Lack of playmakers, inability to beat Saints will define Panthers' season

NEW ORLEANS -- The Carolina Panthers have weathered a lot of storms this season, as quarterback Cam Newton put it earlier in the week.

Newton said all the off-the-field distractions, such as the allegations of sexual harassment against team owner Jerry Richardson, brought players closer. The problem is, the Panthers never could figure out how to weather the storms against their NFC South rival.

Their inability to beat the New Orleans Saints will define this season of what could have been, this season that came to a close with Sunday's 31-26 loss in an NFC wild-card playoff game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

This one magnified two statements.

Ron Rivera said before training camp his offense had a chance to be just as explosive as it was in 2015 when it led the league in scoring. It wasn't, particularly when it faced New Orleans.

Defensive end Julius Peppers said in Week 2 the defense was the best he'd ever been a part of and called it a championship-caliber unit the week before Sunday's game. It was, but not when it faced the Saints.

The Saints scored 31 points or more in all three games, winning 34-13 in Charlotte in Week 3 and 31-21 in Week 13. The Panthers struggled offensively in all three games before a late explosion Sunday.

"They were certainly our nemesis this year,'' Rivera said.

If the Panthers are to compete for the NFC South moving forward, they will have to add playmakers. To be fair, second-round draft pick Curtis Samuel was out much of the season because of injury, and Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen missed nine games.

Olsen showed Sunday how valuable he is, going over 100 yards in receiving for the third time in his postseason career. But the Panthers didn't have enough weapons around him to score a touchdown when they got inside the red zone four times in the first three quarters.

Almost rubbing the lack of playmakers in Carolina's face, particularly in the speed department, was maybe the biggest play of this game -- an 80-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr.

The Panthers refused to pay Ginn in the offseason and let him go to New Orleans. His ability to blow off the top of defenses was a big part of why Newton and the offense were explosive in 2015.

The Panthers could have used Ginn in this one, which didn't look good early for them after sure-footed Graham Gano missed a 25-yard field goal on Carolina's second drive. Brees hit Ginn on the score two plays later.

It then turned into a series of the Panthers kicking field goals as the Saints scored touchdowns. The Panthers' offense bogged down three straight times in the red zone when receivers couldn't create separation.

It again magnified Carolina's need for a go-to receiver to play opposite Devin Funchess -- or maybe even replace Funchess as the No. 1 receiver.

That can't be forgotten in Carolina's late-game heroics to make this one close.

“I’m frustrated, for obvious reasons,’’ Newton said. “I believe this roster, I would love to keep it my whole career. Certain things just has to happen. I hate that I couldn’t do enough to get a win today for a lot of guys I think so highly of.’’

The Saints are loaded with playmakers such as rookie Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas, to name a few. The Atlanta Falcons, who advanced Saturday in the other NFC wild-card game, are loaded with playmakers such as Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman.

The Panthers have nice pieces with Newton, Christian McCaffrey and Olsen, but they need more to be a factor moving forward. And they must find a way to beat the Saints.

"This kind of epitomizes the season,'' Rivera said. "Close. We were close. I know a lot of people didn't give us a chance, but we are here. That was probably the biggest thing.''