CHARLOTTE -- We learned one thing for certain Sunday, something Carolina Panthers coach John Fox was way ahead of us on.
It really is not where you play, it's who you play.
Not even the sanctuary they normally find on the road was enough to save the Panthers, as they dropped a spirit-deadening 20-7 decision to the Tennessee Titans at LP Field -- the kind of loss that can weigh more heavily than one game in the standings.
Sunday, themes emerged, problems were underlined, and weaknesses were exploited. If they hadn't already, the Panthers have now given the league the blueprint for beating them.
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You pressure a quarterback who can't find his best receiver. You load up on the run.
But mostly, you just wait.
It was so bad that not even the things the Panthers count on mattered.
The Panthers had won all four of this year's games on the road, and the streak reached six when you go back to the end of last year. But in those games, they occasionally scored, or at least moved the ball.
Not Sunday, in which they gained more yards in the meaningless fourth quarter (98) than they did the rest of the day (93). That helped waste a solid defensive effort, but as was fitting on the day they fell to 4-4 and out of first place in the NFC South, it wasn't quite good enough.
"There's no excuses for anything, really," defensive end Julius Peppers said. "We've just got to play better. Right now we're not playing very well as a team.
"Defensively, we're playing a little better than we were at the beginning of the season, but not well enough to win games."
Of course, they didn't get that much help.
The Panthers' offense was a shambles all day, unable to run consistently (22 times for 78 yards), protect quarterback David Carr (seven sacks), or take advantage of some of the short fields they were given.
Honest efforts were made to get the ball to Steve Smith. He had three catches for 15 yards. They tried to run. But they've now lost two straight when DeShaun Foster carries it 15 times or more, after going 23-2 in that situation before last week's Indianapolis avalanche.
It didn't really matter.
None of it worked, at least enough.
Even the bedrock principles abandoned them, as John Kasay missed a 40-yard field goal early, when it was still something of a game.
"Y'all watched it like we went through it," fullback Brad Hoover said. "It's frustrating, period, when you have all intentions, and things go well at times, and then you turn around and look like (crap) the next time.
"It's frustrating for us."
Mostly, it was for the defense, which should have walked out of here feeling good after another in a line (other than last week's second half) of better performances.
"They were giving us the opportunity, time after time," Smith said. "It was discouraging, I know, for the defense. They played very well. They kept giving us opportunities and we never capitalized on them.
"That's unfair to the defense."
Tennessee gave them chances, putting the ball on the ground and into the hands of the Panthers' secondary often enough it could have easily gone the other way.
The Panthers collected two interceptions and scooped up two fumbles, part of a day when the defense actually played very well. There were a few mishaps that let the Titans score -- such as Jon Beason's damned-if-you do, damned-if-you-don't coverage decision on the game's first touchdown, a 3-yard run by Vince Young.
The Titans were held to 236 total yards, though 140 of them came on the ground. That left a group that should have felt better shaking their heads.
"That's our job; I don't worry about what the offense does, I really don't," safety Chris Harris said. "I was on a similar team in Chicago, and we don't worry about what they do. Our job is to go out and stop them, no matter where they're at and no matter what situation they're put in."
The Panthers can't even console themselves with their "Yeah, but we're still in first place," fallback position of recent weeks.
The other three teams in the NFC South won Sunday, meaning Tampa Bay's got a half-game leading heading into its bye this week, and the Panthers and New Orleans are tied at 4-4, with the Saints clearly pointing in the better direction.
But at this point, the Panthers can't be sure what the future holds, only that they're in control of it.
"It depends on how we come back to work," Peppers said. "If we hang our heads and we come back to work and everybody's feeling sorry for themselves, it's going to go south. But if you come back and work like we have pride and we want to get better and we really care about it, I think it can get better."
Carolina 0 0 0 7 -- 7
Tennessee 10 3 0 7 -- 20
• Panthers notebook • 7B