CHARLOTTE – Wide receiver DJ Moore is obviously an important part of the Panthers' offense.
It wasn't previously understood he was this kind of crucial.
The Panthers struggled offensively in ways beyond anything that could be pinned on Moore's absence, losing 32-27 to the Broncos to fall to 4-9.
Being without a downfield threat (Moore averages 18.5 yards per reception) can have a trickle-down effect on an entire offense, and it certainly looked that way Sunday. Moore's still on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater didn't always have enough time, but he also took a few sacks he shouldn't have by holding onto the ball too long. Sometimes, he was holding onto it too long because no one was getting open.
The Panthers were without running back Christian McCaffrey, but that was the case in nine other games prior to Sunday and there were moments of offensive competence.
Without Moore, the Panthers were never able to move the ball downfield reliably or get into any kind of rhythm until a brief flurry in the fourth quarter.
Again, that's hardly Moore's fault because the issues were numerous and systemic.
A fourth-quarter drive faltered in the red zone, with the Panthers settling for a field goal after an odd sequence that included a delay of game penalty and a holding call that the Broncos declined rather than give the Panthers another play.
That harkened back to the play-calling adventures against the Vikings, in which a lag getting a play called left Bridgewater looking confused and firing a key third-down pass over his receiver's head. That receiver? Moore.
The Panthers were called for a pair of unfortunate penalties during a second-quarter touchdown drive by the Broncos, one questionably called and one simply questionable.
Defensive end Brian Burns was flagged for roughing the passer on a third-down Drew Lock incompletion, giving the Broncos a fresh set of downs. It could reasonably be argued that Burns wasn't driving Lock to the ground so much as riding him, with no indication of malicious intent.
Panthers coach Matt Rhule disagreed with the call, rather vehemently.
He'll likely have some words later for linebacker Jermaine Carter, who flexed over running back Melvin Gordon after stopping him for no gain on a second down in the red zone, earning an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The Broncos scored on the next play, and the 2 yards they gained by the penalty weren't as costly as the thematic letdown.
The Panthers really needed linebacker Jeremy Chinn to score two touchdowns, the way he did the last time they played — which seems like 100 years ago against the Vikings.
He did set up one score, with a sack-strip of Broncos quarterback Drew Lock.
Efe Obada scooped it up and returned it 54 yards to the Broncos' 3-yard line. Panthers running back Mike Davis scored a play later.
DEALING WITH ADVERSITY
The Panthers had a relatively ridiculous last week, with a rash of players going on the COVID-19 list, forcing them into some unusual combinations in practice. Throw in the McCaffrey injury in Wednesday's practice, and it was a lot to overcome under normal conditions.
But coming off a late collapse two weeks ago against the Vikings, Rhule wondered aloud last week how they'd respond.
"If we play well this week, what will it say about this team, that they're able to come back after a heart-wrenching loss, a gut-wrenching loss, a week off when they couldn't even come in the building and get it out of their system, all of these distractions?" Rhule said last Thursday. "If they play well, I think it will really speak to the character of this football team."
They did not play well, and he can only hope it doesn't.
View photos from Carolina's Week 14 contest against Denver at Bank of America Stadium.