CHARLOTTE – Multiple times this season, it has felt like the Panthers were on the verge of putting it all together.
When they didn't, they still had plenty of time.
But now, after another almost-great game ended with another grating loss, time could be running out.
"We've still got a few games left, so we've got to focus in on the problems we have finishing off games," veteran center Ryan Kalil said after Carolina suffered a 30-27 loss to Seattle on Sunday. "I felt like we had addressed them, but obviously we didn't so we've got to go back to work.
"Losing hurts. We don't win, we don't go to the playoffs."
Kalil, in his 12th and presumably final NFL season, has been through more ups and downs than most. He knows that downs are a part of the deal, and at the end of the day it's about getting in the playoffs and then playing your best football.
Sunday's setback was a big blow to that part about getting in the playoffs. A victory would have kept Carolina atop the NFC wild card race with the tiebreaker over the Seahawks in hand, but now with both teams at 6-5, Seattle is ahead by virtue of the head-to-head. The Panthers also don't hold the tiebreaker over the other 6-5 non-division leader thanks to their loss in Washington in Week 6.
The playoffs remain the goal, and remain a realistic goal. But after losing a game that felt a little like a playoff game – a third consecutive loss at that – the playoffs aren't what the Panthers need to be thinking about right now.
"We need one win. Let's start with one win," quarterback Cam Newton said. "Everybody who is looking at the calendar and saying, 'We can beat this team. We can beat that team. We play them at home.' We need one win, and we can start with that."
Newton sees the potential in this team. He's seen it when the Panthers put themselves in big holes in Atlanta and Washington and nearly climbed all the way out. And he saw it again Sunday, when he was on fire but the team got burned by uncharacteristic shortcomings in the red zone.
"We have a lot of capabilities and a lot of potential, but I've said it before, potential has never did nothing," Newton said. "We show a lot of flashes, but at the same time we miss a lot of layups.
"We just have to shore it up. When we click, it's a thing of beauty. But having nine guys understand what they're supposed to do, having 10 guys knowing what they're supposed to do, and one mishap? We understand that the perfect game is still out there."
The Panthers appeared to hit their stride when they did dig entirely out of a hole away from home, when they erased a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win at Philadelphia. Home victories against Baltimore and Tampa Bay followed, setting up a primetime showdown with a similarly streaking Steelers team.
That did not go well, nor did a presumed bounce-back game at a struggling Lions team last week. A return home – for the one home game for a while with two road games on either side of it – seemed like it could be the salve. But the Seahawks as they're apt to do made one more play than the Panthers, and now Carolina has followed a three-game winning streak with a three-game losing streak.
The potential to put it all together remains. The potential to peak at the right time remains.
But that talk is for another day. Hopefully.
"You can take this two different ways: You can let it affect you next week, or we can come out and play like the team that we know we are," wide receiver Jarius Wright said. "Hopefully we come out and play like the team we know we are."
View game action photos from the Panthers 30-27 loss against the Seahawks.