CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Alaina Getzenberg//The Charlotte Observer) - Sunday was the game that the Panthers couldn’t afford to lose.
With two meetings against the New Orleans Saints down the road and a matchup with the Seattle Seahawks on the schedule, a home game against the 2-7 Falcons was the perfect opportunity for the Panthers to easily add an NFC South win to the résumé.
Even with Atlanta coming off an upset win in New Orleans, this still seemed like a good chance to end a three-game losing streak to the Falcons.
Instead, everything went wrong.
Defense and special teams had plenty of miscues — including a 78-yard punt return by former Panther Kenjon Barner — but it was the offense that looked like it didn’t realize a game, much less one of this magnitude at home, was happening in Sunday’s 29-3 defeat.
The promise that Kyle Allen and the offense had exhibited on the final drive of last week’s loss to the Packers never showed. Carolina came out looking unprepared and out of sorts. Anytime the offense managed to put together a positive play, there appeared to be a setback.
Allen completes a pass to D.J. Moore for 13 yards?
Chop block penalty.
Panthers putting together a solid drive to end the half that gets deep into Falcons territory?
Allen throws his third interception of the day.
One step forward, two steps back.
The list of setbacks could march 100 yards, which is ironically the one thing the Panthers were unable to do. They were never even able to reach the Falcons’ 10-yard line once in the game.
“You just need one play to win, right? It didn’t feel like we got that spark that we kinda were looking for,” guard Greg Van Roten said. “You’d love to put a drive together and score a touchdown and get back in it, and we just couldn’t find a way to do that. We’d have a lot of drives, sometimes we were productive, (then) we turned it over, and sometimes we had a lot of penalties going the wrong way behind the sticks, and it’s hard to win football games if you’re not on schedule.”
The Panthers never had an opportunity to get on schedule.
At halftime, Allen had thrown three interceptions and had a passer rating of 32.5. Each offensive tackle that played (Daryl Williams came in for a series at right tackle) gave up at least a sack. Left tackle Greg Little looked unprepared after playing in his first game since Week 4; he was cleared from concussion protocol this week and got the start with Dennis Daley out due to a groin injury.
The offensive line looked dismal, with Allen either being forced into making bad decisions or seemingly making bad decisions with the fear of pressure in his mind. He was sacked five times and hit nine. Allen has been sacked three or more times in six games this season. Only one quarterback entered the day with more such games (Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston, seven).
The offensive line’s issues didn’t end at its inability to protect the quarterback. After the Panthers entered the game with the second-fewest penalties in the NFL, it was consecutive false-start and chop-block penalties that held back Carolina in the second quarter. Little was called for two penalties alone.
Part of the problem has been the line’s lack of cohesion throughout this season. With Little returning from injury and Daley being out again, Panthers coach Ron Rivera pointed out that “it’s kind of tough for that group to build a little bit of cohesiveness when they don’t have an opportunity to work together as often as you would like.”
Seven different players have started on the offensive line this season. Van Roten said that the lack of consistency is something that he has unfortunately had to get used to.
“I feel like I’ve had so many guys play next to me that it’s kind of the standard for me,” Van Roten said. “It didn’t feel like I had to help (Little) too, too much. ... It is what it is at this point. I just try to do my best and help the guys around me and communicate, hopefully we are successful.”
Rivera also pointed out that Allen wasn’t getting the help that a young quarterback needed.
“We’ve got to be able to protect him, and it was unfortunate we weren’t able to protect the quarterback the way we’re capable of,” Rivera said. “We have too many good football players not to do a better job.”
But all of the blame cannot be put on this offensive line for how Allen played.
His performance was remarkably similar to his day in San Francisco just a few weeks ago. Once again, he threw too many interceptions to zero touchdowns. It was the 12th time in franchise history a Panthers quarterback has thrown four interceptions in a game.
The Falcons came into the game with just two interceptions this season, last in the NFL. They left Charlotte with double that in Sunday’s game alone. In Allen’s first four games this season, he threw seven touchdowns and zero interceptions. In his past four games, he has thrown three touchdowns and nine interceptions. That’s not even including the five fumbles he has lost this year.
“Poor decision-making,” Allen said of his performance. “Turnovers are not going to give us any chance to win. So, my decision-making has to be better.”
The choices he made on third down were especially problematic, as the Panthers converted just 2 of 14 on the day. They did, however, go for it on fourth down five times, making three of those attempts.
But it was the fourth down they didn’t go for that was the most confusing. In the fourth quarter, the Panthers settled for a 31-yard field goal, down 26-0, but Rivera said they were just trying to “put points on the board.”
This game was out of hand far before then.
Carolina’s inability to get anything going in the first quarter foreshadowed what was to come for the rest of the game. The team went three-and-out on their first two possessions, with Allen throwing a pick straight to a linebacker to start the game, and then sacks ended each of their next two drives.
Things didn’t improve in the second quarter, despite the Panthers possessing the ball for more than eight minutes. The Panthers marched the ball past the Atlanta 25 twice with both possessions ending in an Allen interception on passes intended for Moore.
Somehow, Christian McCaffrey still put together an impressive game, crossing 1,000 rushing yards for the season and setting the record for the most receptions by a running back in his first three seasons in NFL history. He surpassed the previous record held by Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson (238).
But McCaffrey’s impressive numbers ultimately don’t mean anything. One message that Rivera repeated for Allen and Little’s performances was that there are “growing pains” that they will go through and, hopefully, that will make them better players.
Those growing pains were on full display Sunday, but what does that mean for this team going forward? Are this many growing pains acceptable for a team that is trying to make the playoffs?
Tight end Greg Olsen called the Panthers “just a comedy of terrible football.” Rivera said that Allen got “overwhelmed.”