeah, Arizona is really scary. Nonetheless there's no reason to believe the Panthers can't do very well in the playoffs. If you're feeling down remember this: Your team played like hot trash and still had a chance to win with a minute left on the clock.
What I liked ...
This was a really, really good game from the Panthers defensive tackle. He finished with seven tackles and two sacks. He was also a key run stopper on important downs and gave was everything the Panthers had on pass rush.
This was quietly a very good game. Shaq showed his sideline-to-sideline speed and made impact plays against outside runs.
What I didn't like ...
The run/ pass ratio
The Panthers have made it to this point through a strong running game setting everything up. Even without Stewart it was upsetting to see Carolina abandon the run so quickly. The ratio wasn't hugely out of whack at 60/40 to the pass, but we should be seeing that inverse.
The pass rush
There is no way in hell the Panthers rest their starters now. They lost that ability with this loss. The Buccaneers will look to play spoiler and Carolina needs a win to lock up home field advantage throughout the playoffs. This is a big deal and it's astonishing that we even need to consider it.