The first game of Week 10 had the makings of a titanic struggle between a pair of teams with aspirations of a trip to Atlanta and Super Bowl LIII.
Instead, the Pittsburgh Steelers scored their most points ever at Heinz Field while looking like the real deal, and the Carolina Panthers were exposed in a 52-21 thrashing as the NFL equivalent of the Titanic.
Big and bad on the surface, but destined to wind up sunk because of fatal flaws.
The Panthers came into the game with a nice head of steam. They were riding a three-game winning streak that included a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback in Philadelphia against the defending Super Bowl champions.
When Cam Newton found Christian McCaffrey from 20 yards out to cap Carolina's opening drive with a touchdown, it felt like the Panthers were there to play. That they were trying to send a message that they belonged in the conversation with the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams among the NFC's best teams.
That feeling didn't last long.
On Pittsburgh's first offensive play of the game, Panthers cornerback James Bradberry bit on an underneath route and let Steelers wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster get behind him, and 75 yards later the game was tied.
Things went downhill from there—quickly.
On Carolina's very next play, Newton committed the cardinal sin of quarterbacking. Did the one thing that an NFL quarterback must never, ever do. Did something that an experienced signal-caller like him should know better than to do.
With outside linebacker T.J. Watt hanging off him and about to pull him down for a safety, Newton threw the ball up for grabs.
It was grabbed, all right—by Steelers linebacker Vince Williams. He raced into the end zone for Pittsburgh's second touchdown in 14 seconds, and the Panthers were in a 14-7 hole just like that.
As it turns out, the digging of that hole was only just beginning.
Now, before we get any further into this, it's only fair that the Steelers get due credit for the can of you-know-what they opened on the Panthers. It was an astoundingly thorough beatdown. The Steelers piled up 457 yards of total offense and easily would have had over 500 had they not pulled their starters. Pittsburgh held Carolina to 242 total yards.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was essentially perfect. In throwing for 328 yards and five touchdowns with just three incompletions, Roethlisberger posted a perfect 158.3 passer rating. After the game, he lauded the entire team's effort while speaking to Pam Oliver of Fox Sports.
"We have a lot of weapons and the O-line protects well," he said. "It was more than just our offense. Our defense made a play and scored. Special teams got a turnover inside the red zone for us. We just found ways to capitalize when we needed to. A good team win against a good team."
The Pittsburgh Steelers thrust themselves squarely into that conversation Thursday, winning their fifth straight game about as emphatically as a game can be won.
On the other side, though, any talk of the Panthers as being on the same level as the Saints and Rams is done. Finished. Through.
Outside of McCaffrey's 138 total yards (over half the team's total) and three touchdowns, there wasn't a single facet of the game in which the Panthers weren't awful.
Offensively, there was nothing going on from anyone not named McCaffrey—in large part because the line play was atrocious. Newton was sacked five times and hit seven more. Even when he did have time to throw, all Carolina could manage were underneath shots. Newton averaged just 6.7 yards per attempt, and the longest catch of the night by a non-McCaffrey went for 15 yards.
This, against a Pittsburgh defense that entered the game a ho-hum 21st in the NFL against the pass.
Carolina's defense was even worse. In addition to conceding that big game from Roethlisberger, the Panthers' 11th-ranked defense allowed 138 yards on the ground at 4.6 yards a pop. The Steelers were 8-of-11 on third down, averaged almost eight yards per play and had a pair of scores from over 50 yards out.
Pittsburgh's first eight drives ended as follows: touchdown, touchdown, field goal, touchdown, end of half, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown. Seriously.
This Carolina team is going to hang with the offensive buzz saws that are the Saints and Rams? Um, no.
Throw in a pair of back-breaking turnovers, and you have the recipe for one of the worst losses in franchise history. The 52 points Carolina allowed is the most in an NFL game this year and ties the most the Panthers have ever allowed.
Frankly, there had been some warning signs that these Panthers weren't as good as their record. This is the same team that lost on the road to an injury-ravaged Atlanta Falcons franchise in Week 2. A team that fell behind the Eagles 17-0 before staging that big comeback a few weeks ago. A team that led a so-so (to be kind) Tampa Bay Buccaneers squad 35-7 in Week 9 before letting Tampa come all the way back to within seven points.
Prior to Week 10, the Panthers had been able to overcome most of their flaws, though—especially at home.
Thursday, every last one of those flaws was exposed.
This isn't to say that Cam Newton and the Panthers are a bad football team. They're good—especially at Bank of America Stadium, where they have won 10 straight dating back to last year. It's entirely possible that they will again earn a wild-card berth—just as they did last year.
It's equally probable that they will lose in the Wild Card Round—just as they did last year.
Carolina's offense is one-dimensional and struggles to push the ball downfield. If opponents blitz the middle and force McCaffrey to try to pick it up (with the operative word being "try"), they will pressure Newton and force him to make mistakes. The defense is prone to allowing points in bunches—80 over the last eight quarters of football.
Any of those flaws will get you beat in the postseason. All were glaringly obvious in Week 10.
After the loss, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said in the postgame presser his message to his team was simple—move on.
"There's no magic pill," Rivera said. "I told that to the players in there in the locker room. At the end of the day, get this one out of your system and move forward."
Rivera is right that there's nothing Carolina can do from here but move on, but it's a shame there's no magic pill.
That's the only way these Panthers are making a deep playoff run.