Are the Panthers better than the Buccaneers? Are the Bucs better than the Panthers?
Monday night's final score might have been 17-14 in favor of Tampa Bay, but that doesn’t feel like the answer to those questions. Neither team really deserved to win that Monday Night Football game, and you can argue that both sides focused their efforts into losing the contest.
Which is the better team? That’s a question that will linger for those who care to think about such depressing things.
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Here’s what we do know: The Carolina Panthers’ season is over.
The defending NFC champions are now 1-4 on the season, sitting in last place in the NFC South.
The playoffs are out of the question now — only eight teams in NFL history have come back from a 1-4 start to make the postseason, and we haven’t seen anything from this team that signals a turnaround is imminent. In fact, things might get worse before they get better.
Who would have thought that after five games, the team that finished 15-1 and pushed for an undefeated season late into last year’s campaign, would be done?
How did we get here?
The Panthers’ near-championship 2015 season was built upon the foundation of one of the best defenses in the NFL, and that’s where their undoing began as well.
The decision to let Josh Norman walk into free agency for no return is looking like an all-time blunder — the Panthers have already released one starting cornerback this season, as the team’s pass defense is perhaps the worst in the NFL post-Norman.
But Monday night’s game highlighted just how much the Panthers’ defense has deteriorated.
The Buccaneers only passed the ball 30 times Monday, and while that might seem like a lot, it isn’t when you consider how poor the Panthers’ pass defense is and the fact that Tampa Bay ran the ball 37 times.
It was a baffling game plan, running more often than passing, but it ended up working (kind of) because Carolina’s run defense was poor Monday.
The Panthers used to have the best — or one of the best — defensive lines in football, but against an average-at-best Bucs front, the guys in the light-blue jerseys were getting manhandled at times. The Panthers’ defense right now is Luke Kuechly and 10 plastic trash bins, like in a practice.
When you inexplicably lose your ferocious pass rush and gap discipline and you have a pass defense that logically regresses (and then regresses some more), you do not have a team that is going to often find itself in a position to win.
(Unless you're playing the Buccaneers…)
Don't blame Monday's loss on backup quarterback Derek Anderson — he was more than serviceable, though, to be fair, the Buccaneers did have to pave a road to the end zone for the Panthers Monday night.
That said, Cam Newton can come back and it won’t solve Carolina’s problems — that defense needs to get significantly better before next Sunday’s game against the Saints or their slim-to-none chance to make the playoffs — their bid to be the ninth team that overcame a 1-4 start to make the postseason — will completely extinguish.
We didn't expect the Panthers to be this bad this season, but now it's pretty hard to see them getting any better in the next five days.
Five games after the Panthers played in the Super Bowl, their season is over.