Like a lot of people, I was impressed by the way the Carolina Panthers performed during most of their 34-28 overtime loss to the New York Giants last night.
In what everybody agrees was the biggest regular-season game in franchise history, the Panthers showed a national television audience they are poised, physical and prodigiously talented at positions other than the one Steve Smith plays. Fans, national analysts and even the Giants themselves hurled verbal bouquets toward Carolina after the game, talking about the team’s immense potential as the playoffs arrive.
But the euphoria around here has to be short-lived.
I don’t mean to sound like The Grinch Who Stole Charlotte’s Football Bliss, but let’s save the high praise for REAL celebratory moments, like, say, after the Panthers win a playoff game – a proposition that’s become a lot more difficult, by the way, because they lost this epic regular-season game in New York.
No matter how bad professional sports have been in the Queen City in recent years, let’s not become one of those NFL cities so low on self-esteem that it embraces style over substance. You know the mind-set: “Sure, the local team lost that uber-important game, but at least it looked good doing it and got us excited about the possibilities.”
Leave that for places like Detroit and Cincinnati.
No matter how good Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams looked in his four-touchdown coming out party last night, no matter how much Smith resembled the league’s most valuable player, and no matter how evident it is that coach John Fox’s team is turning the corner — this is a critical time for the Panthers.
Beating the Giants would have given Carolina (11-4) home-field advantage for the postseason. Instead, the Panthers’ Sunday, Dec. 28, game at New Orleans has become all but a must-win, if they want to have a playoff game at Bank of America Stadium, where they’ve gone 8-0 this season. After falling to the Giants, if the Panthers lose to New Orleans and the Atlanta Falcons win at home against pitiful St. Louis, Carolina must open the playoffs on the road at Arizona.
Did I mention all four of the Panthers’ losses have come on the road?
Sorry to sound as if the sky is falling on Carolina; things clearly aren’t . The team is safely in the playoffs, the NFC South title still is within grasp and those 11 wins have to provide confidence entering the postseason.
But make no mistake: When a team plays one of the biggest games in franchise history and comes up short, that also makes it a huge loss.
C. Jemal Horton has covered sports for the Washington Post, Indianapolis Star and Charlotte Observer. He currently is group sports editor for Carolina Weekly Newspapers.