The nightmare is real.
Two games into the season, the Carolina Panthers are in a place they never expected to be -- the dark, cold confines of last place in the NFC West.
They're 0-2 after Sunday's self-destructive 19-14 loss to the New Orleans Saints, which is hardly what owner Jerry Richardson had in mind when he spent millions in the off-season to rebuild the team.
``It's a big shock what's going on right now,'' said safety Mike Minter.
``It's been a miserable two weeks,'' said cornerback Eric Davis.
Part of what stung so much was that three of the Panthers' prized free agent signees -- fullback William Floyd, cornerback Doug Evans and defensive end Sean Gilbert -- were among the most notable culprits.
Floyd threw an interception into the end zone on a trick play that backfired, then later committed a penalty on a critical fourth-and-1 situation from the New Orleans 12.
Evans got burned for a 64-yard touchdown by Saints receiver Sean Dawkins on the third play of the game.
Gilbert, hired to be a run-stopper, was part of a defense that got bulldozed for 207 yards rushing -- many to his side of the line.
Those three were hardly alone, of course. Outside linebacker Lamar Lathon got benched for most of the fourth quarter because coach Dom Capers was so upset with his play against the run.
It was a day full of missed assignments, missed tackles and missed opportunities.
``The disappointing thing to me is, right now, we're not a disciplined football team,'' Capers said. ``We've had opportunities the last two weeks down in the red zone to score touchdowns and we turned the ball over. We've had penalties in the kicking game. Defensively, we get deep into third-down situations and we let them off the hook.
``You can't win many football games in the NFL making those kinds of errors.''
The Panthers' suffering started early. Quarterback Danny Wuerffel, forced to start because of an injury to Billy Joe Hobert, caught Carolina in a safety blitz and threw a quick pass to Dawkins.
Evans was defending the slant route and didn't have a good enough angle to stop the completion. Then he let Dawkins slip through his grasp and, because of the blitz, there was no one left to make the tackle.
``It was my responsibility and I just missed the tackle,'' Evans said.
The Saints led 7-0 after 59 seconds.
The Panthers wasted a drive to the Saints' 28 midway through the first quarter when kicker John Kasay missed a 45-yard field goal.
But they came back strong on their next possession, driving 75 yards for the tying touchdown. The drive featured two Kerry Collins-to-Muhsin Muhammad passes for a combined 51 yards. It culminated in a 1-yard touchdown run by Floyd, his first score as a Panther.
The Saints regained the lead at 10-7 on a 46-yard field goal by Doug Brien with 5:24 left in the second quarter, but Collins got hot in the final two minutes of the period, giving the Panthers their first lead.
Collins was 6-of-6 passing for 80 yards on the possession and put the Panthers ahead 14-10 with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Muhammad.
That gave Carolina momentum going into the locker room at halftime, and they added to it at the start of the third period when Muhammad turned a short pass from Collins into a 59-yard gain to the Saints' 10.
With a touchdown, the Panthers could have taken an 11-point lead and possibly coasted to a victory.
Instead, New Orleans safety Chad Cota, a former Panther, stole the moment.
On second-and-goal from the 8, the Panthers thought they could surprise the Saints with a fullback pass from William Floyd to Fred Lane in the right corner of the end zone. It had worked all week in practice.
It was a disaster Sunday.
Lane cut inside and to his left instead of going right toward the corner. Floyd never saw Cota breaking for the ball and Cota intercepted.
``I'm not going to second-guess the call,'' said Capers. ``Some of them work and some of them don't work. It's a play we had worked on all week and it worked well in practice. So, hey, you've got to go out and live with the results of it.''
The Saints cut the lead to 14-13 on a 56-yard field goal by Brien that hit the crossbar and bounced through late in the third period.
Odd as that was, there was nothing flukey about the way the Saints scored their go-ahead touchdown. They did it by running the ball directly at the right side of the Panthers' defense.
Carries of 26 and 27 yards by Lamar Smith set up a 15-yard touchdown run by Ray Zellars, putting the Saints up 19-14.
``One tackle wasn't getting them down and we weren't tackling well at all anyway,'' said Gilbert, the right end. ``We were just putting more sugar on top of their sundaes.''
The ending was bitter for the Panthers. They reached the Saints' 12 with less than five minutes remaining. But that drive died when Floyd was penalized for an illegal shift and Collins, thinking the play was dead when he heard the official's whistle, threw the pass away.
``There were whistles everywhere,'' said Collins. ``They stopped, we stopped, and guys were flying everywhere. . . . I just threw it away because I wasn't sure. I thought it was dead.''
The Panthers' playoff hopes aren't dead yet, of course, but they're in serious jeopardy. Carolina is tied with St. Louis for last in the NFC West.
The Panthers have a bye next week, giving them double the usual time to prepare for their Sept. 27 home game against the Green Bay Packers (2-0).
``We've got two weeks to wake up each morning and look at the mirror and look at what we've done -- nothing,'' said Minter. ``Hopefully, that'll give us some motivation.''
Collins spoke passionately about the urgent challenge he believes is ahead for himself and other team leaders.
``In every good football team that comes back from something like this, (there are) guys who take control of the team,'' Collins said. ``Right now I'm not sure we have them and I'm not pointing the finger any further than myself.
``As the guy on offense, if it means chewing some (guys out), I'm going to.
``I think if we want to have a good football team, that's going to have to happen.''