NEW ORLEANS -- The Carolina Panthers ended the season on Sunday night with a 31-26 loss to New Orleans in the first round of the NFC playoffs.
It culminated a season that began with quarterback Cam Newton coming off surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff and ended with Newton being sacked by a host of Saints for a 17-yard loss with six seconds remaining.
In between there was the controversy surrounding allegations of workplace misconduct by team owner Jerry Richardson and his plans to put the team up for sale after the season.
The season was defined by three losses to the Saints in which the Panthers (11-6) had no answer for quarterback Drew Brees and company.
Here’s a recap of the season and what's next:
Season grade: Above average
Season in review: All the pieces were in place defensively for the Panthers to make a run at the Super Bowl, except when it came to stopping the Saints. New Orleans scored at least 31 points in each of the three games. Carolina couldn't match that consistency on offense as it constantly evolved from training camp to the playoffs. Injuries played a big part in that. Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen and Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil missed more than half the season. Second-round pick Curtis Samuel, a wide receiver out of Ohio State, never was on the field long enough to make an impact. Much was placed on Newton, and he couldn't recapture the magic he had during his 2015 MVP season with the limited weapons around him.
That was especially true Sunday, as Carolina settled for field goals on three drives that reached at least the New Orleans 21-yard line. Had the offense been more consistent, this team had a chance to do something special. It won seven of eight games before losing to Atlanta in the regular-season finale. But the blemishes Newton and the offense showed late in the season ultimately led to the team’s downfall.
Biggest play of season: It happened on the second play of New Orleans' third scoring drive Sunday. Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., not re-signed by the Panthers after catching 14 touchdown passes over the past two seasons, got deep for an 80-yard touchdown that jump-started the Saints to a 21-6 lead. Ginn represented the speed and veteran leadership the Carolina receiving corps missed much of the season. It led the Panthers to trade No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo to get more speed on the field. Former general manager Dave Gettleman simply wasn't willing to put much money into the 32-year-old receiver, but Ginn showed with that play, that he has plenty left in the tank.
He said it: "We've weathered storms. This team has been faced with a lot of adversity, and it's brought us closer together. We've faced some of the bigger wins in hostile environments. Carpe diem, living in the moment, seizing it." -- Newton before Sunday's playoff game, in which the Panthers couldn't weather the Saints' storm.
Key offseason questions:
Biggest draft need: Go-to wide receiver. The Panthers have a dynamic running back for the future in Christian McCaffrey, but they don't have a dynamic wide receiver that can take the pressure off Newton. Samuel could be that guy, but he spent most of his rookie season injured and wasn't a player that struck fear into the heart of defenses. If the Panthers are going to keep pace with the offenses of New Orleans and Atlanta, they must upgrade.
Free-agency targets: Finding a way to keep left guard Andrew Norwell, who has gone from an undrafted rookie to a player who will get a huge deal. The Panthers invested a five-year, $55.5 million deal in left tackle Matt Kalil and gave right guard Trai Turner a four-year, $45 million extension. Whether they have the cash to keep Norwell remains to be seen.
Another year for Peppers? Future Hall of Fame defensive end Julius Peppers signed a one-year deal when he returned to the team that made him the second pick of the 2002 draft. It appeared his only intent was to make a run to a Super Bowl, but he played well, compiling 11 sacks, and hasn't completely shut the door on returning for another season. Coach Ron Rivera already has said he'd love to have Peppers back. If not, the Panthers will be in the market for a defensive end in the draft and free agency. Charles Johnson being inactive on Sunday might signal the end of his career.
End of the line for Stewart? Running back Jonathan Stewart was signed to an extension through 2018 this past year. But the future at running back on this team is McCaffrey, and Stewart, 30, did little to show he deserved another year. He’ll count $5.25 million in 2018, and the Panthers can save $3.75 million by releasing him. It would make more sense to put that money toward a deal for Norwell than a back whose career is on the decline.