CHARLOTTE — At times this season, the Panthers flirted with disaster, but mostly avoided it.
Sunday, all the small calamities caught up with them all at once, and turned into a big one.
After leaving the door open with a familiar third-quarter malaise, the Panthers lost 21-18 to the Eagles at Bank of America Stadium.
They were up 15-3 at halftime, and had frankly dominated the Eagles, limiting them to just 88 yards of offense in the first half.
But they let them hang around long enough, and it cost them.
Quarterback Sam Darnold wasn’t great, and his interior protection was as bad or worse.
Darnold threw three interceptions, the worst start of his young Panthers career.
He was also sacked three times and hit eight times. Most of that pressure came up the middle, with the Eagles able to collapse the part of the Panthers line that didn’t change.
With Taylor Moton moving to left tackle, and rookie Brady Christensen starting at right tackle, the problems were between them. The Eagles continuously pushed the pocket, and the Panthers didn’t handle it well.
That wasted a largely efficient defensive performance, with Donte Jackson forcing a fumble and intercepting a pass.
Instead of providing a spark in the third quarter, it was wasted.
— The Panthers should not defer to the third quarter. They should defer the third quarter. Until like next March or something.
The Panthers’ familiar struggles after halftime were an issue again, as they failed to capitalize on a couple of Eagles turnovers, and were left clinging to a two-point lead after dominating most of the game.
The Panthers gained just 59 yards, and didn’t convert a third down in the dreaded period, allowing the Eagles to close the gap to 15-13.
— Special teams issues have come up at bad times, but they hadn’t been as costly as this.
A blocked punt in the fourth quarter gave the Eagles the opening to take the lead.
With the way the Panthers were playing offense, they had no margin of error for mistakes in the kicking game.
McCaffrey was inactive because of his hamstring strain, and Hubbard responded with a McCaffrey-esque day.
Hubbard finished with 101 yards rushing, and another 33 yards on five catches.
For all the problems the Panthers had, missing McCaffrey wasn’t near the top of Sunday’s list.