CHARLOTTE -- After two and a half months of fits and starts, a .500 record was finally in the Panthers' sights late Thursday night.
The Panthers had Miami in third-and-12 at their 39-yard-line. They'd just scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion to whittle the deficit to three points. The sold-out Bank of America Stadium crowd roared at its loudest level of the night. Miami had only mustered a field goal in the second half and had converted just three of its previous seven third downs after converting four in succession to end the first half, so there was reason to believe that the defense had momentum.
Chad Henne rolled right. Defensive end
But the passer didn't flinch. He simply took two steps to the left, leaving Brayton to grasp nothing but the night air as he flew past. Henne located Davone Bess, and with one easy throw to the wide-open receiver, picked up 15 yards and resusicated the drive. The Panthers, meanwhile, lost their breath. By the time Ricky Williams crossed the goal line with a 46-yard touchdown run on the next play, the Panthers were left gasping, both in the game and the season as a whole.
"It's really disappointing. We had the game," cornerback
"It's like we were right there knocking on the door and just could not close the deal," wide receiver
A late rally was not enough to prevent a 24-17 defeat that saw the Panthers fall short in their fourth attempt to reach the break-even point this season -- and their third in the last six games.
"This is the fourth time we could have been .500 and we didn't execute enough to get there," said Panthers running back
"Playoff talk is something that is not even brought up," added quarterback
Since back-to-back wins over Washington and Tampa Bay in October, the Panthers have been unable to string together successive triumphs, dropping three of their last five games -- including a pair at home to AFC East foes Buffalo and Miami.
"The reality is we're 4-6," head coach John Fox said.
And that fateful third-and-12 with 4:47 left in the game encapsulated their frustration, when in just two seconds, the Panthers lost all the momentum that they'd built on a determined 68-yard march moments earlier that culminated in a 27-yard Delhomme touchdown pass to
"We had (Henne) plastered," Marshall said. "(Bess) adjusted his route when he saw the quarterback cut back with the ball, and he threw it to him. We should have just plastered him in the back end, and that just never happened."
Throughout the game, the Panthers had the Dolphins in their grasp and let them get away. Missed tackles plagued Carolina, particularly in the second quarter, when Lex Hilliard and Ricky Williams burst through Carolina defenders for third-down pickups of 18 and 14 yards, respectively. They each turned third-and-long into success, with Hilliard wiggling Miami out of a third-and-16 and Williams turning third-and-9 into a touchdown reception through the middle of Carolina's defense.
"We didn't tackle very well," Lewis said. "If you let him (Williams) get going north and south, he's going to cause problems."
"It wasn't good at all," Marshall added. "We always preach getting to the ball, hitting the person with the ball and tackling well, and we didn't do that tonight at all. There were a lot of missed tackles out there.
"I just feel like we're not putting forth the effort out there," Marshall continued. "Like the coaches say all the time, 'That's a want-to.' If you're going to make the tackle, you make the tackle. We just missed a lot of tackles."
But missed opportunities were not limited to the defense. Carolina's offense outgained Miami by 57 yards (383 to 326), had five more first downs (22-17) and three times drove to at least the Miami 20-yard-line. But only two of those possessions ended in scores, and neither of those were touchdowns, as a pair of goal-to-go situations petered out and netted
"I can't even really tell you exactly what happened," Muhammad said. "They scored touchdowns in the red zone and we kicked field goals ... That was the difference for us in our win (over Atlanta last Sunday), and that was the difference in our loss (to Miami)."
The other red-zone failure came on the first series of the third quarter, when DeAngelo Williams' 50-yard run up the left sideline went for naught after a Delhomme pass was intercepted by Miami's Nathan Jones at the Dolphins four-yard-line. It was Delhomme's first interception in the last four games after he threw 13 in the first six.
"We couldn't get much going," Delhomme said. "We'd get inside the red (zone) and there wasn't a whole lot there. We battled, but it wasn't good enough."
With a closing stretch that includes three division leaders in New England, Minnesota and New Orleans -- teams that are a combined 23-4 -- the outlook appears as cloudy as the dense fog that entombed the Panthers' home stadium in the overnight hours after Miami's win. For now, all the Panthers can do is turn ahead to the New York Jets, and hope for the win that provides still another chance to get back to that elusive .500 mark.
"It's a one-game talk," Delhomme said. "That is how this team has looked at it, and that is how we are going to keep looking at it."