CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers were hoping to enter a long three-day weekend with a Thursday night prime-time statement win against the Philadelphia Eagles and the best record in the NFC. They were hoping to use the break to forget about football and relax.
It didn’t quite happen that way.
The Panthers lost 28-23, and in the process middle linebacker Luke Kuechly entered the concussion protocol for the third time in three seasons.
“Now you’re just going to be sitting at home thinking about, ‘S---, we lost this game,’’’ backup middle linebacker Ben Jacobs said on Friday before players were given Saturday, Sunday and Monday off.
Then in the next breath, Jacobs said getting away still will be good.
“Recharging the batteries and then coming back with, ‘This is a damn good football team,’’’ he said. “We’re going to come back strong.’’
Coach Ron Rivera shared a similar message with the media earlier Friday.
“We’re a pretty good football team,’’ he said. “We’re 4-2. We just lost to the best team in the NFC right now, or second best behind Green Bay. We battled them, and we had a chance to win at the end twice.’’
Perhaps the first indication the sky isn’t falling on Carolina came on Friday, when Kuechly came to the stadium and attended meetings. Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks and Jacobs said the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year appeared “fine’,’ even though Rivera said Kuechly remained in the protocol.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on Sunday morning that the team does not believe Kuechly suffered a concussion even though he remains in the protocol and still must pass all five phases before being allowed to play.
But the reality that Carolina’s loss wasn’t as devastating as it initially may have felt came on Sunday afternoon.
NFC South rival Atlanta blew a 17-0 lead against Miami and lost at home for the second straight week to fall to 3-2. Tampa Bay fell behind 31-0 to Arizona and lost 38-33. The Buccaneers (2-3) also lost quarterback Jameis Winston to a shoulder injury.
And Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone in a loss to NFC North rival Minnesota and may be out for the remainder of the season.
So after all that, the Panthers remain tied atop the NFC South at 4-2, a half-game ahead of Atlanta and New Orleans, and a game and a half ahead of Tampa Bay.
They also remain tied with Minnesota, Green Bay and the Los Angeles Rams a game behind the Eagles (5-1) for the best record in the NFC.
So the Panthers are right in the thick of things with trips to Chicago (2-4) and Tampa Bay.
“There is reason to be disappointed,’’ Rivera said of the loss to Philadelphia. “But there certainly isn’t any reason to come back and think that we’re not good enough.’’
Defensively, the Panthers rank fourth in the NFL in total defense. As for the other NFC South teams, Atlanta ranks 10th, New Orleans is 26th and Tampa Bay 31st.
Carolina also is fourth in scoring defense, by far the best in the division.
The other division teams rank higher offensively than Carolina at No. 18. But the Panthers have averaged 27.7 points over the past three games with quarterback Cam Newton closer to full strength as opposed to 15 points a game the first three weeks.
Where Carolina has struggled the most traditionally has been one of its strong suits -- takeaway-giveaway margin. The Panthers rank 29th with a minus-6 differential after finishing first two years ago at plus-20.
Rivera understands that has to turn around. But he still likes most of what he’s seen thus far, even in the loss to Philadelphia in which Newton threw three interceptions.
He likes that the team had a chance on its final two drives to win, and were inches away on several plays from doing that.
He’s optimistic the best is ahead for Carolina.
“If you put the tape on and look at it the way we did,’’ Rivera said, “you’d agree with how I feel right now.’’