Carolina Panthers

Horse collared

The Panthers' Richard Marshall, 31, and Julius Peppers wait on the sideline between the third and fourth quarters against the Colts.
The Panthers' Richard Marshall, 31, and Julius Peppers wait on the sideline between the third and fourth quarters against the Colts.

CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers knew they had to be perfect to beat the Indianapolis Colts.

They weren't, so they didn't, and it didn't take long to establish either fact.

"The first half was a football game," Panthers coach John Fox said. "The second half, really wasn't."

That about sums it up, and explains why the Panthers absorbed their fifth straight home rout, a 31-7 loss to the Colts. That pushed the aggregate score of their five consecutive losses at Bank of America Stadium to 149-51, and left them weary of answering why they can't win here.

"It's kind of strange, but it's unacceptable either way," cornerback Ken Lucas said. "Regardless of what the reason may be, you've got to defend your home. Imagine a man coming into your house and not being able to protect you and your family.

"That's kind of ridiculous. We've got to be able to find a way to play more consistently for four quarters at home."

In fact, when they get their next chance, Nov. 11 against Atlanta, it will be 357 days from their last win in this building, a 15-0 triumph over St. Louis on Nov. 19, 2006.

"I keep saying, it's not so much where you play, it's who you play," Fox countered when asked the traditional post-here press conference question. "I think the way it's gone is the way it's gone.

"But we're a 4-3 football team. We're not 0-7."

In that Fox's statement is true, they're still very much in contention in the NFC.

With Tampa Bay losing to Jacksonville, the Panthers remain in first place in the NFC South, a game clear in the loss column of the Bucs and New Orleans.

That's the salient point, as ugly as it might have been.

As much as you could dissect this one, the fact is, there weren't many ways they were going to beat the Colts anyway, so dwelling on it might not serve them well.

"It's still early, though," running back DeShaun Foster said. "The score really didn't show what the game was, I didn't think so. I think as long as we keep fighting, we'll be all right."

The fight was there, for a moment anyway.

Unlike past home losses, however, this one wasn't about heart and desire. This one was about the fact the Colts are simply better -- even without three starters (including receiver Marvin Harrison), even off a short week, even with their big game against New England looming next Sunday.

The Panthers' game plan appeared to be sound, and enough things went right for the Panthers early. In fact, they opened the game with an 18-play, 80-yard touchdown drive -- and things appeared to be moving their direction.

But that's exactly when the Chinese water torture began, a slow-dripping litany of mistakes that drowned them throughout the day.

First it was Ryne Robinson's fumble of a punt, after the Panthers' defense had held the defending Super Bowl champs three-and-out.

The Colts got a field goal out of that one, then dodged what could have been a momentum stealer when Vinny Testaverde was picked off in the end zone by safety Antoine Bethea.

They took the lead with a 2-minute drill touchdown, which was moved along by a weird tipped pass that landed in the hands of Reggie Wayne for a 23-yard gain.

Then they built themselves enough of a lead with a quick touchdown drive to start the second half, which was aided by the fact John Kasay's kickoff went out of bounds and they started at the 40.

From that point in, they were just killing time, as the Panthers aren't built to come back from 10-point deficits (at least not without Jake Delhomme, who stood on the sidelines wearing a sling to protect his surgically repaired right elbow).

Of course, they're completely incapable of coming back from 24-point holes, such as the one in which they found themselves early in the fourth quarter, when all the mystery and energy was long gone from this one.

"The first half could have gone better," Fox said. "But I'm not sure it would have made a huge difference on the game the way it turned out in the second half."

The stats were deceiving, as they held Colts quarterback Peyton Manning to 5-of-14 passing for 88 yards in the first half, while limiting the Colts to 39 yards on the ground.

That they ended up with 394 total yards and those pesky 31 points was the key, and dashed much of the enthusiasm they had built on that side of the ball the previous two games, when they allowed a combined 23 points to New Orleans and Arizona.

"It's tough," defensive end Julius Peppers said. "That's an explosive team on offense. That is what they do. They do it to everybody they play. You have to fight through that."

The Panthers' previous defensive revival coincided neatly with Fox asserting himself more in the defensive meetings, and the arrival of rookie Jon Beason as a force in the middle.

It didn't really matter Sunday, though. They could have played the same kind of stout defense they had been playing, and they weren't going to score enough points to win. After Testaverde's patient first-drive success, they did nothing else, and when David Carr replaced him at halftime (with Testaverde's official diagnosis Achilles tendinitis), they were limited by the Colts' soft zone defense and Carr's sore back, which kept them from airing it out.

Now they're back to the rebuilding stage they were at before the bye, when desire was challenged, schemes were tweaked and plans were thrown out the window with the realization Delhomme wasn't coming back this year.

"We're professionals; these guys in this locker room are going to be able to dictate what we do down the road," defensive end Mike Rucker said. "The confidence, I think you're disappointed but your confidence shouldn't go down. If anything, you should be looking forward to the next opportunity to get out there, to rectify things. I don't think anybody's confidence is going the opposite way.

"You're disappointed, but nobody's going to come save you. You've still got a lot of football ahead of you. We've still got some opportunities."

The next one's in Tennessee (5-2) next week, a place they've never been. But, hey, it's on the road, where they haven't lost this year.

They'll take their chances.

"The thing about this sport and other sports, you measure a champion by how many times you get up off the ground," Lucas said. "We definitely got knocked on the ground today. No one will judge us that we lost this game today, it's how we're going to come back in the games after this one."

Indianapolis 3 7 14 7 -- 31

Carolina 7 0 0 0 -- 7

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