MINNEAPOLIS – For one half, virtually everything that could go wrong did go wrong – even when things went right.
Yet somehow, the Carolina Panthers still had a shot at what could have been a season-saving comeback Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.
"When we get the ball back at 28-13, if we go down and score, who knows what might happen?" quarterback Cam Newton said. "But we're talking about what could have happened. We know what did happen."
It was an all-too-familiar story for the 2014 Panthers, though some of the details set this one apart from the other losses during what is now a six-game losing streak.
The last time an NFL team returned two blocked punts for touchdowns in one half, Carolina wasn't even a team – the franchise was still 20 years away from making its debut. Yet that's what happened Sunday, or rather that's what the Panthers allowed to happen, to account in large part for their 28-6 halftime deficit.
The other reasons for the deficit were nearly as demoralizing. Twice in the first half, impressive Carolina marches ended unimpressively with short field goals. In position to head to halftime trailing by just two scores, a unsportsmanlike conduct penalty set the stage for the final Vikings touchdown.
Yet even with all that, the Panthers worked themselves in position to make it a one-score game midway through the third quarter. While that's not good enough, it should serve as a reminder that most of the people in the Panthers' locker room were also there a year ago when Carolina finished 12-4.
"We've got the guys that can get the job done," Newton said. "The worry now is getting our swagger back moving forward."
That's what the final four games are about.
Technically, the Panthers at 3-8-1 are still alive in the NFC South. Sunday's results dropped Carolina a game-and-a-half behind the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons, but the Panthers still have games against the Saints (next week) and Falcons (season finale).
But there won't be much talk about playoff scenarios in the coming days. The Panthers need to win all four remaining games to have any shot at a second consecutive trip to the postseason. But at this point they need to win one game.
"I expect everyone to show up, practice hard, prepare and get ready to win a football game," head coach Ron Rivera said. "I told the guys, 'We've got four games left to go. We're going to play all four games, expect to win all four games and go from there.'
"It's going to be hard, but we're professionals. We've got a job to do, and I expect everybody to do their job. I expect everybody to be ready to go Monday."
The Panthers thought they were ready Sunday. They stepped onto the frigid field at the University of Minnesota full of hope and refreshed after a bye, but they struggled from the start. Brad Nortman's first punt of the game after the offense went three-and-out died before it reached midfield, and the Vikings seized control with an efficient touchdown drive.
Nortman's next two punts barely made it off his right foot, when what Rivera termed individual breakdowns led to blocks, scoops and scores. When the first half ended, a quick glimpse at the stat sheet suggested the Panthers were ahead, yet they were in a 22-point hole.
They did all they could to dig out but couldn't. Perhaps they can over the next month.
"I'm not throwing this season away by any stretch of the imagination," Rivera said. "I want to finish up on a strong note. This will tell us a lot about who we are, about our character."