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Carolina Panthers

Panthers down but not out


ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – The contrast couldn't have been more striking.

As Panthers players walked off the field following the final play of Sunday's shocking defeat at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Buffalo Bills fans rained down deafening, deliriously joyous noise.

Panthers players, their ears undoubtedly ringing, shuffled toward the tunnel in stunned silence, a silence that grew louder once away from the crowd and in the locker room.

But moments later, the Panthers began the crucial task of bouncing back.

Their message: We won't stand silently by.

"We have relentless guys that will have fire in their eyes," quarterback and team captain Cam Newton said following the 24-23 loss. "There's no doubt in my mind that we will continuously push forward to become a better team.

"As far as quitting, there will be none of that."

After so many demoralizing losses in the early portions of the past two seasons, it would be easy for the Panthers to throw their arms up, exclaim to the heavens, "Why me?" and think to themselves, "Wait till next year."

But that's not the character of this group, a group that not long ago overcame a slow start. In 2012, following a 2-8 start to the season, the Panthers rallied to win five of their final six games.

This team isn't 2-8. It's 0-2.

"We're not out of it by any means," said Charles Godfrey, one of two safeties on crutches after a game that took its toll physically as well as mentally. "Anything is possible. There's not a script written that says this is the way people make it to the Super Bowl or playoffs or whatever.

"You never know."

Obviously, the Panthers know that losses like the one Sunday have to cease sooner rather than later if this team is to be playing into 2014. For 10th time in head coach Ron Rivera's two-plus seasons – and the second time in as many games - the Panthers saw a fourth-quarter lead slip away. This one was particularly painful, with the Bills taking over at their own 20-yard line with no timeouts and traveling the length of the field for the winning touchdown with two seconds remaining.

"With us being in so many tight games, you would think we would know by now, but it's still a learning and maturing thing for us," Newton said. "In tight situations, we have to somehow make a play.

"We will scratch and claw and find a way to win games."

Last year, the winning formula eluded the Panthers until November, too far into the season for playoff purposes. At this juncture in 2013, as silly as it may seem to point out, the Panthers still control their own destiny as far as the playoffs are concerned.

"It's a long season," defensive end Greg Hardy said. "This is something that can bring us together."

Last year in Week 4, the Panthers lost in arguably even more difficult circumstances. In position to put a difficult 1-2 start behind them by improving to 2-0 in NFC South games with a road victory over the unbeaten Atlanta Falcons, the Panthers lost on a field goal set up by a 59-yard pass from the 1-yard line with 59 seconds and no timeouts.

After that, it took them a long time to recover – too long – but they did. It was evident what a different team the Panthers had developed into in Week 14, when they were clearly the better team in a 30-20 victory over the Falcons.

It provided a bittersweet moment, though, one that reminded the team of what could have been.

Following Sunday's similarly stunning defeat in Buffalo, the Panthers can still talk about what can be.

"We've got 14 more games," wide receiver Steve Smith said. "The bottom line is that we lost, and as players we let each other down. We let our fan base down, and we opened the door for criticism.

"We have to weather the storm. You have to get yourself up and dust yourself off."

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