Luke Kuechly decision easier with Panthers out of playoff contention

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Super Bowl Hangover?

Try Super Bowl Nightmare.

The Carolina Panthers officially were eliminated from playoff contention on Sunday while settling into their road hotel preparing for Monday night’s game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field.

The official end came when Green Bay beat Chicago to squash all wild-card hopes and Atlanta beat San Francisco to end all chances of a fourth straight NFC South title.

The only drama left in Carolina’s season is whether middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is shut down for the final three games after missing the last three with a concussion.

Being out of playoff contention seemingly makes that decision easy even though Kuechly, listed as questionable despite clearing the final test in concussion protocol, might want to play.

But the end for Carolina really occurred during a 1-5 start. That set the stage for not only continuing the trend of the losing Super Bowl team not getting back to the title game since the 1992-93 Buffalo Bills, but for one of the worst collapses in NFL history.

Only nine times has the Super Bowl runner-up finished below .500, something the Panthers can avoid only by winning their final three games.

Only 14 times has the Super Bowl runner-up missed the playoffs the following year.

Make that 15 now.

Should the Panthers lose out, they will tie the biggest decline from one season to the next since the NFL went to 16 games. The 2013 Texans and 1994 Oilers had a 10-win swing, going from 12-4 to 2-14.

One could argue the end for Carolina came in April when general manager Dave Gettleman rescinded the franchise tag of cornerback Josh Norman, now a member of the Redskins. Norman was the biggest change in a team that went 15-1 during the 2015 regular season.

There’s no denying a young, untested secondary was a factor in the 1-5 start that included losses at Atlanta and New Orleans in which the defense gave up more than 500 yards.

Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones had a career-best 300 yards receiving.

Even Norman will tell you thinks things would have been different had the Panthers kept him.

“That’s so easy to answer,’’ he told ESPN.com this week. “That’s not even a question. You go back and look at the games they lost and how close they were, and how they lost them. Look at that.’’

Closes losses and concussions have defined this season. The Panthers lost five games by a field goal or less, beginning with a one-point loss in the opener at Denver in which Graham Gano missed a game-winning 50-yard field goal in the final seconds.

The two most costly losses were at home to Tampa Bay (17-14) and Kansas City (20-17). Carolina was up 14-6 against the Buccaneers midway through the third quarter and 17-6 against the Chiefs in the fourth quarter.

Both were lost on last-second field goals.

Win one or both of those and there’s still playoff life.

The Panthers had had a league-high eight players suffer a total of nine concussions this season. Left tackle Michael Oher played in only three games. Kuechly would miss the final six if shelved.

Injuries in general have plagued the Panthers. Only one offensive lineman, left guard Andrew Norwell, is in the same position he began the season.

Reigning NFL MVP Cam Newton is taking snaps from his fourth center, Tyler Larsen, with Pro Bowler Ryan Kalil and backup Gino Gradkowski on injured reserve.

Newton is not without blame in this season gone awry, either. He has gone from a career-best 35 touchdown passes to 15. He is on track for a career-worst 53.5 completion percentage, having been below 50 percent in the last four games.

Newton summed up the season best two weeks ago, saying, “It’s demoralizing.’’

And it just got more demoralizing as remaining playoff hopes were dashed.