CHARLOTTE – Panthers head coach Matt Rhule was careful to defend Teddy Bridgewater, saying it wasn't his quarterback's fault he was sacked on the first play of their final drive.
Rhule was also careful to defend Rasul Douglas, saying a late deep ball given up wasn't on the cornerback but the fault of a safety that was supposed to be over the top.
The particular players involved may change week-to-week, but the theme remains familiar.
The Panthers were close. The Panthers gave themselves a chance. The Panthers lost.
Sunday's 32-27 loss to the Broncos was similar to so many games this year, and they're stacking up fast. That's seven losses by one score so far this season, leaving them 4-9 with three games against likely or at least possible playoff teams (at Green Bay, at Washington, New Orleans at home).
"Obviously, unbelievably disappointed with the result of today," Rhule said. "I thought it was not our best, most well-played football game. I thought our team showed a lot of heart fighting back to give us a chance. To have the ball at the end with a chance to go win the game, as has happened many times this year but just not enough execution. Too much beating ourselves to win the game."
Rhule has mentioned "execution" a number of times after games, because as they go through this building process, he keeps reminding people that winning close games is not as simple as deciding to, or saying a set of magic words to make people have the confidence to close games. It's being lined up correctly, playing the right assignment, and not committing penalties. There are simple, tangible things he's looking for, even as the greater trend is moving in the wrong direction.
Rhule talked last week about how issues such as eight players going on the COVID-19 list (which made practices a bit of a grab bag all week) gave the Panthers a chance to give a statement on the team's character Sunday. After the loss, he went back to the fact he didn't think it was as much intangible as specific things he could see.
"I don't worry about our ability to handle adversity," he said. "I just think our execution has to be significantly better. You can't have penalties like that. You can't, I think we were third and whatever and we gave up a punt return for a touchdown. We had two guys there. We didn't make a play. Just a lot of poor execution today. Cover three and they throw the ball over our heads for a touchdown.
"The fact that our team battles back, I'm not worried about their mindset. We have to play better football, and ultimately, as I said earlier, that all falls back on me. I'm certainly not worried about their mindset. They will continue to battle. At least that's what I expect them to do."
After what they thought was a season-defining shutout against Detroit with their backup quarterback (though it was against a team that fired a coach the following week), the Panthers have sunk back into familiar themes from the five-game losing streak which preceded.
They had the ball in their hands late with a chance to win the game. They did not win the game.
"It's easy for coach to say it's his fault and things like that, but us as players, starting with me, we have to take some ownership in this as well and be accountable and understand that the coach's job is to get us to Sunday. It's our job to go out there and execute on Sundays, and you watch us in the first half, we didn't do anything," said Bridgewater, whose offense totaled just 88 yards in the first half. "We had our defense on the field too long. We were committing penalties, moving ourselves back, negative plays – when you do those types of things, that's not coaching, that's on us as players.
"Once I get in rhythm in these games, it's like our offense flows and everything flows off my energy. So if I could just come out hot or just have the right mindset, have the right energy and pass it along the sideline, I think it'll help us."
There were specific mistakes throughout that Rhule and others pointed to. Those mistakes have left them with a very small margin for error in any game, so when the errors come, they become daggers.
Rhule pointed out that on the last Broncos' touchdown -- a 49-yard pass to K.J. Hamler, in which Douglas will be the last player visible in all the highlights -- that the problem was that they were counting on a deep safety over the top of the coverage.
Juston Burris was not there, however, and the result was a game-clinching score and a career-high fourth touchdown pass for Denver quarterback Drew Lock, who finished with a sterling 149.5 passer rating and didn't throw an interception for the first time in eight starts.
Having to play perfectly to have a chance, as it turns out, is hard.
"I wouldn't say perfect, but we definitely have to execute," cornerback Donte Jackson said. "We can't afford to just be out there not going our job or just having brain farts.
"I wouldn't say perfect, but I would definitely say we can't afford to not execute."
That was the theme Rhule, and most of the players, kept coming back to.
The fact it sounds so familiar remains the biggest problem.
View photos from Carolina's Week 14 contest against Denver at Bank of America Stadium.