Carolina Panthers

Jags maul Panthers

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Carolina Panthers safety Chris Harris has been through this before, faced offensive abandonment when he was in Chicago. So when it happens to him with his new team, he gets asked about it.

But while he was offering his latest take on how to act when only one half of the ball's working -- after Carolina's 37-6 loss at Jacksonville on Sunday -- the clearest words of the day rang out from a few stalls to his right.

"Tell them the truth, Chris," cornerback Richard Marshall said from the corner as he dressed. "Tell them the truth, Chris."

Harris did his best to not drop bombs on his teammates on offense, but he didn't need to.

The truth is clear.

They can't do enough with the ball to keep the defense from eventually crumbling. For the second time in three weeks, and the continuation of a year-long trend, the inability of the Panthers' offense to sustain anything wasted what had been a decent effort by their teammates on the other side of the ball.

They held it for just 21 minutes and two seconds Sunday, similar to the 20:37 against New Orleans in the 31-6 defeat back home two weeks prior.

"We play defense, that's our job," Harris said wearily, as Marshall exhorted him to be honest. "We have to play no matter what's going on, and our job's to stop them.

"We've got to be the same team first half and second, and we weren't."

At halftime, the game was well within the Panthers' grasp. They were down 10-6, and they were getting the ball back to start the second half. It wasn't perfect, but it was close enough that an imperfect team couldn't ask for much more.

"It did get away in the third quarter," wide receiver Steve Smith said quietly.

That's when DeShaun Foster fumbled the first play of the half, and the Jaguars responded with a touchdown.

Then the Panthers stalled after five plays netted them 14 yards, and the Jaguars embarked on a game- and time-killing field-goal drive.

Then Vinny Testaverde threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown, and it was 27-6 one play into the fourth quarter -- and the good feelings they had generated the week before with a win were long forgotten.

"That's been the story in several of our losses," Panthers coach John Fox said. "We turned it over early in the third at an inopportune time.

"We're not generating enough on offense, for us to stay fresh enough as a football team and feel like we can compete for four quarters."

The defense wilted for one very good reason -- they were out there all day. The offense had just three drives of more than five plays all afternoon, barely giving the defense a chance to catch its breath, and setting up the failure that was inevitable.

"We put ourselves in a position at halftime where we were in striking distance, and we came out and just played terrible," guard Mike Wahle said. "We all played terrible. No excuses, they're a great football team, Christ, let's be honest.

"We want to hold the ball more offensively, obviously. We've got to do a better job on offense. Turnovers, three-and-out, not efficient. We can go on about it. We're not playing very well."

As understatements go, that ranked right up there with Kris Jenkins, who said of his 5-8 team: "I don't know what the playoff picture looks like for us, but I guess it's not really good."

What's also not good is the mood in the locker room, when the fault lies so clearly in half.

Everyone was a little on edge -- Marshall declined to talk to reporters after encouraging veracity from Harris -- with Jenkins asking one reporter to "turn your tape recorder off and hit rewind," after he said something he thought was inflammatory but wasn't.

Their frustration is understandable. It's easy to see what's happening, and nobody wants to be the bad guy who says it.

"That's our job," Jenkins said. "I'll be honest with you, it is. When you're out there for a long time like that, it's tough. But it's your job, that's what you're paid for, that's what we've got to go do.

"There ain't no other way to put it. You know how it goes. Some days you have your good days, sometimes you've got your bad days."

The Jaguars' last touchdown was emblematic of the day.

Forced to go for a desperate fourth-and-16 from the Jaguars' 20 in the fourth quarter, quarterback Vinny Testaverde threw a short pass with no hope for no gain to DeAngelo Williams.

Looking to be kind and keep the clock rolling to end the game, the Jags handed the ball to Fred Taylor, who made one cut and then sprinted for the end zone, 80 yards away. Once past the first wave of defenders, the 31-year-old Taylor showed a gear he hadn't in some time, outrunning cornerback Ken Lucas and safety Deke Cooper for a score that looked easy.

It was, but not because of the technical brilliance of the call or the physical superiority of the Jaguars' personnel.

The Panthers were caught flat-footed, partly because they had been on their feet all day -- just like they were against the Saints, the last time one got away in a hurry.

Now they have to finish the season as best they can, knowing there's nothing tangible to play for.

The goals have gone big-picture, and mostly relate to the future beyond the next three weeks.

"Just look at the film and see who really wants to be here and who doesn't, in so many words," Lucas said. "So this is when you really find out who is in for the game and who is in for other reasons. What you play for every year is to go to the playoffs, and I don't know that going to the playoffs is a reality now.

"You are going to see how guys are going to play even though the goal for the season is pretty much over with. We're not going to quit. We're going to continue to fight. We're not giving up. That's the biggest thing from here on out."

The problem is, it's too late. They thought they had latched onto something a week ago, beating an even-worse San Francisco team, when the message was about having fun again.

For the old guys, the guys playing the literal and metaphorical Decembers at the same time, it's particularly hard.

"It's just disheartening," defensive end Mike Rucker said, slouched in his chair staring blankly at the laundry bag which he twirled slowly in his fingers. "I really don't know the words to put to what it is. Man, I just don't know. I really, honestly don't know.

"I know one thing, we've got to stick together. It's already tough enough. But we've got to stick together. And we've just got to keep fighting. But I don't have the answers. I don't know what to tell you right now."

Carolina 0 6 0 0 -- 6

Jacksonville 7 3 10 17 -- 37

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