Although Carolina (5-9) still controls its playoff destiny in terms of being able to capture the NFC South by winning out, thanks to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers blowing a 17-0 lead in a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, there’s no erasing the bad taste Sunday’s setback left for the Panthers.
“We’ve got to worry about trying to get ourselves right to win a football game,’’ interim coach Steve Wilks said as he began looking ahead to Saturday’s home game against the red-hot Detroit Lions (7-7). “I don’t want anybody in this building talking playoffs.’’
Nobody did after Pittsburgh manhandled Carolina the way the Panthers had manhandled their previous two opponents. Players were long gone from the locker room by the time Tampa Bay lost, leaving Carolina tied with New Orleans and Atlanta, a game behind the Bucs (6-8) in the NFC South with three games to go.
Their only thoughts after the game were on how to fix everything that went wrong against Pittsburgh. Here’s the short laundry list:
The Panthers rushed 16 times for 21 yards, their fewest in a game since Week 1 of the 2012 season. They averaged 204 yards rushing during their two-game winning streak entering Sunday and had averaged 154.6 since Week 7.
Carolina running back D’Onta Foreman, who topped 113 yards in four of his first six starts after Christian McCaffrey was traded to the San Francisco 49ers, was limited to nine yards on 10 carries. His 0.9 yards per rush were the second fewest of his career. Pittsburgh hit Foreman at or behind the line of scrimmage on six of his 10 rushes.
The Steelers converted 12 of 16 third-down attempts, their best conversion rate (75%) since week 5 of the 2018 season. They held Carolina’s offense to 4 of 11 (36%). Wilks called the combination “horrendous, to say the least, on both sides.’’
The Carolina defense gave up a 21-play touchdown drive that used 11:43 of the third quarter. It was Pittsburgh’s longest drive in terms of plays and time of possession in the last 45 years. That's the second most plays in a drive given up by the Panthers in the last 20 seasons, with a 24-play drive in 2007 to New Orleans topping the list.
Quarterback Sam Darnold, sacked only twice in the last two games, was sacked four times. He did so little to generate offense after a second-quarter touchdown pass to DJ Moore that Wilks said he would have to evaluate film to determine if Darnold would start against the Lions in Week 16.
“It hurts,’’ said right tackle Taylor Moton, responsible for giving up at least a couple of sacks. “I’m hurt. I’m mad at myself. ... I just hate losing.’’
The loss assured the Panthers won’t have a winning season for the fifth straight year -- but they still will win the NFC South and a playoff berth if they beat Detroit, Tampa Bay and New Orleans the final three weeks.
Detroit, which has gone from 1-6 to 7-7, may be the toughest challenge. Carolina already has beaten Tampa Bay 21-3 and New Orleans 22-14, so there will be positive feelings going into those games even though they’re on the road.
Should Carolina win out and finish 8-9, it would own the tiebreaker with a division-best 5-1 record.
But winning three games in a row after Sunday’s embarrassment in front of a home crowd dominated by Steelers fans won’t be easy unless Carolina fixes its issues.
At the top of the list might be the running game because Pittsburgh provided the blueprint for stopping the run with a stacked box.
Wilks, to his credit, compared the loss to the 42-21 setback to Cincinnati in Week 9, reminding us that Carolina bounced back with a 25-15 victory against Atlanta the next week.
“We have to hit the reset button,’’ Wilks said. “Don’t allow it to get in the way, you know. We have been down this road before. ... So we have to find a way as coaches and the men in the locker room to make plays, and we have to do a much better job of putting them in position to make plays.
“There is nothing we can do about this game. This is behind us.’’