Panthers defense collapses against Bucs

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — What more can the Carolina Panthers endure?

Once again, a defense that was panned a year ago came up big for 54 minutes Sunday and allowed a struggling offense to do enough to notch a victory. But it didn’t exactly work out that way in the 27-21 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Call them what you want — snake bit, unlucky, just not good enough and even not well coached — but whatever it is, the Panthers found yet another way to lose a football game. Some enterprising member of the organization could serve the sports world by chronicling the team’s creativity when it comes to dropping games.

“This is about as bad as it gets,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “We had every opportunity. The bad part is, as I said earlier, when you have opportunities to close someone out with a four-minute offense (where) you can’t take negative plays and unfortunately we did. Then you have an opportunity to stop them and for whatever reason we don’t recognize and don’t make a play. That’s a tough one.”

Rivera often talks about missed opportunities. But when you blow a 21-10 lead with six minutes left and lose it’s about more than missing opportunities. It’s about institutional karma, as this was the third time a team has driven for a very late score. This is its culture.

It’s about a team that came out flat and not ready to play, which was the case until Captain Munnerlyn’s 74-yard interception return for a touchdown infused the Panthers for nearly three quarters. It’s about some odd play calling, including a fake punt from their own 41-yard-line that lost four yards. Fortunately for Rivera, Tampa quarterback Josh Freeman saved him from some major grief by throwing an interception on the next snap.

It’s also about a team that didn’t react well to a questionable reception and personal foul call on Thomas Davis during Tampa’s final drive of regulation. Carolina (2-8) let that play beat it a few times over, which proved catastrophic.

In the end, it’s about a team that just isn’t going in the right direction and is showing few signs the nose even knows what direction it should be pointed.

“I’m just going to look at the fact that we have to keep going, keep working and keep plugging away,” Rivera said, before spewing a familiar tune that just isn’t registering anymore. “We had an opportunity.”

Scribes throughout the press box were forced to change their columns and game stories that had likely themed mostly about the Panthers’ improved defense because the team imploded. Given how they were closing out this game up to that six-minute mark, it seemed impossible Carolina would find a way to lose. But maybe that’s what this team does best.

After all, there isn’t anything in particular it does well. The quarterback is struggling, the running game is nonexistent, its veteran receiver — possibly destined for Canton — has one touchdown all season, its offensive line is a mess, the special teams are a disaster, and the defense just can’t make enough big plays.

And with the general manager fired last month and the special teams coach axed last week, the guillotine may claim more victims before long. That’s the lowdown on where this team and franchise stand. It’s not pretty, and it doesn’t appear a remedy is just around the bend, either.

Yet, the players are saying the right things. You have to give them credit on at least knowing what to say, even though they’ve been down this path way too often in recent years. They simply don’t want to talk negatives.

“I’m not answering no more ranking questions about where this one ranks,” Newton shot back when a reporter asked where this loss ranks. “We lost, and now our focus is on Philadelphia and how we can get better.”

But really, maybe everyone should lay off a bit. After all, Sunday’s blown lead was the 39th time in the franchise’s 18 seasons they blew a fourth-quarter lead. In the nip-and-tuck world of the NFL, that’s just not good.

So it isn’t like the Rivera-led Panthers are doing anything never before seen around here. But that doesn’t excuse it, either.