This one hurts.
The Panthers shot themselves in the foot on several occasions on the grandest stage in football, but I refuse to be one of those people who claims "The Panthers beat themselves". While yes, the Panthers fumbled the ball on a few occasions, missed scoring opportunities, and ultimately didn't play the kind of football that got them here, the Broncos have themselves one HELL of a defense. They held the number one scoring offense down and forced the Panthers to be one dimensional. The Panthers aren't designed to be one dimensional, the offensive playbook isn't supposed to rely on Cam Newton's arm exclusively. That's what the Broncos did, and unfortunately it resulted in a loss for the Panthers. The defense played admirably despite a struggling offense, forcing turnovers and pressuring Peyton Manning. But the Broncos had a plan, and they executed it. As much as this game sucks for every Panthers fan, you have to respect this Denver team. The referees are definitely an issue, overturning the Jerricho Cotchery catch that should have been and generally making spotty calls. But that's not the only issue. The Panthers offensive line got victimized by Von Miller and Demarcus Ware, causing Cam Newton lots of pressure. Cam had to throw passes way before the play intended a release and had to try and work magic as his line fell apart on several occasions.
- Kony Ealy will be a bright spot for years to come. Despite a rotational role, Ealy amassed a several sack game against the best team in the AFC, and picked off a Peyton Manning pass in a situation where they needed a play on defense. He'll be a starter next year. Guaranteed.
- The linebackers played extremely well. Josh Norman did well, even if you want to dock him for his missed interceptions. The defense showed up tonight.
- Ted Ginn and Philly Brown played well, and sparked the offense. Unfortunately they couldn't help finish drives.
I'm going to be honest here, there's a lot to complain about. The offense turned the ball over too much, and it wasn't just one person who contributed to that. The running backs struggled with fumbles, Newton struggled with turnovers, and the offensive line couldn't protect its greatest weapon. There were miscues, there were missed opportunities, and really it's hard not to look at those issues and think "we could have won." But the Panthers couldn't do the two things that got them here; run the ball effectively, and avoid turnovers.
It sucks Panthers fans. But there are reasons to be optimistic. This is likely Manning's last game in the NFL. The Broncos were gearing up for a short term run. The Carolina Panthers are going to be a better team next season. Bene Benwikere, Kelvin Benjamin, and others will return from injury. The Panthers will have another draft to build without a whole lot of gaps to fill. The biggest issues facing the Panthers are resigning guys like Josh Norman and Kawann Short. This is a hungry group, led by a motivated quarterback. As hard as this loss will be to swallow, the Panthers have a bright future ahead of them. The pieces that helped get them here are locked in long term for the most part. They have a GM who clearly knows what he's doing, a quarterback who can win 15 games despite losing his best wide receiver, and a coach who has learned how to win. Let's not look at this Super Bowl as the season defining moment. Let's not forget what exactly this team did in 2015. They won 15 games, when nobody expected them to. They made it to the Super Bowl, when nearly everyone called them a "one and done" squad before they even stepped onto the field against Seattle.
The Carolina Panthers did something I never would have expected prior to this season; they won respect. They blew away expectations. They made their mark on the NFL, and will be a force for years to come behind their franchise quarterback and young defense. The Carolina Panthers are here to stay folks. It's going to be a tough time for us over the next few weeks.
From all of us at CSR, we truly love and appreciate your commitment to this team, and to this community. The Panthers are going to Keep Pounding despite this hiccup in the road to greatness. And so should you.