FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The time for anger and denial passed weeks ago.
Now all the Carolina Panthers are left with is disbelief, as a season of high expectations has unraveled completely.
They’ve sold hope until now, but after Sunday’s 20-10 loss at New England, there’s no more of that. At 5-8, the chances for extending the season are gone, and the Panthers have to accept the reality of a season gone wrong.
“I’d have told them ‘You’re a fool,’” linebacker Jon Beason replied when asked what he’d have told someone who predicted such a record at this point. “There’s no way.”
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There was a way, however, as the Panthers continued to hit the same roadblocks they’ve hit all year.
The defense played well in spurts, forcing three New England turnovers, but couldn’t hold long enough.
The Patriots gained 232 of their 377 after halftime, as Wes Welker and the ground game came alive to give them just enough.
Of course, it didn’t take much.
The Panthers managed respectable looking stats, but could never sustain any offense when they needed. Other than a 41-yard touchdown pass from Matt Moore to Steve Smith, there wasn’t much to speak of for a side that’s managed 49 points in the last four weeks.
“Our passing game has still got room for growth,” Panthers coach John Fox said in the understatement of the day. “It’s something we’re going to continue to work on.”
Matt Moore was an acceptable 15-of-30 passing for 197 yards with his second straight home run ball to Smith. He had an interception overturned on replay — and at least two others dropped — but was hardly the only culprit here.
But as they boarded up to leave, there was simply no getting around the fact that there’s little to play for these last three weeks past pride — because the decisions on jobs for the future may have already been made.
As they left, all they could do was shake their heads at what had happened around them.
“I thought we’d be a better football team than that,” wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad said.