Panthers have a lot to fix before 'playoff game' against winless Vikings

Andy Dalton posted more passing yards on Sunday than Bryce Young did in two games. John Froschauer/Associated Press

SEATTLE -- Carolina Panthers coach Frank Reich reminded his 0-3 team in the locker room following Sunday’s 37-27 loss to the Seattle Seahawks that his 2018 Indianapolis Colts started 1-5 and made the playoffs.

They even won a playoff game.

Veteran wide receiver Adam Thielen reminded reporters that he was part of a 2016 Minnesota Vikings team that started 5-0 and didn’t make the playoffs.

Didn’t even finish in the top two of its division.

This sounded a little like damage control for a team that in the second half looked like the NFL’s version of the “Bad News Bears" with an offense that had five of its eight false starts and a defense that surrendered 25 of its 37 points.

But the message from both was it’s way too early to give up on the season.

Reich even assured there is “belief in the locker room" and there will be no finger-pointing.

“Listen, we’re three games into this," Carolina’s first-year coach said. “Everybody understands the kind of guys we’ve got in there. Everybody takes ownership. Everybody understands it’s a long season.

“There’s no guarantees on anything. We know we can be a good team. ... All you worry about is the next team."

The next team is Minnesota, also 0-3 after Sunday’s 28-24 loss to the previously winless Los Angeles Chargers. There’s a fair chance the Panthers will have back starting quarterback Bryce Young, who missed Sunday’s loss with an ankle injury.

And to be clear, Reich reiterated Young will be the starter when healthy no matter how well Andy Dalton plays.

The next game will be at home, where there won’t be 68,000 fans screaming at the top of their lungs while the offense tries to operate as there was at Lumen Field.

So for the Panthers, this felt more like a false start to the season.

“There's a lot of really good teams that have lost three in a row," said Dalton, who had a career-high 58 pass attempts for 361 yards and two touchdowns. “Ours just happens to be these first three.

“For us, the whole goal is to get things fixed, get things right, and to play our best football. And we have not played our best football yet."

This isn’t an easy fix. The defense was down two starters -- linebacker Shaq Thompson (season-ending fractured fibula) and cornerback Jaycee Horn (injured reserve, hamstring) -- and then lost inside linebacker Frankie Luvu (hip pointer) and corner CJ Henderson (ankle) in the first half Sunday.

That showed as a Seattle offense that got nothing but field goals gashed Carolina for big plays in the second half.

That’s scary with high-scoring Minnesota, Detroit and Miami up next.

The offensive line that struggled in protection the first two games added what Reich called “unacceptable" penalties to its laundry list. Nobody was more rattled than 2022 first-round pick Ikem Ekwonu, who had four false starts at left tackle.

Reich didn’t use the crowd noise as an excuse.

“I promise you it was louder Wednesday at practice than it was out there today," he said. “Andy was really hoarse after Wednesday just from screaming the whole day. So we’ve got to figure that one out."

There’s a lot to figure out, but as Reich, Thielen and others reminded there’s still time. New Orleans and Atlanta both lost on Sunday after 2-0 starts. Tampa Bay plays defending NFC champion Philadelphia on Monday night, so there’s a chance the Panthers remain only two games back of everybody in the NFC South.

But as Thielen reminded, there has to be a sense of urgency that wasn’t there in the second half on Sunday.

“Honestly, it probably starts on the plane ride home," Thielen said after catching 11 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown that made him the oldest Carolina player (33) to top 10 catches and 100 yards receiving. “Looking yourself in the mirror and saying, ‘What could I have done better individually?' If every player does that with urgency, we can go where we wanna go."

Thielen knows both the Panthers and Vikings will have “some urgency" on Sunday.

“There’s some serious competitors on that team, as there are on this team," he said. “Next week kind of feels like a playoff game, to be honest, just because both teams are fighting and scratching and clawing to get that first win on the board and change momentum."