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Panthers' late-game struggles show a team learning how to win

Teddy Bridgewater

CHARLOTTE — When quarterback Teddy Bridgewater spoke with local media Monday afternoon, the bitter taste of another close loss hadn't subsided from the day before.

"It's still the same feeling, being pissed off," he said. "You're playing well in these games and coming up short. And obviously, on a Monday, you get back, you watch the tape, and you see some of the things that may have prevented you from winning that game Sunday.

"But it's frustrating when you don't win those close games, but we've been fighting, playing tough these past couple weeks. We just want to put it all together and try to get some wins."

The Panthers' late-game performance has been a significant issue in the current four-game losing streak. They had opportunities to tie or go ahead against the Bears, Saints, Falcons, and Chiefs. The losses to New Orleans and Kansas City even featured record-setting field goal attempts.

But the result has been the same.

"We haven't been successful at all," head coach Matt Rhule said.

The Panthers have integrated late-game situations into practice. Rhule put it on the schedule twice last week. But with Carolina continuing to falter, it's likely the team will have to do more.

"All I know in my life is if something's not working quite good enough, you keep working at it," Rhule said. "That's what separates the good from the great teams in the National Football League, is their ability to win at the end of the game."

Still, doing that is a learned process. The Panthers are a young team with a new coaching staff. Now that they're more than halfway through the 2020 season, those factors aren't necessarily as significant. But Rhule does believe that teams need to learn how to win, and those lessons come in three stages.

"You're not going to win very many games, or even stick in very many games, when you have 12 penalties," Rhule said. "So we have to eliminate the things that cause you to lose — that's penalties, turnovers. We didn't turn the ball over, so we gave ourselves a chance to win."

It's then about realizing that even though games may come down to the wire, there are plays in every quarter that determine the ultimate outcomes.

"There's so many things you can point back to and say, well if we would've done this, or if we would've done that," Rhule said. "And a lot of times what happens is people want to win so badly, they try to play outside themselves and outside the system, and we end up doing silly things."

As it relates to the latest loss to the Chiefs, Rhule felt like there were plenty of good things, but he also noticed too much of the bad that causes teams to lose games.

"That falls on me, number one, the coaching staff, number two, and then the players," Rhule said. "So I think when you start to believe that you're not going to beat yourself, so you eliminate the bad football. And then you start to realize, 'I don't have to do anything special.' Like Michael Jordan and those guys used to say: 'Let the game come to me. I just have to do my job, play hard, and when the plays come, I go make the plays.'

"Once you learn it and you learn it the right way where it's not just a mindset of, 'Some great player's got to go make a great play,' when you believe that we have to function as a team and execute down the stretch, then that doesn't go away. That breeds consistency. So that's where we are right now."

As the Panthers continue stacking proverbial building blocks, Rhule has liked the players' effort on and off the field. He complimented them for being locked in and taking solid notes, displaying that they want to learn from the previous game. But at the same time, Rhule doesn't seem to mind if a loss stings like Bridgewater said it did.

"I want it to make them mad. I want our guys to be mad. I want our coaches to be mad," Rhule said. "I want us to have an edge about us, like, 'You know what? This is the Carolina Panthers. We're here to win. We're not here to keep it close.'

"I think if our guys continue to work the way that they've worked every week, I think if we continue to learn both in good times and in bad, and I think if we continue to have an edge, we have a chance to win every week and we have a chance to win down the stretch."

That starts with this week's matchup against Tampa Bay, which will be tough. But if the Panthers learn from the past few weeks' failures, those losses won't be in vain.

"These low moments are preparing us for those high moments when they come," Bridgewater said. "It's frustrating to not be finishing right now, winning these games. But we just stick with it, trust the plan and the vision, I think we'll head in the right direction."

View the best photos from behind-the-scenes of the Panthers-Chiefs game in Week 9 in Arrowhead Stadium.

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