CHARLOTTE, N.C. - In a somber, almost silent locker room, the Carolina Panthers were all too aware of what had just slipped away.
A 24-20 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday dropped the Panthers from NFC South front-runners to wild-card wannabes. In the hours after the beating, it was easy to blame the officials - for star receiver Steve Smith's ejection to the contested running-into-the-kicker call that gave Dallas the second opportunity it needed to score the winning touchdown.
In time, the Panthers will perhaps realize they have no one to blame but themselves.
"They executed better than we did," linebacker Brandon Short said. "I never would have expected it."
No one did, especially after Carolina opened a 10-0 first-quarter lead against a Dallas team trying to rebound from a blowout loss in Washington.
With a double-digit lead minutes into the game, the Panthers seemed rolling toward a postseason berth. All they needed was to beat Dallas, with the victory putting them on pace to wrap up the division title.
Instead, Carolina's defense collapsed, the offense stopped clicking and Smith grabbed an official out of frustration, earning an instant ejection that forced him to watch the Panthers lose for the second time in three games from the locker room.
It dropped Carolina to 10-5 and into a tie with Tampa Bay for the division lead, but the Buccaneers need only to win next week's finale against New Orleans to clinch the division.
The Panthers, meanwhile, most likely need to win in Atlanta to even make the playoffs. And that won't be easy: Although Carolina beat the Falcons 24-6 this season, Atlanta has won 12 of the last 15 meetings.
"Historically, it's been a tough place for us, we're all aware of that," offensive guard Mike Wahle said. "We've got to come back and show something next week if we want to go to the postseason."
It will start with the defense, which was uncharacteristically poor against the Cowboys. Ranked third overall in the NFL in total defense, the Panthers had been almost impossible to run on most of the season.
But Julius Jones found gaping holes, tallying a season-high 194 yards and two touchdowns, including a 43-yard score. It was his first game over 100 yard this season and the biggest showing against Carolina this year.
His output also made the Cowboys the first team in 10 games to gain more than 300 yards total offense against Carolina.
"They were exploiting us in the running game," safety Mike Minter said. "The middle was wide open, so it was tough. But the running game takes all 11 guys."
The Panthers also suffered an immeasurable loss when Smith was ejected in the third quarter. Smith was knocked out of bounds by Terence Newman after picking up Jake Delhomme's fumble, and believed he was hit again by another Dallas player as he attempted to get up.
He then put his arms around line judge Mark Steinkerchner - not maliciously, it appeared to be more of an embrace as he made his argument - but Steinkerchner ejected him.
"A grab is off limits, absolutely," head referee Terry McAulay said.
Without Smith, the Panthers had only 17-year veteran Ricky Proehl and Drew Carter, playing in just his second NFL game, to run the offense. It might have been enough - Proehl caught a 35-yard touchdown pass with 2:32 to play to put the Panthers up 20-17 - but the Cowboys moved into field goal range.
Billy Cundiff's attempt missed, and Carolina cornerback Ken Lucas insisted the kick was no good because he got a finger on the ball to change the trajectory just as he and Julius Peppers crashed into Cundiff. The officials disagreed and called Peppers for running into the kicker.
The call gave Dallas a new set of downs and led to the winning touchdown with 24 seconds to play. Lucas argued vehemently that the officials botched both his deflection and the running-into-the-kicker call, costing Carolina the game.
"Unfortunately we allowed that game to be close and for it come down to that," linebacker Chris Draft said.
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