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Loss brings an emotional end to playoff hopes

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TAMPA, Fla. — There were moments throughout Sunday when the Panthers thought they were going to pull off something special to cap a late-season run no one expected, to shock the football world.

Coming that close only seemed to accentuate the pain in the locker room.

Because they knew they had a shot.

Losing 30-24 to the Buccaneers put an end to a push for the playoffs with an interim head coach, and perhaps a few interim players, and a dream that will now have to wait another year. But the Panthers also knew they led 14-0 and 21-10, so they had a chance to not only win this one but carry momentum into the regular season finale with a chance at something special.

"The message to the team afterward was, we didn't do what we wanted to do," interim coach Steve Wilks said. "They made more plays than we did today, so we've got to give those guys all the credit. We didn't play according to our DNA. Physicality and effort, which I thought, for the most part, you saw that. We didn't play smart. Not at all.

"But the one thing I stated to those guys, the last element, that's what we're going to do this week, we're going to finish. That's what men do. That's what good football teams do, regardless of the record, regardless of the circumstances. We're going to come in tomorrow, put this game to bed, and have a great week of practice. We're going to finish next week. And that's our mindset."

Of course, next week will close a regular season with no trip to the playoffs — the fifth straight season without a payoff for a long season.

But knowing how close they actually were will haunt them.

After stopping a 90-yard Tampa Bay drive in the third quarter, that drive when it appeared Tom Brady had just Tom Brady'd them, they got a bit of magic. Defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos blocked a field goal to leave the Bucs without points, and the Panthers with hope. Blocked kicks are a thing for Carolina in Tampa (they blocked two field goals and an extra point to win here in 2003 to spark a Super Bowl run), but this one didn't translate.

"I knew that we were still in the fight," Gross-Matos said of that stand and his plays on the ball. "I didn't have the mentality that we were going to win (because of it). I knew we needed to finish. Unfortunately, we didn't get it done.

"Personally, I'm hurt. I feel like it was everybody's dream to win that game, to win the next one, and go to the playoffs. So I feel like we fell short of that. It was right there for us."

There were plenty of moments in which it looked like it was going to work. The Bucs protect Tom Brady better than any team in the league (a league-fewest 19 sacks allowed), but the Panthers got to him three times. Gross-Matos and Marquis Haynes Sr. each had one sack, and so did linebacker Frankie Luvu to cap another incredible day for the former bit-player-turned-standout.

Luvu had a team-high 13 tackles and three tackles for loss. He now has 104 tackles this year, along with 7.0 sacks and 17 tackles for loss – all career highs. And while he's soft-spoken by nature, his mood at his locker was evident by how carefully he spoke.

"We had a shot," Luvu said. "There's not much to say about that. It was win or go home. So that was the mentality. Everybody in here had the same mentality.

"It was about finish. That was the thing coach Wilks has talked about, about accountability and trust and commitment. But at the end of the day, we have to finish."

For Brian Burns, not getting to Brady added to the frustration of missing the playoffs.

"Disappointed in myself and the defense. I feel like I didn't make I didn't make enough plays out there today," he said. "I get it; everybody has a game plan, and they had a pretty decent game plan against me, but I still didn't make the impact I wanted to personally.

"We were playing well, but at the end of the day, it still wasn't good enough for what we wanted to do. I mean, I'm not going to disregard all the efforts that was made to to get us this far. But at the end of the day, it's not what we want. We want to go much further, so it just wasn't good enough."

Burns was then asked if it was the toughest loss of his career, and he paused and said, "yeah."

Being this close to the goal and falling short made it hurt that much more.

That made Wilks' words poignant for the team. Plenty of people in that locker room believed in his message and were convinced they were about to do the statistically near-impossible, to recover from a 1-5 start to make the postseason.

Those who have been here when times were good knew how close they were — to the playoffs and each other — which made it hard to put into words.

"I don't know if deflating is the right word," long snapper JJ Jansen said. "It's hard. It hurts. We've got a really good team, a really good group of men. We played our butts off for 10 weeks. To be in such a good close game like that, to make so many plays, and not the one final one, that hurts. There's no moral victories, but I'm proud of how we played.

"The hurt of a loss, and obviously an important game. But it's not deflating, not this group of men, not under coach Wilks. I have full faith we'll go out next week with a lot to prove and play really well. I think for a different group of guys, it would be real easy to shut the season down. Just not this group.

"It's a young team, building and growing and getting better. This was obviously a meaningful game, but it doesn't change our approach, doesn't change who we are at the core of our team, our DNA. It doesn't change any of that. While next week won't have the same meaning this week did, it's still a lot to play for, we want to finish the season strong as a group. It will be under different circumstances, but I imagine we'll play with the same energy and emotion that we've shown these last 10 weeks."

View the best in-game photos from Carolina's Week 17 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on New Years Day.

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