CHICAGO – For more than a month now, the Panthers have endured a recurring nightmare, a particularly insidious one at that.
It isn't one of those dreams where all is dark, where all is lost from the very beginning. In this nasty nightmare, a sense of hope exists throughout - until it all turns at the end.
"We get our hearts ripped out every week," Panthers cornerback Josh Norman said following Sunday's 23-22 loss to the Chicago Bears. "If we could just take the fourth quarter out completely…"
Had the teams stopped the game after three quarters Sunday, the Panthers would be celebrating a 19-7 victory. In their three previous games, they led two late in the fourth quarter and were one yard away from taking a lead late in the other one.
"It's unbelievable. I've never seen anything like it," Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. "If you told somebody how these weeks have gone and the different ways we have lost, they wouldn't even believe you. Eventually, you just have to put an end to it. I don't even know what to tell you. We've talked about it. We've given speeches.
"We've done everything, but we just don't take care of business in the fourth quarter. I don't know what it is. It's a mentality."
It's certainly a pattern. In 2011, the Panthers were 1-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less. This year, they're already 0-5.
The thing about this latest loss was that few observers thought the 1-5 Panthers had a chance to even keep it close on the road against the 5-1 Bears.
"A lot of teams in this position would just come up here and get beat by 30," Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross said. "This game looked different, felt different than the past few, but that doesn't mean anything when you still lose.
"Just because you had a chance doesn't make it feel good when you don't win. But if we can give that effort every week - I keep saying it and I'm starting to sound like an idiot - we can win some games."
For multiple reasons – from the turmoil of the week to the quality of the opponent and the venue – the Bears game arguably was the most difficult left on the schedule. So all other things being equal, Sunday's showing may well have resulted in victory over anyone remaining on the schedule.
Alas, only the Bears were beatable for the Panthers on Sunday. Still, the Panthers can at least feel like the nightmare could end soon if they bear with it.
"We've just got to keep enduring, keep going and keep going," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said. "The defense played an excellent game. We came out and put together some great drives.
"There are too many good things we did in this game to just dwell on the bad things. Of course we didn't get the win, but we're just scratching the surface."