Panthers close but can't seal deal vs. Bears
The statistics tell a very different story from the final score.
The stats say the Panthers were the much better team at Soldier Field. The final score says the Bears showed up just in time to steal one away from the desperate visitors 23-22 courtesy of Robbie Gould's 41-yard field goal as time expired.
This wasn't the first such loss the Panthers have suffered on the road against one of the NFC's top teams. They lost at Atlanta in similar fashion, only in that game there was plenty of criticism to go around.
On Sunday, Carolina was dominant at times.
It forced three turnovers and registered six sacks — five before halftime — including three by defensive end Greg Hardy. The Bears were just 2-for-8 on third-downs and ran 24 fewer plays, as the Panthers had the ball for 15 more minutes.
But the Panthers made their share of mistakes, too. Notably by the offense, which did a fine job moving the ball for 416 total yards compared to Chicago's 210, but the Panthers left way too many points on the field.
Placekicker Justin Medlock entered the contest 2-for-2 on field goal attempts this season, but on Sunday he was 5-for-5. That's great news given his lack of NFL experience and the environment he converted those boots. The flipside, however, is that Carolina relied on him too often. It should have turned one or two of those kicks into touchdowns.
That gnawed at the Panthers as the game got older, and it proved costly.
"When you have an opportunity to close them out you have to do that, and we did not do that in the end…" said Panthers coach Ron Rivera. "When those things happen, when you get to that point in the game, it's unfortunate."
Crazy as it seems, the 1-6 Panthers could have still sprung the upset over the 6-1 Bears by wiping away just one play: Tim Jennings' 25-yard fourth-quarter interception return for a touchdown.
It came on Carolina's first offensive snap after the Bears had scored to cut the margin to 19-14, but the pick-six almost didn't happen.
On the surface, it appeared that suddenly maligned Carolina quarterback Cam Newton made a poor read and threw the ball right to the breaking cornerback, who had two interceptions on the afternoon. But veteran wide receiver Steve Smith slipped, which was devastating given he was running a short timing route. The game-changing play gave Chicago 13 points in eight seconds of action and put them ahead midway through the final period.
"That's the hard part because, honestly, if Steve doesn't slip, I think he catches and that could have been a 10, 15-yard gain," Rivera said. "It could have been a big play for us, but unfortunately it happened that way."
The Panthers, as resilient as at any time this season, responded and took the lead on Medlock's fifth field goal. But a suspect defense couldn't keep the Bears from marching into game-winning field goal range.
Rivera and the staff will mostly appreciate what they see when grading the film and Rivera likely will note the many positives at his weekly press conference Monday. But the reality is there are no moral victories whatsoever for the Panthers anymore.
A year ago? Yes. Not anymore.
Sunday's tilt in the Windy City was Newton's and Rivera's 23rd regular season game as a starting quarterback and head coach, respectively, and that's plenty of time in the NFL to show your worth.
The standings don't count near-misses, they count victories and losses, and progress or not, the Panthers once again did the latter.