Fans don’t want to hear this right now. Panthers players and coaches probably don’t want to hear it, either.
But what the Panthers are going through right now is, like it or not, the reality of life in the NFL.
With only one exception, the seemingly unflappable New England Patriots, sustained success in the modern NFL is elusive. The league is built for close games, the kind of games the Panthers have been in pretty much every week this season. And consistently winning close games in the NFL is elusive.
Endure four nail-biters like the Panthers have for four weeks running now, and the most likely outcome is 2-2. But sometimes you’re going to win all four. Other times you’re going to lose all four.
Unfortunately, that’s what has happened to the Panthers over the last month, and as a result they now sit at 6-7 and must win out to even have a shot at returning to the playoffs. If they don’t go at least 2-0-1, back-to-back seasons above .500 will continue to elude them.
But that’s life in the NFL as well.
Just look around the NFC South. The Saints clinched their second straight division title Sunday. The three years before that? 7-9. 7-9. 7-9. The Falcons are going to miss the playoffs after making it the previous two years. The three years before that? 4-12. 6-10. 8-8. The Buccaneers haven’t even been to the playoffs since 2007.
Carolina’s 6-2 start makes what has happened that much harder to accept. But that start included a win on a 63-yard field goal and the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in franchise history. The Panthers aren't as good as their 6-2 start. They also aren't as bad as this 0-5 stretch.
The Panthers’ history of never topping .500 in consecutive seasons is disappointing, but it’s a little overblown. The league is about getting to the playoffs and then seeing what happens, and the Panthers in 2014 got in and 7-8-1 and won a playoff game. What’s more significant than the .500 thing is that the Panthers have gone to the playoffs four of the last five years.
Only the Patriots have been all five years. The Panthers, Seahawks, Steelers and Chiefs have been to four. And the Steelers and Chiefs haven't played in a Super Bowl over that stretch like the Panthers have.
Go back to the beginning of head coach Ron Rivera’s tenure in 2011, and even counting two tough rebuilding years to start, Carolina’s four playoff berths over that time compare favorably. Taking the Patriots out of the equation, the franchises that have won the Super Bowl in the Rivera era have earned an average of 4.2 playoff berths in the Rivera era. The Panthers are right there.
And fans don’t really want to hear this right now, but guess what? The Panthers can still make it to the playoffs this year.
It’s not much fun to talk about it in the face of such a string of disappointments, but Carolina will enter Week 15 no more than one game out of a playoff spot. If the Vikings lose to the Seahawks on Monday night, Carolina will be just a half-game behind Minnesota for the final spot.
The last five weeks have been demoralizing, but the Panthers aren’t a bad team. They’re a flawed one, just like pretty much every other team in the league (and that includes the Patriots, who have lost to the Lions, Titans, Jaguars and now the Dolphins this season).
The Panthers are good enough to be in contention the final minutes of their final three games, and if things even out (they don’t always, of course), they’re good enough to win all three.
That’s life in the NFL. And the Panthers, even if it doesn’t feel like it, are still alive.