The Carolina Panthers went kerplunk Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
They looked nothing like a playoff contender in a 20-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, the NFL's last winless team this season.
Players called it an inexcusable defeat despite a lineup depleted by injuries to quarterback Kerry Collins, tackle Blake Brockermeyer, wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad and four defensive backs.
Injuries had nothing to do with receiver Dwight Stone dropping an open pass in the end zone, reserve quarterback Steve Beuerlein stumbling and fumbling at the Falcons 10, Michael Bates and Winslow Oliver fumbling on kick returns, or the offense failing to convert a fourth-and-inches running play for the second consecutive week.
``It's hard to sit here and talk to you about what happened out there because it was so terrible,'' said tight end Wesley Walls. ``Anybody who was here or was watching on TV saw it. It was public. An 0-8 team beat us. It's embarrassing.''
Center Matt Elliott called it the team's most disappointing loss in two seasons.
``It's difficult to deal with from an attitude standpoint,'' Elliott said. ``They were 0-8. Yeah, they were playing better than they had been, but we were hoping we were on an upswing.
``This game meant a lot to us in terms of the division, the big picture, getting on a roll, trying to win another one on the road. Those are important factors to us right now.''
The Panthers (5-4) can thank their not-so-lucky stars Minnesota, Detroit and Dallas also lost Sunday, preventing Carolina from losing ground in the playoff race.
But that was no consolation in a frustrated, angry locker room.
``We're kind of down right now,'' said Walls. ``We can't go anywhere but up.''
The Panthers might be going nowhere if they don't stop losing key players.
Carolina began the game without center Curtis Whitley (suspension) and receiver Muhammad (hamstring injury), then lost Brockermeyer (leg injury) in the second quarter and Collins (re-sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee) early in the third quarter.
The defense got hit hard too. Cornerback Steve Lofton (concussion) and safety/cornerback Toi Cook (sprained ankle) were added to an injury list including defensive end Mike Fox and safeties Brett Maxie and Chad Cota.
``We're probably as thin now as we've been,'' said coach Dom Capers. ``But we aren't going to use injuries as an excuse.''
The Falcons (1-8) began climbing out of rock bottom by building a 10-0 lead in the first 6:12.
After Atlanta drove 69 yards for a field goal, Bates fumbled the ensuing kickoff return and the Falcons recovered. One play later, Falcons running back Jamal Anderson was celebrating a 32-yard touchdown run.
It was the beginning of a huge day for Anderson, who rumbled through the Panthers for 180 yards -- 109 on 22 rushes and 71 on three receptions.
Carolina used a 51-yard pass from Collins to Raghib Ismail -- his first big reception this season -- to take back momentum.
The Panthers reached the Falcons 22. Stone got open in the end zone but dropped a well-thrown pass by Collins.
``On a play like that, you've got to catch the ball,'' said Stone. ``I catch them every day of the week during practice. It's my responsibility.''
Carolina settled for John Kasay's 40-yard field field goal to cut Atlanta's lead to 10-3.
The Panthers tied the game at 10 with an impressive 92-yard drive in the second quarter. Collins' passing got them down the field and running back Anthony Johnson finished the job with a 6-yard touchdown run.
The Panthers then drove to the Falcons 33 late in the second quarter, but they failed to gain the necessary inches on third and fourth down.
It was hauntingly similar to the short-yardage failure in last week's loss at Philadelphia.
This time, the Panthers tried Howard Griffith running behind guard Frank Garcia, who lined up at fullback. But two tries at the same play went nowhere.
The Falcons then drove for a 45-yard field goal by Morten Andersen on the final play of the quarter, giving Atlanta a 13-10 halftime lead.
The Panthers' hopes evaporated three minutes into the second half when Collins got hurt. Atlanta's Chuck Smith charged past left tackle Mark Dennis, substituting for the injured Brockermeyer, and decked Collins from behind after he'd thrown the ball.
Collins called it a ``cheap shot'' and a ``blatant'' low hit, and admitted he felt lucky that he'd only sprained his MCL and not ``blown out'' his knee.
Collins' completion to Walls and Smith's roughing penalty moved the ball to the Falcons 11.
Beuerlein replaced Collins and took the Panthers to the 2 before perhaps the ugliest and most costly play of the game.
A play action pass got tripped up immediately after the snap when left guard Matt Campbell stepped on Beuerlein's foot. Beuerlein fell down and got up, but was sacked by linebacker Clay Matthews and fumbled to defensive lineman Dan Owens at the 10.
``I should have either tucked the ball and tried to get as much as I could going forward or just lay on the ground,'' Beuerlein said. ``The one thing I've got to do in that situation is protect the ball and I didn't do it.''
After the Falcons built a 20-10 lead on Hebert's 15-yard touchdown pass to J.J. Birden in the fourth quarter, Beuerlein brought the Panthers to within 20-17 on a 12-yard touchdown throw to Mark Carrier with 2:22 left.
But the Falcons recovered Carolina's onside kick.
Next up are the New York Giants at home on ESPN next Sunday night. The Panthers' season might be at stake. That's how fragile they are.
``This thing could get real ugly,'' said Griffith. ``What we want to do is pull together.''
Walls vows the Panthers will do just that.
``This team is going to get better, I guarantee it,'' Walls said. ``This coaching staff and these players won't stand for this kind of performance. You won't see it again.''