1) Disappointing in Detroit
When Devin Funchess played for the first time as a pro in his hometown last fall, a fantastic touchdown grab highlighted a seven-catch performance on eight targets.
Funchess again saw eight targets in his return visit to Detroit on Sunday, but there was no feel-good storyline this time after he caught just two.
So was he pressing in front of friends and family?
“I couldn’t tell you that,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “You’d have to ask Devin that. That’s a question for him.”
What do you say, Devin?
“It’s not even about where we play. Everywhere we play I expect to be my best person. I wasn’t that today,” Funchess admitted.
His day started well enough when he helped extend the Panthers’ opening drive with a 23-yard reception. But three plays later, he dropped a 4-yard pass at the goal line. That was the first of two clear drops by Funchess, who was also unable to haul in three contested throws.
“Anytime the ball is in your catch radius, you have to make it,” Rivera said. “The guy’s a terrific receiver. He’s made a lot of big plays for us. Unfortunately, he had a couple that didn’t go his way.”
According to Funchess, he’s had worse games, but he declined to share when. He also grew frustrated with questions about how much of the loss he should shoulder.
“This game isn’t just on Funch,” he said.
“There's nobody's fault. We just dropped the L. We just dropped the L. We played hard. We just dropped the L. That's it. Stop trying to figure out who's fault it is. It's nobody's fault.”
Which is fair. There was plenty of blame to go around. Graham Gano and Cam Newton each took some – and we'll get to the defense later. Still, the Panthers had a chance to escape with a win, as ugly as it would have been.
“You take my performance outside that game, we still were in it to win the game. So it wasn't just solely on me,” Funchess said. “I will take full responsibility of myself, most definitely. I have to do more for the team.
“I didn't play good. We lost. But I'm not the only person on this team. I'm one of 11.”
2) Spark flickers then fades
To his credit, Funchess offered up another mea culpa on the 82-yard catch and run by DJ Moore, who was tracked down by cornerback Darius Slay.
“That was on me,” Funchess said. “I didn't block Slay, and Slay went up and caught him. So I take that on me.”
Still, Moore’s latest spectacular effort seemed to be a turning point. Until that moment early in the third quarter, the Panthers had just 89 passing yards and were pinned back at their 6-yard line facing a third-and-10. Then the rookie lit a spark near the sideline.
“It was high, so I had to jump,” Moore said. “Once I jumped, I tried to see where the first down was while he was pushing me. Then I landed kind of awkward and just tried to make something after it.”
He sure did.
After leaping over cornerback Mike Ford to make the grab:
Moore took a sharp right and sprinted down the middle of the field. But as he looked up at the video boards a couple of times, he saw Slay:
“That’s a huge play, that’s a great effort play,” Lions head coach Matt Patricia said. “Great hustle, great pursuit, that’s a really fast guy that he’s chasing. Fortunately, we’ve got a faster guy for that moment.”
Despite Slay’s stop, the Panthers were set up at the Lions’ 12. Then Christian McCaffrey gained 8 yards on two rushes before Newton was sacked on third down. That's when Gano’s 34-yard field goal clanked off the left upright.
“We had a real, big explosive play and unfortunately, we didn’t get points out of that,” Rivera said. “We have to get points. In this league, if you don’t score points, you’re not going to win games.”
3) Young bucks keep rolling
Despite the doom and gloom that emerges from a loss like this, there was yet more proof the Panthers have a pair of promising young wideouts.
There’s Moore, whose 157 yards were the most by a Carolina wideout since Steve Smith burnt the Bears for 181 on Oct. 2, 2011. Moore caught all but one of his eight targets and toe-tapped in for an 8-yard score before Carolina’s ill-fated two-point attempt.
“My confidence every week has gotten better,” Moore said. “The more I play, the better I understand the playbook and know what I've got to do.”
And there’s Curtis Samuel, who caught five passes for 55 yards, including a leaping 12-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
“I had press coverage out there. My job when I'm out there is to win the one-on-one matchup and give the quarterback a chance to make a good throw,” Samuel said. “I gave him a good release at the line, and Cam delivered a great ball.”
With veteran Torrey Smith (knee) inching closer to a return from a four-game absence, the Panthers will soon need to decide how to divvy up snaps. But it’s nice to have options, including two that are developing before everyone's eyes.
“It's very good for everyone to see that. I think the most important people for them to see is themselves,” Newton said of Moore and Samuel. “They’ve made tremendous strides over the last couple weeks.
“Making the catches that they made today is extremely impressive.”
4) Missed (tackling) opportunities
The Panthers went their first eight games without scoring a touchdown on their opening drive. They’ve now done it twice in as many games, which would’ve been a much nicer note if opponents didn’t counter with scores of their own.
In Pittsburgh, the Steelers took just one play to go 75 yards.
“This one happened a little bit differently,” Rivera said. “We didn’t tackle.”
The Lions went 72 yards on their first possession, a 12-play drive that featured a number of missed tackles on rookie running back Kerryon Johnson.
“You've got to hit and wrap and the bring the guy to the ground,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “It'll be something that we'll stress during the week. We stress it every week, the coaches do a good job. We’ve just got to make the tackles.”
The defense settled down from there, limiting the Lions to 158 yards and two fields goals over their next seven drives. But Detroit strung together a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown march midway through the fourth quarter when emerging second-year wideout Kenny Golloday twice got behind cornerback James Bradberry.
“On the third down, (quarterback Matt Stafford) scrambled out of the pocket. (Golloday) pretty much converted his route, ran the comeback, saw the quarterback scramble and made a good play on the ball,” Bradberry said. “Then that last play, we were in man, (Golloday) ran a seven-route. Good catch, good pass.
“I felt like I played pretty well on the plays. Quarterback made a play on the third-down one, and he made a tough catch on the touchdown.”
Certainly, Golloday and Stafford deserve credit, as does Johnson, who averaged 5.7 yards on 17 touches before leaving in the second half with a knee injury. But this was the seventh time in 10 games the Panthers have allowed at least 300 yards and 20 points – numbers we’re not accustomed to seeing so regularly in the Rivera era.
“We just haven’t gone out and executed a full game,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “We’ve had games where we just had a lack of execution and guys not being where they need to be. And then we had a game like today where we just didn’t tackle well. We were in position to make plays and we just didn’t come away with the plays.”
5) Bumpy road
Sunday’s loss continued a disturbing trend the Panthers can’t seem to shake. If not for that historic comeback in Philadelphia, they’d be winless on the road this season.
And can you be a good team if you can’t win away from home?
“I hate to say it, but no, you can’t,” wideout Jarius Wright said. “You try to win them all at home and steal as many on the road as you can. We’ve got to have some on the road.”
Added cornerback Captain Munnerlyn: “Our road record is terrible. Your game has to travel. Our game is stuck at Bank of America Stadium. We need to travel and get some wins.”
Atlanta, Washington, Pittsburgh and now Detroit. All four featured some similar mistakes, and all but Atlanta included a touchdown on the opponents’ opening drive.
“We've got to start faster on defense. That's a big key,” Kuechly said. “I think it's something we've got to take a look at and see why we're not starting to as fast as we need to, but that's a factor that we need to improve on.”
It’s not like the defense is solely to blame for the road woes – especially early. In the four losses, the offense has averaged 9.2 points and a turnover in the first half.
“We've just been so far gone on the road, we've got to be better,” Newton said. “We've got to be better.”
6) What next?
So the good news for the Panthers is next week the Seahawks have to travel to Charlotte, where Carolina has won 10 straight – tied with New England for the league’s longest current home win streak.
Yes, the road stuff needs to be figured out, but there’s time.
“I still feel like we still have a chance. We've just got to pick it up fast,” Munnerlyn said. “Nobody's going to wait on you. It's the NFL. You have games like this. You've got to learn from it, learn from it fast and you've got to pick it up.”
The biggest concern is what’s happening in the division. With the 9-1 Saints continuing to roll over everything in their way, the Panthers are now three games back in the NFC South with six to play. Yet there’s plenty left to play for.
"You've got to move on from tough games and move on to the next one because we understand we're in a pretty good position,” Kuechly said. “We’re not in the best position, but you understand that at the beginning of the year you want to put yourself in a place where you can be in the playoffs.
“We still have that in front of us, but it's going to be a more difficult road.”
Figuratively – and literally.
View the top ten photos by team photographer, Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez, and second shooter, Brett Carlsen.