Lots of questions filled the "Ask Bryan" e-mailbag in the moments that followed the Panthers' heartbreaking loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
Not surprisingly, most of them centered around the events that transpired over the final two minutes of the game, when the Panthers didn't pick up a first down that would have allowed them to run and the clock and the Falcons drove from their 1-yard line to Carolina's 22 in less than a minute to set up the game-winning field goal.
The second-guessing started with five seconds left and the Falcons poised to celebrate their 30-28 victory, but those questions came with the added benefit of 20-20 hindsight.
Here are some of your questions regarding the way things played out.
Why didn't Ron Rivera go for it on fourth down? Why did the offense become so conservative in the last five minutes? – Joshua in Colorado Springs
After the Falcons pulled within 28-27 with a field goal at the 4:57 mark, the Panthers took possession at their own 20. With the ground game rolling – having amassed 174 yards to that point – the Panthers tried two running plays with little success before passing on third down but not connecting.
After the defense denied the Falcons with an impressive three-and-out, Carolina regained possession with 2:26 to go. Like any coach would do in that situation, Rivera turned back to the running game, which responded with a first down and then eight more yards on first and second down to drain Atlanta of its timeouts and set up a third-and-2 at the Falcons' 46 with 1:51 left.
Quarterback Cam Newton, who established a career high with 86 rushing yards, kept it himself and lunged for the first down, but the ball-hawking Falcons jarred the ball loose, and it rolled backwards, short of a first down.
My first thought when the dust settled and the Panthers were at least a yard short: It's too bad they have to punt. Too bad they have to punt because anything can happen with an offense the caliber of the Falcons, but I felt like they had to punt regardless.
Last season at the Georgia Dome, Falcons coach Mike Smith decided to go for it on fourth-and-a-foot from his own 29 in overtime against the Saints. The Falcons didn't get it, virtually ending the game right there. It wouldn't have been quite as dire had the Panthers gone for it and come up short, but I felt the Falcons would have found a way to pick up 30 yards and set up a field goal.
It's easy to say after the fact that the Panthers should have gone for it on fourth down, but at the time it happened, punting seemed like the wisest course of action.
What else can Cam Newton do? 59 seconds from the 1, and the defense lets Atlanta win. – Val in Sweetwater, Tenn.
Newton had an amazing game against the Falcons, but for the first time in his 20 career games, the Panthers lost a game in which he didn't have a turnover.
As to the question of what else he could have done, about the only thing would have been to avoid coming so close to a turnover.
If Newton doesn't fumble the ball on the third-and-2 play in the final two minutes, we aren't talking about whether to go for it on fourth down or about the defense failing to seal the deal.
Newton played winning football, but he fell one play short of winning.
Why did we go from playing attack/pressure defense with great success (seven sacks) to playing soft with no pressure on Atlanta when we had them pinned on their own 1-yard line? Any good QB will beat you deep if you give them time. Matt Ryan is better than good, and he made us pay. – Marcus in Denver, N.C.
Ryan burned the Panthers with a remarkable 59-yard hookup with wide receiver Roddy White from the 1, but I don't think blame rests with the defensive line.
The unit did maintain its aggressiveness when the Falcons took possession with 3:16 on the clock and three timeouts left, not backing off like some other coaches might at that point. They were rewarded with a three-and-out.
From the 1, they were as aggressive as is reasonable in that scenario, rushing four and even bringing a defensive back on a delayed blitz. They were too aggressive downfield and paid for it big-time, allowing White to get behind them.
Overall, the Panthers' aggressive mentality on defense was good to see Sunday.
Is the season over? – Nathan in King, N.C.
Far from it.
In defeat, the Panthers played like a team capable of defeating every opponent remaining on their schedule. They play four of their next six games at home, with just one of their next six opponents currently over .500.
That's not to say there's a gimme among them, but there's no reason to give up, either.