CINCINNATI — Even when they had lost lately, it didn't look like this.
The Panthers had their let-go-of-the-rope moment Sunday, losing 42-21 to the Bengals on the road, and ending any good feelings they generated by beating the Buccaneers and last week's overtime thriller that went wrong anyway.
While falling to 2-7, the Panthers looked exhausted emotionally, if not physically, as if they were still feeling the effects of the overtime loss at Atlanta.
The Bengals leaned on them throughout the day, moving the ball easily and keeping the Panthers on their heels with a defense that was missing three top cornerbacks. The Bengals ran as they pleased (but not like they had all year), and the Panthers struggled so much offensively they changed quarterbacks at halftime.
The Bengals were up 35-0 at the break and outgained the Panthers 311-32 in the first half. That's the worst first-half scoring margin in Panthers' franchise history and barely avoided being the biggest yardage margin at the half (-280 against the Rams in 2001).
Walker was 3-of-10 for 9 yards passing, with a pair of interceptions in the first half, opening the door for Baker Mayfield to get another chance in the second half.
That's not something anyone would have anticipated, based on Walker's recent play — or Mayfield's earlier this year. Walker was coming off beating Tom Brady and then throwing one of the most incredible touchdowns you'll ever see.
Mayfield, meanwhile, was uninspiring to be kind in his first five games, with four touchdowns and four interceptions, and a 71.9 passer rating which was 33rd in the league entering the game.
He showed a little life Sunday, hitting Tommy Tremble for an 8-yard touchdown on his first drive. Mayfield finished the game 14-of-20 for 211 yards and two touchdowns, creating reasonable questions about who will start Thursday's game against the Falcons.
— Speaking of the unexpected, the Bengals came in 30th in the league in rushing. But they ran for 147 yards in the first half alone.
They had only topped 100 yards in an entire game twice this year, with a season-high 133 in the opener (which went to overtime).
Running back Joe Mixon had four touchdown in the first half (three rushing, one receiving), and finished the day with 211 scrimmage yards and a Bengals' franchise-record five touchdowns.
— Even the things that were good for the Panthers lately went wrong.
Defensive tackle Derrick Brown left the game in the third quarter with what was announced as an illness.
He's been perhaps their best (or at least most consistent) defensive player this season.
Also, defensive end Brian Burns appeared to be struggling throughout the day after leaving early with what was announced as a neck issue. He was in and out of the lineup throughout the day, with the team's athletic training staff working on his right upper arm and shoulder area.
Burns did have a sack, his sixth of the year. But clearly wasn't himself, and the Panthers had lacked alternative sources of pressure even when he was well.
— If you're looking for positives, there weren't many.
Rookie running back Raheem Blackshear had a 56-yard kickoff return to start the second half, which put them in position for Mayfield's first touchdown drive.
Blackshear had seven returns for 200 yards earlier this year against the 49ers, with a 45-yarder and a 48-yarder that day.
Mayfield later hit Terrace Marshall Jr. for a 21-yard touchdown, the first career score for the second-year wideout.
And kicker Eddy Piñeiro hit all three of his extra points in the second half, getting him back on the right side of the ledger after his late misses last week.
The team sent Piñeiro out for the coin toss as a captain before the game, showing a bit of confidence in their kicker (who still ranked in the top half of the league in field goal percentage and touchbacks on kickoffs).
That was about it.
View best in-game photos from Carolina's Week 9 game against the Cincinnati Bengals.