NEW ORLEANS – The Carolina Panthers showed up at the psyched-up Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday with a golden opportunity, one that was ultimately lost.
But all is not lost. Not by a long shot.
"It's disappointing, but it's not the end of the world," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "It's very frustrating. We know we can go out and play better. But we're 9-4, and everything we want to accomplish is still there in front of us."
In the first game since the Panthers finally caught New Orleans atop the NFC South standings, the Saints held serve at home with an impressive 31-13 victory that gave them a significant upper hand, though not an unbreakable chokehold, in the division race.
It was a big game, but it was one game.
That's the approach the Saints took Sunday, six days after their 34-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. The Panthers, who recovered from a 1-3 start to enter Sunday with a franchise-record eight consecutive victories, plan to take the same approach.
"I'd rather get my butt kicked now than four weeks from now (in the playoffs). We're still a good team," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "9-4 is great. You'd love to be 13-0, but at 9-4 you're right in the mix of the playoff picture.
"The worst thing we could do is hang our heads and mope around and let one loss turn into two."
Gross doesn't think that will happen, and the Panthers can't afford to let it happen if they want an opportunity to be the ones kicking butt come January.
The Panthers began Week 14 as the leaders for the first of two NFC wild card berths, a position they still hold entering Week 15. But a San Francisco team that Carolina owns the tiebreaker over caught them for the No. 5 spot, while an Arizona team that holds the tiebreaker over Carolina pulled within one game.
The loss hurt, but it didn't inflict irreparable damage. And Gross believes that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
"We lost. I don't feel good about that, but I feel good that we can learn from this and get a little bit revitalized," he said. "You win eight in a row, and everything is peaches and cream every Monday. But when you lose, you get reminded of all your little faults. That might not be bad for us."
You can bet head coach Ron Rivera will find a way to squeeze future gains out of Sunday's loss. This Panthers team has been great about moving onto the next thing following wins, and Rivera will make sure they do the same following this loss – but not before hammering home some points.
"The message was, 'Learn from it.' That's the bottom line," Rivera told the media immediately after addressing his team. "We have to learn from it, break the tape down and see what we need to correct and get better at. Then we've got to go out and get it done.
"We'll get over this one very quickly, because there's still a lot of football left and a lot of things still on the line."
Rivera said he was "surprised and disappointed" by Sunday's showing and knows that the Panthers are better than they showed. They'll get a chance to even the score when the Saints visit Bank of America Stadium in Week 16, but they now need some help to claim the division over the Saints.
But first, the Panthers must help themselves.
"We took a little step back, but you've got to look at it, review and correct it and make sure you don't get beat the same way," safety Mike Mitchell said. "You use a loss like this."