From 3-0 to 3-3, Panthers have gone from taking advantage to being taken advantage of

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Just when the offense finally seemed to figure things out, rallying to force overtime at the last possible moment after an embarrassment of an afternoon, it never got a chance to show whether that one improbable drive was a fluke or a sign of things to come.

In the great cosmic balance, the Carolina Panthers probably hadn’t earned that chance. That they were even in overtime with the Minnesota Vikings was a minor miracle given all the drops and all the turnovers and all the awfulness perpetrated by the Panthers.

They nearly made it all moot in a matter of 96 yards and 87 seconds, rolling down the field to tie the score in the final minute, only for the Vikings to roll right back down the field on the only possession of overtime for a 34-28 win.

For the second week in a row, the Panthers took a winnable home game and turned it into an embarrassing comedy of errors, and it’s one thing to lose to better teams and another to trip over one’s own shoelaces against one’s peers.

As was the case against the Philadelphia Eagles last week, this game was there for the taking if the Panthers were interested in taking it.

“It’s about the same,” Panthers linebacker Haason Reddick said. “This one just hits a little bit differently because you have it where you’re down and we come back to force the overtime. We just didn’t get the result we wanted in overtime.”

At least in this one, the Panthers showed a little fight at the end, even if it was too late, but it’s a long way from that 3-0 start.

“We’re not where we want to be,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said. “You can’t line up and call timeout two plays in a row. You can’t do all those kinds of things. You can’t take the sacks we took today. You can’t turn the ball over. I like our competitive nature, and our work ethic and all those things are improving. I like those things about us. But the execution has to come along with it and I don’t see that right now.”

The thing is, when the offense is this bad — and it’s hard to imagine it being that much worse — there’s a lot of blame to go around, from offensive coordinator Joe Brady on down. A team that takes a penalty for taking consecutive timeouts, helping push the Panthers out of field-goal range at the end of the first half, is not adequately functioning.

Robby Anderson complained about the play-calling last week, then wouldn’t speak to the media after at least three brutal drops Sunday. Can’t blame Sam Darnold for that, or for DJ Moore fumbling away a completed pass, or for all the other drops that outnumbered the bad throws (and there were some of those, too).

“He needed a little help from his friends today,” Rhule said.

In the end, more of it falls back on the quarterback than anyone else, but Darnold is no more or less broken than the rest of this offense. It’s not like the Panthers have any other options. For this year, at least, if not beyond, he’s the guy. Protect him or perish.

Even as opposing teams have figured out how to blunt the impact of the Panthers’ pass rush, they can’t ask the defense to do much more than this, and certainly can’t blame it for any of the offense’s shortcomings this week. The defense set the Panthers up deep in Vikings territory for their only offensive touchdown of the first 58 minutes. It pinned the Vikings deep so Kenny Robinson could walk into the end zone with Frankie Luvu’s blocked punt.

The defense kept the Panthers in the game for longer than it probably should have. If the defense started to wilt late in the third and into the fourth quarter, and it certainly did in overtime, it wasn’t hard to understand why. The stoutest back would bend under that load.

It’s important to have some perspective here: The Panthers are without their best offensive player (Christian McCaffrey) and their best defensive player (Shaq Thompson). This isn’t the team that started 3-0, and Darnold’s amplifying struggles can be timed almost to the second McCaffrey’s right hamstring pinged like a plucked cello string.

Still, even as Rhule flat-out admitted his team lacks any kind of offensive identity without McCaffrey, and even if the Panthers aren’t really built to win without him — a worrying thought given his durability, or lack thereof, lately — they should still be better than this.

“We’ve got great people in the team,” Moore said. “Great players. We’ve got playmakers everywhere. We’ve just got to come together as one and make this offense go.”

The loss to the Cowboys was on the road against a better team; the fully healthy Panthers may have had a better shot than the bunch that threw it away in the third quarter but even that’s still a reach.

But these last two? The collapse against the Eagles? Whatever this (waves hands vaguely) was against the Vikings? No excuse.

None.

The Panthers started the season a 10-7 team at best — at best! — and injuries to McCaffrey and Thompson and Jaycee Horn, among others, have put a damper on that best-case scenario.

But in any scenario, the Panthers aren’t getting above .500 let alone squeaking into the playoffs without winning these eminently winnable games against the Eagles and Vikings at home, with or without McCaffrey.

What’s next? Lose to the Giants? Come on.

Their schedule is almost impossibly soft, week after week, and yet they’ve gone from taking advantage to being taken advantage of. If you can’t spot the sucker at the table, you are the sucker.

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