In the opening game of the 2011 NFL season, Cam Newton threw for a rookie debut record 422 yards against the Arizona Cardinals. The Carolina Panthers took a 21-14 lead into the fourth quarter before falling, 28-21.
It was the beginning of a disturbing trend. A trend that would last all season.
The trend of second-half and fourth-quarter failures.
Despite winning only six games, the Panthers were fifth in scoring, third in rushing offense and seventh in total offense.
Yet, their failures in the second half, especially against the better teams of the NFC, can not be ignored.
Of the Panthers' 406 points, 240 came in the first half—an average of 15 points before halftime. In the second half, the production dropped off to 166 points.
The defense, though not as good overall as the offense, also struggled in the second half of games. They gave up 196 first-half points, and 233 in the second half.
The Panthers were shutout once in the first half all season. That was against Tennessee. That 37-3 loss was the only game the Panthers weren't in all year.
On the other hand, they were scoreless in the fourth quarter six times—all losses. They were completely shutout in the second half twice.
Against the playoff teams of the NFC, the trend was even more apparent.
They were a combined 0-6 versus Atlanta, Detroit, Green Bay and New Orleans. To make things worse, they were in every one of those games, at least until halftime.
How bad was it?
In the first 16 minutes against Green Bay, the Panthers led 13-0. The lead was 13-7 at halftime. The Packers then went on a 23-3 run before a Cam Newton run with 37 seconds left made it a respectable final score of 30-23.
In the season finale at New Orleans, after a back-and-forth first half, the Saints scored seven seconds before halftime to take a 24-17 lead. The Panthers would never score again in a 45-17 loss.
In Detroit in Week 11, the Panthers led 24-7 with nine minutes left in the second quarter, and 27-14 at halftime. They were run over in the second half, 35-8. They lost, 49-35. Especially painful was that the Panthers had tied the game at 35 with 4:59 left. They then gave up an 80-yard drive to Detroit, and Cam Newton threw two interceptions, giving Detroit 14 points in the final three minutes.
Perhaps, though, they were at their worst against Atlanta.
In Week 6, the Panthers entered the fourth quarter with a 17-14 lead. They lost, 31-17.
It was worse in the rematch. In Charlotte on December 11, the Panthers took a 23-7 lead to the locker room at halftime. It was perhaps their best half of football all year. Or maybe it was just the Falcons' worst half all year.
The Falcons pounded the Panthers in the second half, 24-0
Cam Newton threw interceptions on consecutive third-quarter drives, and the Panthers were three-and-out three other times. Following a missed 36-yard field-goal attempt by Olindo Mare—that would have given the Panthers a 26-24 lead—the Falcons' Julio Jones broke free for a 75-yard touchdown reception that provided the final 31-23 margin.
In the two fourth quarters against Atlanta, the Panthers were outscored, 31-0.
The Panthers' late-game problems could be blamed on a number of factors.
Inexperience of the coaching staff, a rookie quarterback, the lockout of 2011, opponents making the right second-half adjustments and lack of defensive depth. Actually, it's probably a combination of them all.
Whatever it is, the Panthers better fix it fast.
After all, the regular season begins in three days.