Pain of losing shot at NFC South title shows how far Panthers have come

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Carolina Panthers' locker room was somber late Sunday afternoon. Players sat in their uniforms longer than normal, some staring into space and shaking their heads in disbelief that their postseason hopes were over. It was the type of emotion one would expect from a team that had just been eliminated from a playoff game, not playoff contention.

That’s significant.

The 30-24 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday was as much about how far the Panthers had come under interim coach Steve Wilks after a 1-4 start under Matt Rhule, who was fired, as it was about how they blew their chance to win the division.

And make no mistake, they blew their chance.

They had the Bucs down 14-0 in the second quarter and led 21-10 going into the fourth quarter before quarterback Tom Brady began playing like the seven-time Super Bowl champion he is, rather than the aging 45-year-old he has looked like of late.

That added to the frustration because players could almost taste their chance to make the playoffs with a win Sunday followed by another victory next week at the New Orleans Saints.

Now the division title is Tampa Bay’s.

But underneath the frustration is the pride of knowing they didn’t give up when their season looked lost in October.

“You think back to what 2022 was, the chaos that was going on early,’’ guard Austin Corbett said. “We had every excuse in the world to shut it down. Everybody had written us off, and for guys to continue to rally, and for Coach Wilks to do his job and rally us, and keep us fighting day in and day out to have us a chance ... what more can you ask for?’’

What the Panthers could have asked for on Sunday was a healthy Jaycee Horn, but their shutdown corner was out with a broken wrist suffered a week ago. Brady and wide receiver Mike Evans made the young replacements pay dearly.

They combined for touchdowns of 63, 57 and 30 yards, and 150 of Brady’s season-high 432 passing yards. The first score came against second-year corner Keith Taylor Jr., who had been victimized a few weeks earlier in a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The other two came against 2020 first-round pick CJ Henderson, who was the nearest defender on nine of Evans' 12 targets, allowing 142 yards and two touchdowns on the day.

While Wilks and safety Xavier Woods said Henderson should have had help on at least one of Evans’ touchdowns, it was a reminder the Panthers need all of their main players to have a chance.

The biggest question is why Wilks didn’t rely more on 35-year-old Josh Norman, who was signed Monday with the expectation he'd play up to 25 snaps. The 2015 first-team All-Pro selection played only 11 snaps, and on those, he was the nearest defender on one target -- an incompletion.

The short answer: Wilks didn’t want to put Norman into a “strained’’ situation with so much on the line.

The long answer came from Norman.

“The guys will be just fine,’’ Norman said. “Think about it. A young team. We’ve got a lot to build upon. They’re tasting it right now because they had an opportunity.’’

Norman understands. He had a taste of success as a rookie in 2012, was benched, and didn’t get a chance to taste success fully again until two years later. But he was a big part of three straight NFC South titles (2013-15), something the Panthers hadn’t had a legitimate shot at since 2015 -- until Sunday.

“So when you think about it like that, that’s a gut-wrencher,’’ Norman said. “It truly sucks.’’

So now the Panthers (6-10) are left to play out the season in New Orleans and then enter the period of uncertainty that comes with a coaching search. While the locker room is almost 100% behind Wilks, nobody knows what owner David Tepper is thinking.

That added to the disappointment of Sunday. Players felt the loss may have hurt Wilks’ chances of winning the full-time job.

But they want Tepper to remember that they wouldn’t have been in the position they were Sunday without Wilks.

“You’ve seen throughout the history of the NFL when coaches leave early, teams just get shut down,’’ Corbett said. “Fans are immediately moving on to the next year.

“That’s absolutely what we did not do. That was Coach Wilks’ ability to keep us together and keep us fighting. Men really stepped up. So I love this team. I love where we’re at.’’