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The Optimist: The needs are clear

The Panthers are all but eliminated from playoff contention as the same issues drag them down week after week.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

If it wasn’t already, the Carolina Panthers season is surely over now. They’re 5-9 and five teams sit between them and the final playoff spot. The Panthers also have lost the tiebreaking head-to-head match-up with the Wasington Football team, Vikings, and Eagles, further steepening their potential climb up the standings. 538’s playoff predictor has the Panthers with a 3% chance of making the playoffs if they win all of their games for the remainder of the season. Recent history makes it hard to believe they’ll take any one of them.

The Panthers are 2-9 since the 3-0 start had them as a popular pick to be a dark horse contender. Every single one of those nine losses has shown the same strengths and weaknesses, which at the very least provides a blueprint for the offseason. We know what needs to be fixed and what is ready to compete. The quarterback position needs to be addressed. Pretty much all of the offensive line needs to be addressed. The players at those positions have been kind enough to be consistently lackluster enough to not provide any glimmers of hope. No one can talk themselves into those elements of the offense being okay if the Panthers stand pat this offseason. That puts impetus on the front office to do something. The secondary benefit of these struggles is that the Panthers have a high first round pick that can be used to address one of problem area.

Yetur Gross-Matos and the rest of the defensive line

The defensive front has been quiet by the lofty standards it set at the beginning of the season, but they rediscovered some of their mojo today. Gross-Matos’s 2.5 sacks nearly doubled his career total, and the four sacks the Panthers registered as a team since they took down the Colt McCoy/Chris Streveler duo in their random dismantling of the Cardinals. They made Josh Allen uncomfortable all day and forced a number of errant throws and spikes at receivers’ feet. They even put themselves in a position to score a touchdown on the Bills first drive of the game, but Brian Burns couldn’t scoop up a football that was asking to be taken the other way.

The defensive front wasn’t perfect. They seemed to wear out as the game went on, but that’s been a theme for the latter part of the season and largely falls to the feet of an offense that can’t stay on the field and put pressure on opposing teams to score.

The little things

Bad teams have bad luck, and that was apparent as could be today. The Panthers lost their kicker in pregame warmups, which forced them to go for inopportune fourth downs deep in Bills territory. The Panthers turned the ball over on downs twice when they would’ve kicked relatively easy field goals under normal circumstances. That changes the complexion of this game. The Bills has a touchdown drive extended by a phantom unnecessary roughness call after the Panthers had a third down stop to force a Bills punt early in the second half.

What’s next

The Panthers shouldn’t have any delusions of making the playoffs. That theoretically means it’s the perfect opportunity to rotate players who otherwise hadn’t gotten many snaps to this point in the season. Maybe the Panthers could even try a short-armed guard to be at tackle to see if he can hold us own despite his lack of one physical trait. This isn’t the first time this has been asked for in this space, and it certainly won’t be the last if the lineups remain unchanged. For as bad as the offensive line has been all season, the Panthers have to at least try some fresh faces and different permutations. Finding a way to make this unit worse would be an impressive feat, and that’s a risk worth taking when the Panthers badly need even the dullest of a diamond in the rough.

The Panthers have the toughest remaining schedule in the league. They have two games against a Buccaneers team that needs wins as they push for the NFC’s top seed and playoff bye. The contest sandwiched between those two games is a visit to a Saints team that just shut out that Buccaneers team last night. There are no reasonable expectations for wins, and there’s nothing to lose in losing. There’s some solace in that. The players can play freely and the coaches can coach freely. That opens the door for discovery. A player may emerge as a future contributor. The coaching staff may find success with a different approach.

It’s fatiguing to need the offseason to bring us hope season after season, but such is the life of a Panthers fan. The needs are clear, and there are avenues for the Panthers to fill those needs. We just need to ride out these final three games, and we can do so free of any stakes and expectations.