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Week 16 Snaps: Panthers' first loss of season may be just what they needed

Yes, the Panthers' season didn't end in perfection, but that might not necessarily be a bad thing for Ron Rivera's squad. 

Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we recap a wildly unpredictable Week 16 in the NFL.....

• Ron Rivera is going to get his wish. Two weeks ago, after his Carolina Panthers thrashed the visiting Atlanta Falcons 38–0 to improve to 13–0 and clinch a first-round bye, Rivera started getting questions about whether he would rest his players in potentially meaningless late-season games, or keep going in pursuit of the perfect season? Rivera admitted to me that he was torn and hoped to not even be presented with that always messy dilemma.

Me: “You seem like you’re almost hoping there’s something on the line every week, and there aren’t any choices to be made.”

Rivera: “Yes, I do hope every game means something. I really do. That’d be better in my eyes. To have something meaningful to play for every week.”

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Viewed from that perspective, I think the Panthers may come out the big winner in the long run for having lost in a sizable upset on Sunday, 20–13 at Atlanta. Yes, the perfect season is gone. But so too is the unnecessary pressure and unhelpful specter of a team with a divided focus, trying to chase both an unblemished record and the biggest prize of all: the franchise’s first Super Bowl ring.

Because Arizona pounced on Green Bay on Sunday, the Panthers (14-1) will still need to take care of business at home next week against Tampa Bay (6-9) in order to lock down the NFC’s No. 1 seed and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Rivera won’t need anything more than that to motivate his players, reminding them that with one more victory the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC will have to go through Charlotte.

Losing always stings, especially for a proud and talented club that had remarkably won 18 regular-season games in a row, a streak that dates to almost 13 months ago. But the reality is this: 16–0 has been done, and you don’t hear the 2007 New England Patriots bragging about the accomplishment eight years later. That's because their eventual 18–1 mark was a bitter memory, a job left unfinished. The only real history that would have mattered for Carolina was 19–0, and that’s a monumentally heavy lift for any team to aspire to. The Panthers gave it a heck of a go to get to Week 16 without an L, but sometimes you can win for losing, and Carolina hitting the reset button as 2016 arrives might be just what Rivera’s club needed.

“This was a disappointing loss,” Rivera said in Sunday’s post-game. “We’re going to find out what kind of mental strength we have. It’s back to the one-game mentality.”

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For Carolina, it’s back to positioning itself for its strongest possible playoff run, and that’s difficult enough without the added element of perfection added to the equation. In three of the past four weeks, the Panthers have struggled against teams that weren’t supposed to be able to stay on the field with them, with the Saints taking them to down to the wire, the Giants rallying from a 28-point deficit in the second half and the Falcons frustrating a Carolina offense that had averaged almost 39 points per game in its past five wins.

The Panthers had toasted Atlanta by a combined score of 72–3 in their past two meetings, but Carolina quarterback Cam Newton finally looked human, sputtering to a 69.0 passer rating, fumbling on his team’s final possession with 1:02 to play, and completing 0-of-7 passes on third and fourth down. A rare off day by the Panthers finally unfolded, and this time there were no last-minute rescues by the quarterback with the Superman schtick. He threw for only 142 yards, and ran for 46 more, with a touchdown.

“We got our ass kicked today,” Newton said after the game, perhaps by way of acknowledging that everyone, no matter how successful, could use a kick in the tail now and then.

There’s no shame in going 15–1 or 18–1, and while he’ll never admit it, I suspect Rivera isn’t too broken up about the end of the perfect season. After all, he was a linebacker on the famed 1985 Chicago Bears, the most recent Super Bowl champion to lose just one all season. That’s his personal experience when it comes to a charmed season like this one, and that’s what he knows best. One loss didn’t do anything to damage the confidence of those Bears, and if anything, it might have made them hungrier and less willing to be denied ultimate victory.

And NFL history says the Panthers remain in great shape, because while there’s only the 1972 Miami Dolphins who managed perfection at 17–0, four different teams in the Super Bowl era earned a ring despite losing just once: the 1976 Raiders (16–1), the 1982 Washington club that went 12–1 in a strike-shortened season, the 1984 49ers (18–1), and those ’85 Bears.

“This was a bump in the road, a big bump in the road,” Rivera said on Sunday. “But it’s not the end of our season.”

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Nope, it’s not. It was just the end of the winning streak, and perfection. As for Carolina’s season, the six-week stretch of it that really matters is just beginning.

• When Mike Shanahan called Kirk Cousins “a top 10 quarterback” this preseason, the guffaws were deafening. Shanahan, the man who drafted Cousins in the fourth round in 2012, after giving up a boatload to take Robert Griffin at No. 2 overall, sounded self-serving and out of touch with reality. But guess who’s looking pretty prescient today, after Cousins carried Washington to an improbable NFC East title Saturday night in Philadelphia, leading his team to a 38-24 win over the Eagles.

I don’t know if Cousins is top 10 material, but thanks to him, Washington (8-7) will be one of the 12 playoff teams in the NFL this season, just a year after finishing 4–12 and in last place in the NFC East.

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I caught up with Shanahan, the former Washington head coach (2010-2013), on Sunday morning from his home in Denver, to get his reaction to the crowning accomplishment of Cousins’s four-year NFL career. I also invited him to take a vindicating victory lap when it comes to his belief in Cousins:

Don Banks:A lot of people, me included, thought that 2012 fourth-round pick you spent on Cousins was wasted, given Washington’s huge investment in Robert Griffin III that same year. After all that second-guessing, I’m wondering if last night felt like the culmination of what you saw in Cousins and his potential?

Mike Shanahan: We had a game plan going into that draft, and when a guy like Kirk is available, you take him. We just thought it was the right move at the time. We thought we not only had to have a guy who did some good things like Robert, but we needed a guy we thought was a drop-back style quarterback and had that experience as well. So we thought it was worth the risk at that time.

DB: On draft weekend 2012, was there anybody other than yourself and Kyle (Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, his son) who really believed you got this one right? Did you have many people who saw what you saw?

MS: I can’t really tell you for sure, but any time we deal with a guy on a day to day basis like you deal with quarterbacks, and you see how a guy prepares and how he practices, sometimes you see things other people don’t see just because that’s your job. I’ve been lucky enough to be in the NFL for almost 30 years and been with a lot of different quarterbacks, and you get a feel of how to compare guys and see how quickly they make the transition. And Kirk was a guy you knew had the intangibles and was going to give it every opportunity he had to be successful. So I can’t say it surprised me. In fact, I said that very early on I thought he’d be a top 10 quarterback.

DB: Earlier this year, when (Washington head coach) Jay Gruden named him the starter, you were very outspoken that they made the right move and he would surprise people. Why did you know that decision had a chance to be proven correct so quickly and others didn’t?

MS: To be honest with you, there’s one thing that you know as a coach that you don’t know maybe as an analyst or being a coach of a different team. You don’t know what a guy is like until you spend time with him. You don’t know the intangibles. You don’t know his preparation. You don’t have a gut feel on how he handled himself 24 hours a day. And it didn’t take long to figure out Kirk was a guy who was a perfectionist, who loved the game and had passion for the game. And any time a guy has that passion and all the intangibles he has, you get a gut feel from all the years you’re coaching in the league that that kind of guy will do all the things to give himself a chance to win.

DB: Conventional wisdom is that Washington has to resign Cousins now. How do you see things playing out at quarterback there? Will they prioritize getting him done?

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MS: Yes, with what he’s done. I mean everybody’s looking for a franchise quarterback and he’s a franchise quarterback. I would expect them, if they can’t get a contract done, they’ll put the franchise tag on him (at $19.5 million for 2016).

DB: Do you likewise feel we’ve seen the last of Robert Griffin in Washington?

MS: I really don’t know what they’re going to do there. I really don’t know how they feel, or what he’s done and how he’s progressed. So it’s really hard for me to comment on Robert. But with the fifth-year option they have on him, at $16 million, they’re going to have make a decision on which way they’re going to go for the future.

DB: Do you think Jay Gruden has done a nice job building on what you did and what you saw in Cousins’ game?

MS: Oh, I think he’s done a great job. It took a lot of guts from him, stepping in and making that tough decision to start him. I think any time a coach sees something in a player and makes a decision to go with it, especially sometimes when it’s not a popular decision, it shows you he’s not afraid to make a decision. And winning the NFC East I think says it all.

DB: Are you proud of the Cousins’s pick today and feel like your instincts have been validated, even though it took some time to bear out?

MS: I felt very good about that decision in 2012, just from watching Kirk practice for us. As well as in 2013 when he did get the opportunity to play against Atlanta, Dallas and the Giants the last three games. As a coach you see a guy who has those intangibles that you’re looking for, and not only did I see it, I think all of our coaches and the players saw it. When you have a guy who proves himself every day on the practice field, players looked forward to him getting that opportunity to showcase his skills as well.

• ​COVERAGE HUB: News, highlights, analysis from Week 16 of NFL season 

• Five examples of how the NFL makes absolutely no sense through the first 16 weeks of the 2015 regular season:

—Tom Brady, Cam Newton and Ben Roethlisberger all lost Sunday on the road in upsets.  Brandon Weeden, Ryan Mallett and Case Keenum all won. Got it. But I didn’t have that combination on my Bingo card.

—After six weeks of this season, Kansas City was 1–5, while Denver was 6–0 and headed for 7–0 after eight weeks. Naturally the Chiefs still managed to clinch a playoff berth on Sunday, at 10–5, while the 10–4 Broncos enter their monstrous Monday night showdown at home against Cincinnati still fighting to lock up a postseason slot. It’s possible Denver could start 7–0 and miss the playoffs. But the Broncos could also finish anywhere from the AFC’s top seed to out of the postseason. How ridiculous is that?

—If Cincinnati wins at Denver Monday night, the Texans at 8–7 will win the AFC South and be able to rest players in Week 17, secure in their No. 4 seed. In the NFC, No. 4-seeded Washington (also 8–7) has won the East and will be able to rest players in Week 17. Meanwhile teams like Carolina and New England have plenty to play for next week in attempting to wrap up the two No. 1 seeds and can’t afford to rest players en masse. Could we please start seeding the playoffs by records instead of giving priority to division champions now?

—Washington was 2-4 after Week 6 this season, and trailed Tampa Bay 24–0 at home in Week 7 before starting its comeback. Houston started the season 2–5 and was a complete mess at quarterback, but then started to rally. I promise I will never prematurely write off a team that starts badly in a weak division ever again.

—So the 7-7 Falcons beat the undefeated Panthers, the Jets knock off the 12–2 Patriots, and the 4–10 Ravens stun the Steelers. And you want to gamble on the NFL?

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• For weeks, as their offense went on a point-scoring rampage and their defense started looking as if it was jelling, the Steelers have been labeled the team nobody wants to play in the AFC playoffs. Well, that’s convenient because now Pittsburgh (9–6) might not make the postseason thanks to that horrible egg-laying of a 20–17 loss at Baltimore. I saw some on Twitter were calling it the greatest upset in Ravens history, and I’m not sure I can argue given the state of the two teams at the start of the day. Ryan Mallett and this shell of a Baltimore team over Ben Roethlisberger? If the Steelers get eliminated next week, this one is going to tear the guts out of Pittsburgh’s fan base.

• Personally I like the almost instant conspiracy theory that sprang up around the premise that New England screwed up the overtime coin flip decision in order to do anything possible to ensure the Jets make the playoffs rather than Pittsburgh, which was assumed to be the toughest matchup for the Patriots in the potential AFC playoff field.

While I like the way someone out there thinks, wasn’t it the Jets who gave the Patriots all they wanted in their two games this season, losing narrowly in Foxboro in Week 7 and then winning on Sunday at MetLife Stadium? And yes, I know New England is hardly at full strength and the results could very well be different if they meet again at Gillette Stadium next month. But it’s not as if Bill Belichick’s team will be eager to run into New York again. Still, if the Pats really did want to avoid Pittsburgh in January, you’d have to consider Sunday a pretty good day after all. Loss or no loss.

• Speaking of those plucky Jets, I’m in favor of any team making the playoffs if it wins 11 games, as New York can do with a victory at Buffalo next week. It took the Steelers’ loss at Baltimore to ensure the Jets won’t go 11–5 and go home, which would have marked only the third time an 11-win team missed out since the league went to the 12-team playoff format in 1990.

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The Steelers and Jets and Broncos all can finish 10–6 and not get an invitation to the postseason, but that’s happened quite a few times before. Going 11–5 and getting shut out is an entirely different story.

• You have to admit, Rex Ryan and the Bills getting a shot to knock the Jets out of the AFC playoff field next week is just too perfect. You can’t make this stuff up.

On the other hand, if New York beats its former head coach to clinch a wholly unexpected playoff berth, while the Bills’ playoff drought has stretched to an agonizing 16th season, well, how delicious would that be?

A victorious and no doubt Gatorade-drenched Todd Bowles shaking hands with a downcast Ryan at mid-field would be the perfect summation to the underachievement in Buffalo this year. After all that big talk about changing the Bills’ fortunes, Ryan would have to watch as his successor delivered what he couldn’t, with the game likely to be flexed to Sunday night’s NBC showcase slot.

“To send them home packing—that would be great,” Bills running back Boobie Dixon said Sunday of the Jets. “We’re not going to the playoffs, so the Super Bowl is next week for us. I know we’re going to have a lot of guys jacked. We already know what’s on the line.”

If Rex’s guys lose after that kind of build-up all week, Ryan will be wearing one of those Ralph Kramden “Me and my big mouth” looks on his face in the post-game.

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• It probably will register as too little too late in terms of the playoff race, but the Falcons being the first team to hang a defeat on Carolina has to be a huge boost for the idea of a status quo offseason in terms of Atlanta’s front office. As much as that 5–0 start raised the bar of expectation, getting to 8–7 and avoiding a losing season has to help the status of general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who has been thought to be on the bubble.

The truth is, the Falcons weren’t as good as their record early on this season, and they’re not as bad as the record in the season’s second half. The Falcons have New Orleans at home next week, and if they win to get to 9–7, that should not be viewed as a failure in head coach Dan Quinn’s first season on the job. It also had to be comforting to see franchise quarterback Matt Ryan respond to a rough second half and turn in a 306-yard, one-touchdown performance in the conquest of Carolina. Ryan remains the guy in Atlanta, and the Falcons’ confidence in him has not been shaken.

• I’m sure there was much rejoicing in the Washington area a day after Jay Gruden’s team went to Philadelphia and steamrolled its way to the NFC East title. But there was probably also a sense of familiar dread. Because, depending on how the NFC field shakes out, the opponent for No. 4-seeded Washington may just be Seattle. At the moment, the Seahawks are the No. 6 seed, but that's pending Minnesota's Sunday night home game against the Giants.

Here are the past three times Washington made the playoffs and how it was eliminated:

2012 — Seattle 24, Washington 14, in NFC’s first round, in Landover, Md.

2007 — Seattle 35, Washington 14, in NFC’s first round, in Seattle.

2005 — Seattle 20, Washington 10, in NFC’s Divisional round, in Seattle.

So, yay, playoffs, say Washington fans. But, maybe, just once, could we give someone else a try as an opponent in January?

• If you thought the past couple of off-seasons were eventful in Philly, just wait, because this one isn’t exactly going to be a quiet affair. One NFL club executive told me recently that once the Eagles missed the playoffs—and maybe even if they had made it—the floodgates were going to open in terms of anonymously sourced reports on how the ship sank in 2015.

And some of that chatter seemed to start right away on Sunday morning, even before the season wraps up next week at the Giants. According to Howard Eskin of FOX 29 in Philadelphia, once the Eagles were clearly not going to win their crucial game against visiting Washington on Saturday night, Eagles offensive left tackle Jason Peters pulled himself from the game in the fourth quarter, reportedly saying “I’m not going to get hurt for this.’’

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Peters has endured an injury plagued season and he left the game briefly in the first quarter with an elbow injury. But that kind of approach isn’t going to endear him to Philly fans, or perhaps the team’s decision-makers. I still remember how the fans and the media in Philadelphia crucified running back Ricky Watters after he gave it the alligator-arm effort on two passes late in the 1995 home-opening loss to Tampa Bay, then issued his infamous “For who? For what?” quote in defense of his lack of effort. Watters never fully recovered from that false start.

• Sometimes the final score of a game can be very deceiving, but sometimes it’s completely accurate, like in Arizona’s 38–8 throttling of visiting Green Bay. About now, I’d say the Cardinals are roughly 30 points better than the Packers, and there was nothing fluky about the outcome of these two NFC playoff qualifiers.

I’ve been saying this for weeks, so it’s not a new thought, but if Arizona and Carolina meet in the playoffs, I like Bruce Arians’s team, no matter if the game is in Charlotte or Glendale. No disrespect intended to the Panthers, who before Sunday had answered every challenge that came their way this season. But the Cardinals strike me as the more complete team, even without injured safety Tyrann Mathieu, and both sides of the ball in Arizona are playing superbly and with great confidence.

As good as Carson Palmer has been all season, Arizona’s defense should not be overlooked. The Cardinals sacked Aaron Rodgers eight times in Sunday’s rout, and returned two of No. 12’s fumbles for touchdowns. The Packers offensive line was outmatched, and this is no longer a case of Green Bay having a quarterback who can make up for all of the offense’s shortcomings. Green Bay can’t be considered a legitimate Super Bowl contender at this point, even if Mike McCarthy’s club does own 10 wins and is in line for the NFC’s No. 3 seed.

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• Obviously all plantar fascia injuries are not created equally, but the one Drew Brees has seemingly didn’t limit him from doing anything Sunday in the Saints’ 38–27 home win against Jacksonville. In what could....might....may be his final game in New Orleans, Brees was outstanding, completing 25 of 36 for 412 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Not bad for not practicing all week. If Brees did say goodbye to the Big Easy after 10 memorable seasons, he did it in a big way, leading the Saints to another victory with his accurate and productive right arm.

• The Chiefs have seemingly compiled the most under-appreciated and under-the-radar nine-game winning streak in NFL history. And even when we try to get excited about Kansas City’s accomplishment—from 1–5 to 10–5 and a playoff berth—Andy Reid’s club lulls us a bit, like it did in hanging on to beat the Browns 17–13 at Arrowhead on Sunday.

Kansas City went up 17–3 against the Browns, and then just treaded water, rolling up a so-so 258 yards of offense. Kansas City could be dangerous in the AFC playoffs, exhibiting a playing-with-house-money mentality after that horrific start, but it’s got to show a little more production on offense to be considered a true Super Bowl contender.

So far this Chiefs teams reminds me of so many others in K.C.’s playoff history: Very good, but not great. Which is one reason why the Chiefs’ past seven playoff trips have all resulted in one-and-done appearances. Maybe the best news for K.C.? The Colts look unlikely to make the playoffs. Indianapolis has knocked the Chiefs out of the playoffs four times in K.C.’s past six postseason trips.

• This could not have been what Matt Hasselbeck thought he was signing up for, serving as Andrew Luck’s 40-year-old backup for the Colts in 2015. The ad said it would be light duty and plenty of sideline TV face time.

Hasselbeck was knocked out of Indy’s 18–12 win at Miami with a shoulder injury and has now left the past four Colts games due to an injury at some point. Charlie Whitehurst replaced Hasselbeck again, and himself was injured late in the game.

Does Luck really want to press his luck and try to return to the lineup next week when the Colts close out the regular season at home against Tennessee? Indianapolis is the Bermuda Triangle for quarterbacks this season, and maybe Hasselbeck should have a stretcher named in his honor after the close of 2015.

• There are potentially many layers to dissect in any analysis of Al Jazeera's report that Peyton Manning took human growth hormone in 2011, but I won’t be turning to ESPN’s Mike Ditka for anything insightful regarding this story. Ditka showed me he probably formed his opinion about Al Jazeera some time during the second Gulf War, and never bothered to update it.

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“Here’s the thing that bothers me,” Ditka said on Sunday on ESPN’s NFL Coundown pre-game show. “Al Jazeera is not a credible news organization. They’re out there spreading garbage. That’s what they do. Yet we give them credibility by talking about it. They’re garbage. That’s what they are.”

Al Jazeera may have gotten this story horribly wrong and time will fully tell if that’s the case, should Manning sue for defamation, as he reportedly is considering. But Al Jazeera has done award-winning work in the field Ditka is employed in, a fact he sounds woefully uninformed of, or doesn’t care to know.