CHARLOTTE — The Panthers were in no mood to think about anything beyond the pain of Sunday's loss to the Steelers.
It was that kind of day, and the talk of "playoff mentality" and a two-game win streak dissipated quickly after the 24-16 loss.
"Losing at home, outside of the playoff thing, is real hurtful," Panthers wide receiver DJ Moore said. "To know that we've got to possibly depend on other teams losing or something is hurtful when we had the keys to it."
But then, a few hours later, a funny thing happened in Tampa. They got the keys back.
As much as the Panthers didn't want to talk about their playoff chances after an ugly loss to the Steelers, the truth is they're no worse off than they were when they woke up Sunday morning, thanks to Cincinnati's 34-23 win over the Buccaneers.
The Bucs are now 6-8, and the Panthers are a game behind at 5-9. They have tiebreakers on their side because of their division record (3-1), and if they win out (including at Tampa in Week 17), they still have a clear path to the NFC South title.
But no one wanted to hear that late Sunday afternoon, and interim head coach Steve Wilks made a point of that, when he spoke moments after the Buccaneers kicked off (and took a 17-0 lead before allowing 34 unanswered points).
Wilks said he didn't think the increased expectations that came with the Panthers' sudden notoriety was a factor, nor did he want to humor the possibilities of the future in the wake of a game in which they struggled on both lines of scrimmage and didn't run — the things he prides himself on.
"I thought the focus was fine. The execution did not prevail," Wilks said. "Still not worrying about it last week, not worrying about it now. We've got to worry about trying to get ourselves right to win a football game. I don't want anybody in this building talking playoffs."
— The Steelers took advantage of an early Panthers injury when cornerback CJ Henderson left the game with an ankle injury.
Henderson was seen walking around on the sidelines (though without a helmet) throughout the game, and Wilks said he wasn't able to return. That meant second-year cornerback Keith Taylor Jr. was up, and he had a rough go of it.
The Steelers targeted Taylor throughout the rest of the game, opting not to test Jaycee Horn on the other side. It worked, and Taylor knew it.
"I've just got to execute. I know I'm a better player than what I showed y'all today," Taylor said. "I've just got to bounce back from this and be better for the team. I take full responsibility and just feel like I've got to play better. That's all it is."
With Donte Jackson on injured reserve, the Panthers found themselves suddenly thin at corner. They recently added veteran T.J. Carrie, but he was the only other corner on the roster. They still have Tae Hayes and Madre Harper on the practice squad if they need reinforcements this week.
"Don't really know his status. Moving forward, it is an ankle," Wilks said of Henderson's injury. "With that, next man up, and Keith's got to go out there and perform and make plays. . . .
"Keith's got to make plays. Whoever is in there, TJ Carrie, Keith Taylor, whoever it may be, they've got to make plays."
— The book is out on the Panthers offense. They want to run, and opponents know this.
Still, they were able to throw it well enough Sunday to give themselves a chance, at least early.
Sam Darnold was a clean 14-of-23 passing for 225 yards with a touchdown, for a 108.1 passer rating and his third straight game without a turnover. Early in the game, he was impeccable, completing six of his first seven passes for 93 yards and a score (a perfect 158.3 rating at that point).
"I think with the way we are able to run the ball, any teams that are able to run the ball, you see more one-high coverage," Darnold said. "So that's when our chances come to be able to take shots up top. We have to be able to hit them. That's another thing that we have to do is be able to hit those shots when they come."
The Panthers didn't have as many shots late, as the Steelers had an extreme time of possession advantage (36:11-23:49), and took the air out of the game with a nearly 12-minute drive to start the third quarter. It also didn't help that the Panthers had just 21 rushing yards (their fewest in a decade) on only 16 attempts (at least 30 fewer than they had in recent wins over the Falcons, Broncos and Seahawks).
Wilks was asked if Darnold would remain at quarterback and said he had to evaluate everyone, but Darnold has played cleanly since returning to the starting lineup.