It's hard to put into words what happened to the Carolina Panthers in Sunday's 24-23 loss to the Buffalo Bills.
But then again, it's not all that surprising.
The Week 2 matchup against a mediocre-at-best Bills team followed a storyline similar to most close games under head coach Ron Rivera.
Despite a fourth quarter lead and multiple opportunities to close out their opponent, the Panthers crumbled down the stretch and ultimately gave away the game in unspeakable fashion.
The winning score came when rookie quarterback EJ Manuel capped off a nine-play, 80-yard drive with a two-yard touchdown pass to Stevie Johnson with just two seconds on the clock.
Prior to that drive, which took just 1:36 and was kept alive by a questionable Luke Kuechly pass interference penalty, Carolina had a slew of chances to mount a two-score lead.
On the subsequent possession, the Panthers – behind the legs of DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert – drove to the fringe of the red zone, chewing up more than five minutes of clock. Faced with a third and five on the Buffalo 25-yard line, they were a first down away from running out the clock and notching their first victory of the season.
Instead of going for the knockout punch, the Panthers opted to run it with Tolbert, who was stopped a yard shy of the first-down marker. On fourth and one, Rivera again elected to go the conservative route – kick the field goal, extend the lead to six, give the ball back to Buffalo and ask the depleted secondary to close out the game.
Rivera made the same decision in a similar situation against the Falcons last season. With a chance to run out the clock by picking up a first down on fourth and short, he elected to punt it away and ask the defense – which had been getting shredded by Matt Ryan – to win the game.
As Panthers fans will painfully recall, that decision didn't work out so well.
Rivera's reluctance to win the game with his offense – coupled with that dreadful soft zone, prevent defense – cost Carolina again in the final seconds.
But the Panthers had no business being in that situation in the first place.
EJ Manuel committed two second-half turnovers deep in his own territory, and the Panthers failed to capitalize on either mistake. They let Buffalo hang around by settling for two Graham Gano field goals, when just one trip to the end zone would have sealed the deal.
While Rivera deserves a good portion of the blame for this excruciating loss, Cam Newton also bears some responsibility. He overthrew several deep passes to open receivers and frequently held onto the ball too long.
The third-year triggerman also threw an interception deep in Buffalo territory on Carolina's very first drive of the game.
He finished the game 21 of 38 for 229 yards, two scores and one interception.
At 0-2, the Panthers have already dug themselves into an early-season hole, the very thing that has doomed them over the last two seasons.
At this point, it's extremely hard to stay positive – even as a fan who has tried to remain optimistic during the team's struggles in recent years.
Ron Rivera, whose seat is getting hotter by the minute, is going to be crucified – and deservedly so – by fans and the media this week. Since becoming the Panthers head coach, Rivera now holds a paltry 2-14 record in games decided by seven points or less.
The team's Facebook page is already littered with "Fire Rivera!" comments from angry fans.
The Panthers will return home next week and try to right the ship against the 0-2 New York Giants, who dismantled them at Bank of America Stadium last season.
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