The Carolina Panthers defense did exactly what it hoped it could.
The Chicago Bears defense did exactly what the Panthers feared it would.
Carolina's defense was dominant in every way – well, in almost every way. The Bears' offensive output consisted of a chip-shot field goal set up by a 70-yard pass play out of the backfield. Otherwise, the Bears mustered 83 total yards and four first downs – two of those coming as Chicago ran out the clock.
Why would Chicago be killing the clock on the tail end of such a struggle for its offense? Because the Bears defense, while not as statistically dominant, dominated the action on the scoreboard with a pair of long touchdowns that spelled the difference in a 17-3 victory.
That the Panthers defense could force six three-and-outs, a missed field goal and a successful 19-yard field goal with linebacker Luke Kuechly watching from the sidelines? Encouraging.
That it wasn't nearly enough? Discouraging.
The Panthers' offense moved the ball fairly well most of the game. Carolina totaled 293 yards and 20 first downs – not overwhelming numbers but not bad numbers against a stingy Chicago defense. Three of Carolina's first five drives reached field goal range, but at the end of them, the Panthers found themselves in a 14-3 hole.
Their opening drive ended in tragic fashion when the Panthers, trying to find ways to get rookie wide receiver Curtis Samuel more involved, pitched the ball to him near the red zone. It was an unnaturally long pitch by quarterback Cam Newton out to the right but was on target nonetheless, but it bounced off Samuel's facemask and the ensuing scrambled resulted in a 75-yard touchdown return by rookie safety Eddie Jackson.
Then early in the second quarter, again knocking on the red zone door, Newton tried to squeeze in a third-down pass into Kelvin Benjamin. The ball was tipped, and Jackson was Eddie on the spot again, this time taking off for a 76-yard score.
The Panthers defense never relented, but the Panthers offense never recovered.
So what are Panthers fans to make of the outcome? The good news is Carolina won't face many defenses as fierce as the Bears. The reality for the defense is it won't face many offenses as manageable as the Bears.
Still, defense wins championships, and this defense is playing championship-caliber football. Aside from a head scratcher in Week 3 against a Saints team that hasn't lost since and now leads the NFC South (and some late-game success for the Patriots and Lions in Panthers victories), the defense has been as good as any in the league.
The offense has been much more of a mixed bag. Newton and Co. struggled for three weeks, surged for two weeks, and has now struggled the last two weeks against really good and opportunistic defenses. Two weeks running, turnovers have spelled the difference, and that's the one thing Carolina's defense isn't doing – getting takeaways.
The Panthers approach the season's halfway point still very much in the playoff race. The next two weeks will be critical, with division matchups at the Buccaneers and then back home against the Falcons.
If the defense keeps playing like this, the Panthers should be a factor. The offense, however, remains the X factor.