Linebacker Ben Jacobs must have seen the look on veteran safety Mike Adams’ face following Carolina’s ugly 22-10 loss to Atlanta on Sunday night – something similar to that of a child who tastes horseradish for the first time – because he went right up to Adams as the latter prepared to face the media, and tapped him gently.
“You good? We’re good,” he said to Adams, the bubbly Jacobs coaxing a tired smile from the safety. “We’re in the playoffs.”
But he’d have every right to be furiously, hopping, spitting mad after Sunday’s game.
Not only did the Panthers, who finish the regular season at a respectable 11-5, lose a chance at winning the division (the Saints were edged by Tampa Bay in the final seconds of their matchup Sunday night), they also now have to head back to the hostile Superdome and play New Orleans in the wild-card game next Sunday.
Adams should be angry.
Because while the Panthers defense held the Falcons to a lone touchdown and five field goals, Carolina’s offense sputtered dismally; reminiscent even of that horrible, frigid implosion in Chicago in Week 7. Or the defensive stand against Buffalo in Week 2 – something easy to explain away, early in the year and not on the verge of a playoff run.
In fact, the offense, featuring a franchise-worst 0-for-9 passing start from quarterback Cam Newton (he finished 14 for 34 with 180 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions), could not even make it past midfield until midway through the second quarter.
Two receivers had multiple catches in the entire game. Pitches and handoffs were bobbled. Passes were flat-out dropped (looking at you, Christian McCaffrey). Routes weren’t run through to completion, or miscommunicated entirely (looking at you, Devin Funchess and Greg Olsen). Passes were forced into double-coverage multiple times, once with a wide-open Funchess in view.
“You force a team like this to kick field goals, and of course you’d love that opportunity,” coach Ron Rivera said after the loss. “I mean you go back and look at it, based on the score, you score two touchdowns, you win the game. It’s that simple. We didn’t. And that’s on us.”
That defense, though ...
Carolina’s defense kept the Panthers competitive through most of the game. Stop me if you’ve heard that one before. Maybe it should go on a T-shirt.
Adams himself set the tone with two huge plays early in the game, both on star Falcons receiver Julio Jones. A huge, clean hit on Jones from Adams forced an incomplete pass and appeared to knock the wind out of the receiver, forcing him to miss the rest of the drive.
Then, Adams broke up a would-be touchdown pass intended for Jones. The defense followed his lead: The Falcons began the second quarter with a three-and-out, then were held scoreless through the rest of the half, with one third-down conversion and 63 yards of offense.
That should have provided ample opportunity for the Panthers’ offense to respond.
(Narrator’s voice: They didn’t.)
This isn’t to say Carolina’s defense wasn’t without its warts, either. On its opening drive, Atlanta easily converted three consecutive third downs and cruised into the end zone before the Panthers could find their footing. The defensive line got pressure early, but struggled to pop a sack until the fourth quarter. The Panthers would have liked to come away with a takeaway, too, and almost had a pick that barely got away from Colin Jones. Four of Atlanta’s 10 longest plays (all 13-plus yards) came on third down, and three were on long second downs.
Too much was asked
But all told, the defense had to stay on the field for 34:42. They stopped the run (Atlanta had 72 rushing yards) and contained the pass, especially in the red zone (Jones was held to 80 yards on five catches, while the Falcons finished the game with 20 percent red-zone efficiency).
“We like being on the field, it’s defense,” said Adams. “Obviously we want to hold them to field goals. Field goal attempts. Not field goals.
“But they made their field goals. They scored more points than we did. So again, I’m looking forward to these playoffs now. I wanted to win. I wanted to win this game bad. But now we have to move forward.”
Rivera said he isn’t concerned about the potential of this Panthers team to make a deep postseason run.
After a game like this, it’s hard to echo that optimism – if only on the offensive side of the ball. This defense has proved most weeks that it can play at a championship-level caliber.
But hey, at least Rivera was angry about it. Especially when he learned that the Saints had lost.
“(My reaction was) probably like everybody else,” he said. “Mad, disappointed. I mean, take your pick. It’s just one of those things. If you have an opportunity in front of you, you’ve got to come out and play the game. You can’t worry about anything else, but you have to take advantage of that opportunity in front of you.”