With six minutes left in regulation Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, the Carolina Panthers were going to have to work very hard to lose another game.
They had just scored their third touchdown, pushing them to a 21-10 lead over Tampa Bay. Their defense had rattled Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman, intercepting him twice. The Panthers fans who had bundled up and braved an overcast Sunday afternoon – the stadium was officially sold out but close to half-empty – felt warm and happy.
But no lead is safe for the 2012 Panthers. No job is safe, either. Not after Carolina (2-8) fell apart yet again, giving up the tying touchdown and two-point conversion with 12 seconds to go in regulation and losing to Tampa Bay in overtime, 27-21.
“What do you even say?” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said afterward in a Carolina locker room that boiled with frustration. “For a team that’s had some tough endings, this one takes the cake. It’s obviously hard to understand and deal with. We just have an uncanny ability to not finish games.”
A lot of it is bad coaching and bad playing, and you can expect that the firings at Bank of America Stadium will continue in the weight of all these collapses. The only question is whether they come sooner or later.
But some of this really is uncanny.
Did you know the Panthers have lost all 11 coin tosses this season? Do you know how hard it is to go 0-11 on coin tosses when you have a 50 percent chance of winning each one? The chances of that happening are 1-in-2,048.
And that 11th coin-toss loss was critical. It meant Tampa Bay got the ball first in overtime. The Bucs rolled to a touchdown, which meant Carolina’s offense never even touched the ball in OT.
Quarterback Cam Newton – who played decently Sunday – called the Panthers’ inability to close out games this season “the story of our lives.” And it has been. The Panthers are now 1-11 in head coach Ron Rivera’s 26-game tenure in games decided by seven points or fewer.
Rivera, who knows his job is in jeopardy, said this loss was “about as bad as it gets.”
The Panthers did so much right Sunday – coming back from 10-0 down in the first quarter to go ahead 21-10 in the fourth – that they had to make a ton of mistakes late in the game to lose. But they managed.
This time the Panthers’ defense was the primary culprit. On Tampa Bay’s final two drives, the Panthers allowed 80-yard touchdown marches.
Down 21-13 with only 1:02 left, the Bucs rolled down the field (helped by a controversial personal foul on Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis) to score on a 24-yard pass to a triple-covered Vincent Jackson with 12 seconds to go to cut Carolina’s lead to 21-19. Davis was in tears after the game.
Still, the Buccaneers needed the two-point conversion to tie the game and send it to overtime. The final 41 yards of the drive had been Freeman throwing to wide receiver Vincent Jackson on two different plays.
“At the end of the game, they’re going to go to Vincent Jackson,” Panthers defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said. “We know that. They know that.”
And so what happened on the Bucs’ two-point conversion?
The Panthers first called a timeout to gauge Tampa Bay’s offense – and then the Carolina defense left Jackson wide open.
After that, it was hardly surprising that Tampa Bay won the coin toss and rammed the ball 80 yards in eight plays to score on a 15-yard pass from Freeman to Dallas Clark and win the game.
Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson wrote in the casual language of Twitter afterward: “Embarrassed to be apart of that last drive! Some people study and work harder than others and they get exposé in the game #saynomore.”
Who Johnson was referring to was unclear. But it’s very clear that the Panthers have a remarkable ability to blow close games in creative ways. They have been in eight of their 10 games this season until the final moments, and yet they still have only that 2-8 record to show for it.
The Panthers have six games left to play before they can put this season to a merciful end. As we saw again Sunday, they aren’t completely without talent.
The Panthers actually may win a few of those games. A couple of the other teams they play are similarly bad, so you could probably flip a coin to determine the winner.
Then again, this year, we know how those coin flips turn out.