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Some perspective on late-game dramas

Posted Dec 14, 2017

Losing leads in the NFL is a part of the game; the trick is not losing the game - a trick the Panthers have perfected so far in 2017.

CHARLOTTE – Hold on if you've heard this before. Hold on if you've complained about this before.

Sometimes in the NFL, you just have to hold on.

The last time the Panthers faced Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, midway through the magical season of 2015, Carolina powered its way to a 37-14 cushion. But before you knew it, Rodgers and Co. were four yards and a two-point conversion away from tying the game - the Panthers saved by Kawann Short pressure that prevented Rodgers from seeing a wide-open receiver and prompted him to famously fling a tablet upon being shown the missed opportunity.

No tablets were harmed in the making of Carolina's victory over Minnesota last week, but a Vikings team down 11 more than midway through the fourth quarter worked its way into a similar situation before the Panthers pulled it out.

"We would prefer to win the game regularly and not always have to make it be so hard," tight end Greg Olsen said after the tight-rope act. "But over the years that has seemed to be our thing."

The Vikings victory marked the third time the Panthers have notably had to sweat it out after appearing to be in control. In road victories back in Week 4 and 5, the Patriots rallied from 14 down to tie it and the Lions rallied from 17 down to pull within three.

Think it's just a Panthers problem? In Week 6 alone around the rest of the NFC South, the Falcons forged a 17-point halftime before losing to the Dolphins; the Saints led Detroit 45-10 but eventually the Lions had the ball down 45-38 before an interception finally sealed it; and the Buccaneers trailed Arizona 31-0 before losing 38-33.

So, does it actually even qualify as a problem?

Linebacker Thomas Davis, who picked off Rodgers' last-ditch pass two years ago, said it's just an "indicator for how football really goes."

"You have your highs and you have your lows throughout every game. It's never going to be a game where you just go out and completely dominate," Davis said. "It really boils down to the good teams and the great teams in this league finding ways to weather that storm."

Fans often have a hard time seeing in that way. When their team takes a decent lead but doesn't score after the opponent does, concern sets in. Understandable. Human nature.

But then afterwards if the game gets too close for comfort, a narrative often emerges that the team took its foot off the gas offensively and fell into prevent mode on defense. Human nature dictates that can happen as well, but it's a fine line for coaches who naturally want to shorten the game.

Last Sunday, leading 24-13, the Panthers went three-and-out before the Vikings found the end zone with less than six minutes to go. Next drive, the Panthers again ran just three plays before the Vikings got the ball back and tied it with a field goal.

So did the Panthers back off offensively and open the door for a comeback? Well, their initial three-play possession featured a pass play on third-and-2. The second one featured two passes, the second of which was intercepted to put the Vikings in position to complete their comeback.

After the Vikings initially fell into a 24-13 hole, Minnesota's next three drives netted 22 yards and two first downs. So were the Vikings conservative (of course not) or a victim of good defensive play? The Panthers defense certainly didn't sit back on defense on the game's final drive, when after reclaiming the lead they blitzed on all four downs to wrap up the win.

It's worth noting that to have a chance to lose a lead, a team must have a lead in the first place. The Panthers scored first against the Vikings and eventually improved to 6-1 this season when striking first.

"It's important. If you can score early, it changes the dynamics of the game," head coach Ron Rivera said. "It doesn't matter who you're playing. It forces the opponent to play the game from behind, obviously."

The Panthers have had some scares when seeming to claim control, but they're 9-0 when leading at halftime, a mark matched only by the Eagles. Nineteen teams – including five currently in playoff position – have lost at least one game they led at halftime (the Colts have lost six such games).

If the Panthers build a lead Sunday, the Packers aren't going to pack it in. Rodgers is as capable of captaining a comeback as anyone to ever play the game.

Will that scenario develop, and how will it play out?

Hold on.