GLENDALE, Ariz. – Purely from the perspective of a mathematician, each of the Panthers' 16 regular season games carries the same weight.
Not many mathematicians played in the NFL.
"We had a lot to gain by winning this game," safety Mike Mitchell said following Sunday's 22-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. "These are swing games. You win this one, that's two in a row and it could turn into five, six, seven games.
"Whereas now it's win one, lose, win one, lose -- that's how you end up 8-8."
Sunday was a swing game, and at the end of the day it was a big swing and a miss. The Panthers came in confident, having thrashed the New York Giants by 38 points in their last game two weeks ago, and for the longest time Sunday they looked like the better team.
But the Panthers could never get the scoreboard to match up to what was happening on the field. Carolina never trailed until late in the third quarter, but the Panthers never led by more than a field goal. Even after piling up 259 first-half yards and holding Arizona to 118, it took a 51-yard field goal by Graham Gano on the final play of the half to put Carolina ahead 6-3.
The Cardinals slowly gained confidence, eventually gained the lead and never looked back.
On the other hand, it will be difficult for the Panthers, now 1-3, to not look back on this one.
"We definitely had the momentum early. Their fans were booing in the first quarter," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "We need to make those boos last through halftime and have fans start leaving, not have them doing the wave in the fourth quarter."
The Panthers defense opened the game with an interception by rookie safety Robert Lester, then the offense carved up the Cardinals. Quarterback Cam Newton completed his first five passes for 70 yards, but his sixth one slipped through the hands of the normally sure-handed Steve Smith, bringing on Gano for a short field goal.
"The first drive of the game we went right down the field," Newton said. "It felt like the whole game would be like that."
The next offensive drive reached Arizona's 29-yard line, but even a field goal was off the table when Newton got sacked for an 11-yard loss on third down. Two drives later, Brandon LaFell dropped a pass on a fourth-and-1 from the Arizona 15.
The very next play, the Panthers believed the defense had found the end zone, but when defensive end Charles Johnson sacked Carson Palmer and recovered a resulting fumble in the end zone, officials ruled that Palmer was "in the grasp" before the fumble.
By the second half, with the Cardinals having avoided a knockout punch in the first half, the Panthers' opportunities weren't nearly as plentiful.
Mitchell had a simple explanation but one that doesn't come with a simple solution.
"We are prepared, but when it comes time to make the play, it's not happening right now for whatever reason," he said. "It's so frustrating because we have the best coaching staff. They're putting us in position. It's crazy. We're calling their plays out, but it's a matter of us making plays."
The Panthers know that has to happen sooner rather than later. A mathematician will tell you that the season is just one-quarter over, but the Panthers learned Sunday that the first quarter can make all the difference.
"Last year we won a lot of the games at the end of the year, and that shows that this team wants to win and works hard. But man, these early-season losses are tough," Gross said. "I don't worry about our guys quitting. But we've got to figure out how to win games in October because if we don't then wins at the end of the season won't do us any good."