Third straight loss a 'slap' to Panthers' playoff hopes

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Forty-four seconds remained and the Seattle Seahawks were running the clock down for the game-winning field goal when in the stunned silence of Bank of America Stadium a fan shouted: "You guys are horrible."

It reverberated so loudly you could hear it through the thick glass that separates the press box from the crowd.

There was a tone of lost hope in the voice of the fan, who a month ago had to be on top of the world as the Carolina Panthers were 6-2 and seemingly a lock for the playoffs.

Now, after Sunday's 30-27 loss dropped them to 6-5, they are fighting for their playoff lives.

Quarterback Cam Newton likely wouldn’t agree the Panthers are "horrible" because the Panthers did a lot of things well this day, but he probably would understand the fan's frustration.

"Three weeks ago, if someone would have said this is what was going to happen, I would have slapped them," Newton said in a tone of disbelief. "But things happen and nobody is going to feel sorry for us.

"We're just opening up a lot of hope for other teams that we can't bear to allow happen."

One of those teams is Seattle (6-5), which a month ago looked left for dead. Washington (6-5), which beat Carolina this season, also has renewed hope after being knocked out of the NFC East lead by Dallas.

Here's how bad it is for the Panthers, who must go on the road, where they are 1-4, for their next two games. Had they beaten the Seahawks they would have had a 71.3 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to live projections from ESPN's FPI after the 1 p.m. ET games.

The loss dropped those odds to 24.7 percent.

That the next two games are at Tampa Bay (4-7) and Cleveland (4-6-1) should give the Panthers a glimmer of hope since both teams appear beatable. But both those teams won on Sunday, and the Browns were on the road.

And the Panthers lost to a struggling Detroit team a week ago.

That two of Carolina's final three games are against New Orleans (10-1) has to be concerning. The Saints look unbeatable with 10 straight victories.

"We just need one win," Newton said. "Let's just start with one win."

One has to wonder what it will take to get one win. Newton completed 85 percent (25 of 30) of his pass attempts for 256 yards and two touchdowns against the Seahawks. He also rushed for a season-high 63 yards.

Running back Christian McCaffrey set a franchise record with 237 yards from the line of scrimmage, rushing for 125 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries and catching 11 passes for 112 yards and a touchdown.

He became only the second player since 2011 to top 100 yards rushing and receiving in the same game. He became the first since Arian Foster in 2011 to top 100 yards rushing and receiving and have a touchdown in both categories.

It was a Herculean effort.

But those efforts couldn't overcome the mistakes that have plagued this team during the losing streak. Graham Gano, who had strep throat this week, missed a 52-yard field goal with just over a minute left on the same field where he connected from 63 yards to beat the Giants earlier this season.

The Panthers scored only 13 points on their first five trips inside the red zone after coming into the game ranked first in the NFC and third in the NFL in red zone efficiency. Newton had an interception on one of those missed opportunities.

The defense gave up 339 yards passing and two touchdowns to Russell Wilson, who was averaging less than 200 yards passing coming into the game.

Afterward, tight end Greg Olsen called the loss about as "brutal" as they come. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, forced to play more outside when starter Donte Jackson suffered a game-ending quad injury on the first play, repeatedly said "we've got to get out of this funk."

McCaffrey, comparing this loss to the 20-19 setback to Detroit, said "they all suck."

There was as much frustration in the Carolina locker room as there was from the fan in the stands. Coach Ron Rivera tried to put a positive spin on it, saying everyone needs to "just stick together."

"We still have five games left," Rivera said. "We control it [destiny]. Go out and play. You have to play to win. That's just the bottom line."

Linebacker Luke Kuechly reminded of the 2014 season, when the Panthers went two months without winning -- 0-7-1 -- falling to 3-8-1 before winning their final four to make the playoffs at 7-8-1.

But the Panthers made it then as the champions of a down NFC South. There'll be no catching the Saints, so it'll be harder to reach the playoffs as a wild-card team.

"We can't fool ourselves," Newton said. "This is our third [straight] loss. There's no need to panic, but we need to seize the moment better than we are."