CHARLOTTE – One of the great things about the NFL is that you never truly know from year to year what's going to happen.
For fans of teams coming off losing seasons, that reality can bring comfort. For fans of teams coming off winning seasons, that can be a harsh reality.
Who would have thought that the Dallas Cowboys, coming off a 4-12 season that frankly no one saw coming, would be 4-1 with a rookie quarterback under center?
And who in the world thought that the Carolina Panthers, coming off a truly special 15-1 season, would be 1-4 and in last place in the NFC South – a division they've won three consecutive years?
"It's very shocking," defensive end Charles Johnson said after the Panthers tumbled 17-14 to Tampa Bay on Monday Night Football. "All we can do is just come back to work. I'm not worried about last year. I'm just focused on trying to get a win."
How did it come to this? Given the unpredictability of the NFL, hardly anyone predicted that the Panthers would go 15-1 again. But no one predicted a 1-4 start.
"It's not the way we wanted to start the season, obviously, but it's where we are," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "We've just got to do our best to rebound from this and move in the right direction."
This group of players knows how to bounce back. In 2014, even a six-game losing streak didn't derail them. Benefitting from a division with losing records across the board, Carolina rallied to win its final four games and capture the NFC South.
The year before, Carolina started 1-3, Undeterred, the Panthers went 11-1 the rest of the way to begin what is now an unprecedented run of three consecutive playoff appearances.
But, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the so-called "Super Bowl hangover" has inexplicably struck before. The other time in franchise history that the Panthers reached the Super Bowl – at the conclusion of the 2003 season – they started out 1-4 the next season. And 1-5. And 1-6. And 1-7.
Which way will this team go?
"It's unfortunate, but we have to be able to respond correctly," safety Kurt Coleman said. "We're not going to put our heads down. I'm not going to let anybody mope. We have a lot of life left in us. I'm continue to push myself and push this team because I still believe in us."
Belief can be a powerful thing, but it's hard to believe the Panthers are talking about such things at this juncture. Their previous three losses came against teams that currently carry a combined record of 13-2, but Tampa Bay came limping into Bank of America Stadium on a three-game skid.
They ran the ball early – with their third-string running back – pretty much at will. But being a 1-3 team, they only led 6-0 at halftime despite a pretty dominant two quarters. Then the Panthers, with Derek Anderson starting for injured reigning MVP Cam Newton, began to hit their stride and began to take control of the game.
That's when one of the NFL's great equalizers – turnovers – helped turn the tide again. With the score tied at 14-14, two promising possessions for the Panthers ended in Anderson turnovers, the second one coming on a first-and-goal from the 1.
"Balls get tipped when you're 12-0 too, but they hit the ground," Anderson said. "We've just got to tighten the bolts."
Even though it may have felt to fans like the season was over when Roberto Aguayo's 38-yard field goal as the clock hit zero split the uprights, it most certainly is not.
"The season is not over." Who could have imagined such a phrase being needed under any circumstances after Week 5?
Such is life in the NFL – for better or worse.
"We have just started the second quarter (of the season), but the truth of the matter is we have to start getting things rolling," head coach Ron Rivera said. "You can't look behind. There is nothing we can do about it.
"I'm moving forward, and I expect (the players) to go forward as well."
View game action photos from Carolina's 17-14 loss to Tampa Bay.