Panthers ponder what could have been

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NEW ORLEANS – Kurt Coleman barely moved a muscle sitting in his locker for minutes on end, still wearing his uniform minus his jersey along with a blank stare.

Only after Coleman returned from showering, only after gathering himself following a couple of questions from the media, did Coleman's facial expression reveal anything – a sliver of a smile.

The look wasn't about the moment he found himself in, the aftermath of a 31-26 loss to the Saints in the NFC Wild Card. Instead, the look was about the moment he wished he was in, a moment he wished he could daydream into being. 

"I didn't think it was going to end. I thought it was going to be one of those miracle games where we get a score with a couple of seconds left," Coleman said. "But that's life. That's the game of football. Someone wins and someone loses."

Pretty much all day, from the time late in the first quarter Coleman chased without success former teammate Ted Ginn Jr. on his way to an 80-yard touchdown reception, the Panthers played a game of catch-up that didn't look like it would have a happy ending.

Missing a short field goal before Ginn's touchdown and then settling for field goals on the next two drives to fall behind 21-6 late in the first half, the Panthers were in trouble. Two more field goals felt like consolation prizes soon to become parting gifts as Carolina headed to the fourth quarter trailing 24-12.

"We just spotted them too many there at the beginning not being able to score in the red zone. Only getting six points, that was the difference in the game," tight end Greg Olsen said. "We just didn't do a good enough job. We moved the ball pretty much at will the whole game, but we just struggled in the first half in the red zone. Those turned out to be the points that we kept on chasing."

Still, the Panthers entered the final quarter within striking distance, if only they could reach the end zone. Olsen finally did early in the fourth quarter, his touchdown turning a game that it felt like the Saints had in hand into one ripe for the taking. Until, that it, the Saints answered with another touchdown. Heading to the final five minutes, the Saints led 31-19.

From that point, pretty much everything had to go right for the Panthers to extend their season, and they'd have to do it in storybook fashion. 

They almost did. Almost.

"We didn't come here just to get a shot," quarterback Cam Newton said. "We came here to win, and that's what we didn't do."

Just one more play, and Newton would have been singing a different tune, a triumphant tune. First, Newton hit Christian McCaffrey in stride and the rookie running back did the rest, steaming 56 yards for a touchdown to keep hope alive.  

Almost before McCaffrey crossed the goal line, linebacker Luke Kuechly gathered the defense together in the bench area, telling his teammates they had been given another chance. They took advantage, getting the ball back on the first play after the two-minute warning when the Saints went for a fourth-and-short near midfield and Drew Brees threw an interception to safety Mike Adams that essentially amounted to a short punt.

The Panthers had 109 seconds to go 69 yards and pull it out. They got the first 48 yards with relative ease in about a minute, but on second-and-10 from the Saints' 21-yard line, adversity struck again. Newton was called for intentional grounding, a call that came with a loss of down and a 10-second runoff to put everything in peril. Just like that, it was third-and-23 from the 34-yard line with just 24 seconds left.

A shot to the end zone that wide receiver Devin Funchess momentarily lost in the lights set up in effect a short Hail Mary situation, but Newton was sacked before he had a chance to launch.

Then, just as soon as Coleman could see the miracle finish in his mind's eye, the Panthers headed to the locker room with tearful eyes.

Their season, their dream, was over.

"You wish you could go back and change some things, but you never know what the outcome would be – different or the same," Coleman said. "Did we make mistakes? No doubt. Did we leave it all on the field? Without a doubt.

"We fought tooth and nail for each other. I'm proud of these guys, proud of this group."

View the top photos from the Panthers' Wild Card playoff loss to the Saints, by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.

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