Strickly Panthers: Trying times

CHARLOTTE – "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game."

The saying, derived from Grantland Rice's century-old poem "Alumnus Football," is considered among the noblest of notions in all of sports.

It may be a staple in the school yard, but many believe it has no place after school, in the realm of professional sports.

I believe it does.

The Panthers, down 21-7 late in the first half last Sunday at Cleveland in a season that's been even more miserable than the weather was, easily could have called it a day.

Instead, they called up enough resolve to rally and take the lead.

Then, down 24-23 with just over a minute left, having seemingly thrown away their best shot to win with an interception, they could have thrown in the towel.

Instead, they got the ball back and drove 71 yards in less than a minute without the benefit of a timeout to get in position for a game-winning field goal – one that missed the mark.

"That's the mentality of this team: just keep grinding," rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen said. "Offense, defense and special teams, I can't give enough credit to this team. We kept battling.

"Going in 1-9, there's no giving up on this team. I think that shows a lot."

If this version of the Panthers has shown nothing else this season, it's shown heart – not easy to keep doing given how hard things have been.

Simply put, it's been a season where anything that can go wrong has gone wrong. The team often hasn't played well enough to make its own breaks, but at times it can't catch a break, either.

After Carolina broke the Browns' NFL-best streak of 23 games without allowing an opening touchdown drive, things went south. On both of the Browns' first and second possessions – twice on the second possession – the Panthers came up with third-down stops, only to have them wiped out by penalties. Cleveland ended up in the end zone both times.

Early in the second half, the Panthers scored a rare victory on a replay challenge – but they still lost. They officially won their challenge of a ruling that Brandon LaFell had gone out of bounds before making a key third-down catch, but officials ruled that LaFell didn't complete the reception. So the challenge did erase a 5-yard penalty, but instead of getting the first down they sought, the Panthers went from third and 11 to fourth and 6.

That drive ended with John Kasay missing a long field goal. Kasay had missed just two field goals all season, but he missed two Sunday – capped by the one on the game's final play.

Still, after the bitter end, the Panthers vowed to try, try again.

"The season isn't going like it's supposed to, but we've just got to keep on fighting," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "We've still got five more games."

As one of four teams mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, it officially won't matter whether the Panthers win or lose, but it will matter how they play the game.

The missed field goal to end the Cleveland game doesn't erase the remarkable drive that made the attempt even possible. Even though the Panthers didn't get the desired pay-off Sunday, that drive should pay dividends down the road when a similar situation arises – perhaps with more on the line.

Some fans may have been hoping that Kasay missed the kick. The logic goes that the Panthers will be better faster if they get the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, a pick that goes to the team with the worst record.

A few fans might be thinking that way, but the Panthers won't be.

"We're competitors. Nobody wants to lose out the season for a first-round pick," guard Mackenzy Bernadeau said. "Obviously there's not a chance for the playoffs, but we're going to keep on fighting and try to put some points on the board, win some games.

"We're believers."

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