CHARLOTTE — The Carolina Panthers used to be known for comebacks.
If anything, this year’s version is becoming known for squandering them.
A late-starting offense wasn’t enough to overcome another early deficit, and the Panthers dropped a 24-17 decision to the Miami Dolphins at Bank of America Stadium.
Wide receiver Steve Smith called it a “head-scratcher,” and many of the players left talking about the good things they had done.
But the reality for the Panthers is that they’re 4-6 with six to play, leaving no more margin of error with a schedule that gets much tougher after the next two.
It’s the fourth time this season the Panthers have faltered with a chance to get to .500, and they know there aren’t many chances left.
“I think we play well under pressure,” said running back DeAngelo Williams. “But we can’t continue to do this.”
The Panthers dominated the majority of the first half, but went into the locker room trailing 14-3.
And though they made a late charge, it was never enough, as Miami’s Ricky Williams more than made up for the absence of injured starter Ronnie Brown, with 22 carries for 119 yards and two touchdowns, along with a receiving touchdown.
But the killer was the last one, a 46-yard touchdown burst to kill the Panthers last decent chance of getting back in the game.
“We did some decent things in the run game,” said Panthers coach John Fox. “We missed that one long run there at the end that was a critical play. I thought other than that we played the run decent.”
The Dolphins ran for 154 yards on the day, the second big outing in a row the Panthers have surrendered (Atlanta got them for 176 last week).
“We didn’t tackle well,” defensive tackle Damione Lewis said. “Just need to get it back. You always go through little things here and there, and we just need to get it fixed. We need to get it fixed right away.
“We had a good stretch there where we were playing great, but now there’s a missed tackle here or there, but we just need to get it straight.”
The defense isn’t alone on that score.
The Panthers offense was a ridiculous 3-of-13 on third downs, and they had particular problems protecting quarterback Jake Delhomme. All four of Miami’s sacks came on third downs, and two of those came inside the red zone, forcing them to settle for field goals.
That ruined a frantic comeback and a decent running day by DeAngelo Williams, who had 13 carries for 122 yards. Quarterback Jake Delhomme snapped his three-game streak without an interception, but balanced that with a beautiful touchdown pass to Steve Smith.
But in the end, it might not matter, as the days are drawing short on a season that seems over already.
“You have to keep battling,” Fox said. “We’ve been here before. There is a lot of fight in that room. They’ll continue to work.
“We still have a lot of football left and we are still in no way in the stretch out of it.”