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Underdogs have their day

Posted Sep 24, 2017

On an NFL Sunday chocked full of surprises, Panthers must now prove that their unexpected loss was merely just "one of those days."

CHARLOTTE – When my 12-year-old son says something he shouldn't and is met with a look of disapproval, he quickly claims that it's actually "Opposite Day."

Welcome to "Opposite Day" in the NFL – unfortunately for the Panthers.

"It doesn't matter what you do the week before; it matters what you do on the day of the game. That was proven today," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "They were 0-2, and we were 2-0.

"That's how the game goes – it's whoever plays the best that day wins."

The Saints arrived at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday as an 0-2 team in a division where everyone else was undefeated (more to come on that). But New Orleans played like an unbeaten team and the Panthers played like a winless one as the Saints steamed to a 34-13 victory.

In a league where the only consistent victors seem to be the Patriots and parity, the latter rose up with a vengeance Sunday. The Patriots, in fact, were one of the few favorites to escape Sunday's trend and did so barely, edging the Texans in the final seconds by a 36-33 count after entering the day as the biggest Vegas favorite.

Even with New England pulling it out of the fire, six of the nine underdogs on Sunday's 1 p.m. slate were winners. The flip-the-script day was highlighted by the winless Bears knocking off the previously unbeaten Steelers and the unbeaten Broncos, Ravens, Dolphins and Buccaneers not just falling but falling hard.

Just like the Panthers.

"We can't go out there and think it's going to be given to us," cornerback James Bradberry said. "We've got to fight every time, every opponent."

Did the Saints simply know they had to have this one? Did the Panthers simply think they had this one in the bag?

It's not quite that simple.

"I don't think anybody came to play any harder than we did. We played hard; we just didn't play smart," head coach Ron Rivera said. "We didn't play well enough to win. That's why we got beat."

"He's right," safety Mike Adams offered, "because as a defense, we made mistakes that we normally don't make – a lot of self-inflicted wounds that we can control."

At the same time, one thing that leads to lack of execution is lack of focus, and one thing that can lead to lack of focus – even if it's not on an intentional, conscious level – is overconfidence. It's human nature, and it's the inescapable nature of competitive sports.

But that's not the entire picture.

A season is not made by two games, nor is the quality of a team defined in such a tight timeframe. The concerns about things that Carolina wasn't doing well during its 2-0 start – most notably how the Panthers had performed on offense – continued in the third game. And this time that came at a cost when a Saints offense certainly better than the team's record gashed a Panthers defense that seemed impenetrable against the 49ers and the Bills.

"It's frustrating because we felt like we had been doing some things good," defensive end Julius Peppers said one week after saying this is the best defense for which he's played. "We needed more attention to detail, more of a sense of urgency."

And, in the topsy-turvy world of the NFL, this result will again amp up the Panthers' sense of urgency. You could hear it in Rivera's voice at his postgame press conference when he talked about evaluating everything about Sunday's game and preparing to make any and all necessary adjustments.

Sometimes games like this are just inevitable clunkers, just bumps along the road that happen on occasion to really good teams. Sometimes games like this signal more, showing that the team in question actually has more questions and fewer answers than anyone previously realized.

As always, time will tell, but the Panthers won't just bide their time and simply accept what happened Sunday.

"We've just got to keep pushing, got to keep our head up. It's one game," rookie running back Christian McCaffrey said. "A lot of people will probably be down on us, and that's fine with us because we're a brotherhood and what matters is what's in this locker room. We're going to do everything we can to get it fixed.

"Everybody's got to step up. Everybody's got to start making plays."

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