The Panthers' try for a perfect season is dead. It's over. They lost. And it will be the best thing to happen to them.
Watching Carolina the last few weeks shows why it's so difficult to go undefeated. As the season goes on, the screws tighten. Hypoxia sets in. The Panthers started to get every team's best shot and it began to take its toll.
Against the Falcons on Sunday, they looked sluggish. They looked physically overmatched for large swaths of the game. When is the last time we ever said that about the Panthers?
What you will hear from some is this: It's never good to lose. This is false. In the case of the Panthers, who fell 20-13 to Atlanta, losing is great for them. Losing will help them. Losing will almost guarantee a trip to the Super Bowl.
That's because this Panthers team needs a break. It needs time to regroup, and now that the pursuit of an unbeaten season is over, head coach Ron Rivera can start resting everyone.
Yes, they may need the last game of the year against the Buccaneers to get home-field advantage. If they do, they play the starters and pull them the first minute possible.
I saw a Panthers team that at times looked half asleep. It's because they are. When I interviewed Dolphins players on the 1972 team for a book on their undefeated season, one of the things they all said was how draining it was. It was inspirational and historic, but it was brutal, and they played just 14 regular-season games.
Cam Newton has been taking some of the nastiest hits that I've seen a quarterback take. I don't care how strong he is, those add up. Newton is made of flesh and bone, not ablative armor. CBS cameras caught Newton bleeding from behind the ear against Atlanta. It wasn't horrible. It wasn't scary. Just don't want to see the hottest quarterback in football bleeding near his ear. Call me crazy and all.
After the game, running back Fozzy Whittaker was in a walking boot. The Panthers' secondary is older. At almost every position, they looked a step slower.
They lost to the terrible Falcons. That alone tells you something is off, and I think rest cures it.
"We got to play better," Newton told the media after the game. "That was unacceptable."
Newton added: "We got our asses kicked today, and to...a degree, we deserved it."
They will play better. They are still reaching the Super Bowl. They shall not asses kicketh much more.
But there's one thing the Panthers will have to deal with as they move forward: cheap play aimed at getting them out of their comfort zone.
Several plays in the Atlanta game show what Carolina has faced and will keep seeing. Falcons wide receiver Roddy White went low to try and block Panthers defensive back Charles Tillman. The block attempt wasn't cheap, but White's ensuing actions were. White continued to go low, using his shoulders pads to push hard into Tillman's knees.
Tillman initially didn't respond but then enough was enough. Tillman wrapped up White and threw him off. Then it became a nice little scrum. Two officials tried to break it off, but were unsuccessful. One official actually got tossed to the ground as players separated the two.
Tillman is one of the nicest guys in football—measured, smart and cool under pressure. But White clearly wanted to agitate him, and it worked. It also likely irked Tillman that White went low after him as he is still recovering from an injured knee.
Tillman was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. It kept Atlanta's drive alive, a drive it would eventually score on. That play feeds the narrative that the Panthers are the dirty team when, in reality, the shenanigans go both ways.
The lesson for Carolina is that in the playoffs, teams will continue to poke, prod, push, shove and flat out cheat to get Carolina to lower its level of play. Teams want the Panthers in the gutter. It's the only way many of them can beat Carolina.
Teams will talk smack to them—as White did before the game, saying that super-corner Josh Norman was pedestrian. Then, when the games come, they will do whatever possible to disrupt Carolina. The Panthers, like in the Falcons game, can't rely on the officials to properly keep control because, right now, these game officials couldn't monitor a toddler in a strawberry patch.
The Panthers won't just get everyone's best shot. They will get many borderline-cheap ones as well. And some not so borderline.
Fighting the impulse to fight back will be a bigger challenge to the Panthers in the postseason than the actual play of some of their opponents.
The second-biggest threat to the Panthers are the Cardinals. The first is the Panthers losing their composure.
We saw another example of Operation: Taunt later in the first half. After Newton carried half of the Falcons defense on his back close to a first down—that run, despite its briefness, is one of the best by a quarterback this season—one of the Falcons players got in Newton's face. Newton did nothing to deserve it. Absolutely nothing.
Newton did the smart thing and threw his hands up, making sure the refs saw he wasn't the instigator.
Yes, I know, the Panthers talk smack as well. They aren't innocents. I get it. But every team chirps. Tom Brady chirps. He once sprinted downfield after a score to get in the face of a Steelers player who talked smack about Brady in the press before the game.
The Panthers do nothing different from any other team except dab slightly more. They don't talk more trash. They don't cheat more. They don't cheap-shot more. But they are treated like they stole the lunches of everyone's momma. Part of this is because they were going for history. Part of it is because of an unwarranted notion that they are a bunch of bad guys.
Hell, even Andy Reid is dabbing.
Now, there is no more pressure to go undefeated. No more pressure to catch the Dolphins, something that no one has done or may ever do.
Now they can relax. Get their minds right. Make sure the inevitable taunting and cheap shots to come don't cause them to lose focus.
Quite simply, the Panthers can now rest.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.