CHARLOTTE -- No one wants to be the guy to say it out loud. No one wants to be the one to make the excuse.
To a man, the Carolina Panthers will tell you they can fix this offensive mess with the personnel on hand.
But the truth of the matter is, they might not be able to, and that they might just have to deal with games like this one.
For the third straight week, the Panthers' offense offered no assistance at all, leading to a 20-13 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. That pushed the Panthers' home losing streak to six straight, and by the time they play at home again, more than a calendar year will have passed since the last home win.
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And change is clearly the issue here. There's been too much of it.
They all want to say they could score, even though they've had nine quarterbacks in camp this year, three of them starters and four to make an appearance in the game.
There were as many versions of that belief as there were people asked about it.
"I would say yes, we do," wide receiver Steve Smith said when asked if they could fix it with the parts available. "Look in the past at the points we've put up before. Things could go better. You hope it does, and it doesn't. But you can't worry about that right now."
As much as he wanted to believe it, he knew it wasn't quite the truth.
"The times we were scoring points, ..." he continued with a shake of his head. "And the people who were here, ... are no longer here."
That might just be the epitaph for the season, unless quarterback Vinny Testaverde visits the Fountain of Youth for his 44th birthday Tuesday or some other better option at quarterback falls out of the sky.
Their offense is broken, and it's hard to see it getting fixed. Their biggest problem right now is that the things they'd ordinarily count on at their time of quarterback instability aren't working either.
"The point situation is pretty bleak right now," right tackle Jordan Gross said. "I mean, 7, 7 and 6 (the last three weeks), it's pretty tough to win anything that way. The ground game wasn't good today, and that's something we have to hang our hat on if we're going to win. With everything going on at the quarterback situation every week, we've got a healthy O-line and a healthy running backs, so we've got to be better.
"We better, or else it's going to be a long year."
It already is, especially at home. This was actually the closest game of their six-game skid here, in which they've now been outscored 169-64. Their last home win was Nov. 19, 2006, meaning the streak will be at 371 days before they get another chance to break it, when New Orleans visits in two weeks.
"It's hard," defensive tackle Kris Jenkins said of the streak. "When you have friends and family here that come to see us play -- it's hard. We have fans that pay to see us, support us, they buy our jerseys -- it's hard when this is the thanks we give them."
Perhaps no play symbolized that cold slap in the face -- or underlined the offensive issues -- better than the second-quarter touchdown that almost was.
Testaverde lofted a fourth-and-one pass to Smith from the Falcons' 20-yard line. Smith leaped over nemesis DeAngelo Hall to make the grab, but Hall swatted the ball out of his hands, and it rolled through the end zone and out of bounds for a touchback.
The ball was up high, I jumped up and caught the ball," Smith said. "Twenty-one (Hall) made a great play coming in and taking it out, and I was trying to get it.
"So, two guys going up, two good players making two good plays."
Hall's was better, though he trailed it because he thought Smith would run a slant route rather than the fade to the left corner.
"It didn't hit me until I got to the sideline that not only did they not get the 7, they didn't get the 3, either," Hall said. "You knock that ball out, incomplete pass. They line up and kick the field goal and they've got 3 points.
"To have them come out of that drive with no points was a real good feeling."
It was a feeling they'd replicate 11 times, as the Panthers' offense managed just a pair of field goals. Their only touchdown of the day came when cornerback Ken Lucas scooped a fumble and returned it 27 yards for a score, giving the offense a total of 20 points scored the last three games.
"They gave us a chance, and that's what you look for," coach John Fox said of his defense. "They gave us an opportunity. We're just not creating enough plays around them or with them.
"We've got to play a little bit better. And right now we're just coming up a little short."
The Panthers thought they had a bonus when Testaverde was able to play, since he practiced just once this week because of soreness in his right Achilles. But for the sixth time this year, they had to play more than one quarterback in a game, since Matt Moore had to come in for the fruitless last-play heave that was intercepted.
They threw for just 153 yards, and though they ran it plenty (28 times), the Falcons never cracked, allowing just 90 yards. The Panthers converted just 3-of-16 third down attempts, and totaled just 10 first downs (and two of those were by penalties).
"We're going to ride with what we've got; we've just got to play better, guard Jeremy Bridges said, joining the chorus. "I mean, it's frustrating. Offense has got to get a rhythm, it's 11 guys. And every other week there's a different guy behind us.
"That's no excuse, though. Not at all. It's redundant, but it just boils down to making plays."
They weren't even close to enough, since Atlanta scored a pair of easy 30-yard touchdowns against all-out blitzes, the first when Warrick Dunn took a draw play the distance in the first quarter, and the last when Alge Crumpler cruised in in the fourth after safety Chris Harris was picked out of the play by umpire Bruce Stritesky.
And that left the Panthers wondering how it came to pass, how it came to be that a team that had such high hopes early can barely dent the scoreboard at home, and not win at all -- even when it looked as if they'd done everything they needed to.
"It hurts," defensive end Mike Rucker said. "There's times you go on the field and you get spanked where you feel like you got spanked. But when you're doing some things, you're in the ball game. And then end up losing, and you walk off it even hurts worse.
"It wasn't good enough because we lost. I don't know what to tell you."
There are no answers, at least not ones anyone wants to admit.
• Panthers notebook • 6B