The Carolina Panthers flew back to Charlotte Sunday evening with plenty to ponder. They almost stole a game they should have had no chance to win, but couldn't finish a comeback and lost to the Minnesota Vikings 14-12.
The Panthers' second consecutive defeat means, at 3-2, their season rests on home games the next two weeks against the St. Louis Rams and New Orleans Saints.
They'll go into each emphasizing the ``E'' word -- efficiency, not Ericsson.
Sunday's game wasn't lost in the fourth quarter, when the Panthers settled for a field goal instead of scoring a go-ahead touchdown with 6 1/2 minutes remaining and then couldn't put together a late drive.
It was lost in the first half, when Carolina committed five turnovers, equaling its total in four previous games.
``You always hear turnovers can kill you,'' said center Curtis Whitley. ``They really got us today.''
That was predictable. The Panthers have never won when they commit more turnovers, and they had six giveaways compared to Minnesota's two.
The Panthers' first turnover summed up their day: Safety Chad Cota intercepted a pass by Warren Moon on the seventh play of the game, but fumbled it back to the Vikings on the return.
The rest of the first-half clunkers belonged to quarterback Kerry Collins, who admitted he felt rusty after missing two starts with a sprained knee. Collins lost a fumble and threw three interceptions before halftime.
The last of the three was forgivable -- a Hail Mary on the final play of the half that wound up being a jump ball won by Alfred Jackson.
The first two interceptions were ugly, especially the second -- a pass nowhere near intended receiver Mark Carrier. Instead, it was thrown directly to safety Robert Griffith.
``I gave the guy a gift,'' Collins admitted.
Amazingly, the Vikings (5-1) led only 7-0 at halftime on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Moon to Cris Carter.
Credit the Panthers' defense. After Carter's score, Minnesota drove to the Carolina 26 twice in the second quarter but got no points.
The first time, linebacker Kevin Greene roared in and forced a fumble by Moon, which was recovered by end Les Miller. The next time, the Vikings gambled and lost on fourth-and-1 when Toi Cook knocked away an intended pass for Carter.
``I have to take responsibility for going for it on fourth down,'' said Minnesota coach Dennis Green. ``I compare it to a jockey riding a horse and he pulls out the whip and hits it. I should have kicked a field goal, obviously. In all my years I think I've made about three mistakes like that and they've cost me every time. I don't think I'll do it again.''
The decision almost cost Green the game.
After Minnesota drove 80 yards for a touchdown on a 3-yard pass from Moon to Carter for a 14-0 lead, Carolina took control and kept it for most of the second half.
With Collins much sharper, the Panthers answered with an 80-yard scoring drive. Fittingly, running back Anthony Johnson scored on a 4-yard run.
Johnson gained 31 yards on eight carries during the drive, a big part of his career-high 102-yard performance in his first game starting for injured Tshimanga Biakabutuka.
The Panthers cut Minnesota's lead to 14-9 with 1:03 left in the third quarter when Michael Bates blocked a punt out of the end zone for a safety.
Perhaps the game's pivotal play came with 6:34 left and the Panthers facing third-and-3 at the Vikings 4. It was a chance for them to take the lead.
With the Metrodome crowd roaring, Collins lofted a pass into the left corner of the end zone for rookie wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, but he was double covered and couldn't make the catch.
``We have to find a way to make that play,'' said tight end Wesley Walls. ``It's nobody's fault that we didn't come up with (the touchdown) because it was good defense and they won. But we've got to find out how to make that play next time.''
After the incompletion, John Kasay made a 22-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 14-12. Capers said he never considered trying for a touchdown on fourth down.
``As much time as there was left on the clock, that would have been a foolish decision,'' he said.
The Panthers held, but the offense couldn't mount a final drive. Carolina took over at its 15 with 3:32 remaining and lost the ball when Collins was intercepted by former N.C. State cornerback Dewayne Washington with 3:08 left.
``We're disappointed, but I think we showed again today that there's no quit on this team,'' said Walls. ``That's true from right at the top with Mr. (Jerry) Richardson (team owner) on down to the ball boys.''
Despite their resolve, the Panthers have their first losing streak of more than one game since they opened 0-5 last year.
Injuries, a rarity last season, are hitting in critical areas. Biakabutuka is out for the season. Collins has missed two games. Defensive end Mike Fox (strained arch) and Frank Garcia (broken foot) didn't play Sunday and are out at least two more weeks. Linebacker Sam Mills (calf strain), safety Brett Maxie (hamstring) and guard Greg Skrepenak (ribs) joined the injury list, at least temporarily.
``Any time you've lost that many guys out of your lineup, it has an impact on you,'' said Capers.
Kevin Greene, who sacked Moon twice, said it's up to the veterans to lead the team through its troubles.
``That's part of the job being one of the old crusty guys,'' said Greene, 34. ``We just have to keep chopping wood, just like we did today.
``We were in this game right until the end even though we had all those turnovers. That should tell you something about us.''