CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Panthers need to win three games against teams with non-winning records to capture the NFC South.
Sounds easy, right?
Well, nothing is simple when it comes to the Panthers (5-9), who were dominated Sunday at home by the Pittsburgh Steelers, assuring the struggling Carolina franchise its fifth straight losing regular season.
Yet, the Panthers didn’t lose any ground in the terrifically unspectacular NFC South as the division-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-8) surrendered an early lead and lost Sunday to the Cincinnati Bengals. That leaves the Panthers, Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints tied for second place one game back at 5-9.
It’s anybody’s division at this point, but the Panthers control all of the tiebreakers.
Carolina finishes its home schedule Saturday against Detroit before going on the road to face Tampa Bay and New Orleans. Since the Panthers have already defeated both the Buccaneers and Saints this season, they would win the division if they can just win out.
The problem is any momentum the Panthers had after winning three of their previous four games seems all but shot after the loss to Pittsburgh. Carolina came in confident it could win games late in the season by wearing down clubs with its running game. But the Steelers disproved that theory, holding the Panthers to 21 yards rushing on 16 carries. The Steelers also routinely got pressure on Sam Darnold, sacking him four times.
“We’re going to take pride in this and shake back this week,” center Bradley Bozeman said. “We are going to bring it into practice and see where we end up in a week.”
Interim coach Steve Wilks wants his team’s focus on the Lions, who are one of the league’s hottest teams having won six of their last seven games.
“We’ve got to worry about trying to get ourselves right to win a football game,” Wilks said. “I don’t want anybody in this building talking playoffs.”
The kicking game. Eddy Pineiro, last week’s NFC special teams player of the week, followed up by going 3 for 3 on field goal attempts Sunday, including a 52-yarder. He has now made 14 straight field goals and 10 of 11 extra points since a disastrous outing in a 37-34 overtime loss the Falcons in which he missed two kicks — one field goal and one extra point — that would have won the game. Pineiro is having a career year in Carolina, converting 93.3% of his field goals since taking over for the injured Zane Gonzalez. That’s third best in the league.
Punter Johnny Hekker has also been strong all season.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Third-down production. After Sunday’s loss, Wilks opened his news conference by saying “third down was horrendous, to say the least, on both sides.” And he’s right. The Panthers converted just four of 11 third-down opportunities on offense, while the defense allowed the Steelers to convert 12 of 16 chances.
That’s hardly surprising.
The Panthers are 30th in the league in third-down production on offense, converting just 29.1%. The defense isn’t much better. They rank 26th in the league, allowing opponents to make good on 43.4% of their third-down chances.
It’s hard to win football games that way.
Jeremy Chinn. The Panthers safety was all over the field against the Steelers, recording 14 tackles in the loss. Chinn missed nearly two months with a hamstring issue, but has responded nicely since returning to the starting lineup.
Panthers fans. Sure, the Steelers always travel well. But Sunday was a massive showing of support as at least 75% of the fans at Bank of America Stadium were wearing Pittsburgh’s black and gold colors. The crowd was a sea of “Terrible Towels” and their noise actually made it tough at times for Darnold to hear at the line of scrimmage, particularly near the end of the game.
CB C.J. Henderson left Sunday’s game in the first half with an ankle injury and did not return. The Steelers took advantage, relentlessly picking on backup Keith Taylor, who struggled in covering WR Diontae Johnson, who caught all 10 balls thrown his way for 98 yards.
27-52 — Carolina’s record since owner David Tepper purchased the Panthers from founder Jerry Richardson in 2018.
Wilks said Monday that Darnold will remain the starting QB on Saturday against the Lions.