CHICAGO (AP) — The Panthers had just blown another one, and Steve Smith couldn’t contain himself.
The 12-year veteran unloaded, wondering where this team is headed after watching Carolina collapse in the fourth quarter and lose 23-22 to the Chicago Bears on Sunday.
“It’s getting old,” Smith said. “There is a tradition growing here and I’m not sure which way this tradition is going.”
The Panthers are freefalling at the moment.
Robbie Gould kicked a 41-yard field goal as time expired after Jay Cutler rallied the Bears in the fourth quarter, giving the NFC North leaders a narrow win over a struggling team.
The Panthers led 19-7 in the fourth when the game turned in a big way.
Chicago (6-1) took over on the Carolina 38 after Brad Nortman shanked a 6-yard punt, and Cutler connected with Kellen Davis on a 12-yard scoring pass with just under 7 minutes left.
Then on Carolina’s next play from scrimmage, Smith slipped on an out pattern and Tim Jennings returned his second interception of the game 25 yards to make it 20-19, the pass failing on the 2-point attempt.
Cam Newton then drove the Panthers to the Chicago 27, and Justin Medlock’s 45-yard field goal hit the right upright and went through to put Carolina ahead 22-20 with 2:27 remaining.
Cutler moved the Bears 55 yards to the 23-yard line, completing 6 of 7 passes on the drive, before Gould nailed his winner.
For Newton and the Panthers (1-6), the vibe couldn’t be worse at the moment.
They fired their general manager during the week and then dropped their fifth straight game after dominating for most of the day.
Carolina ran up 416 yards and had six sacks against Cutler, with Greg Hardy getting to him three times. But somehow, Chicago pulled this one out.
“Not heartbreaking,” Smith said. “Tiresome, monotonous, a few guys in here are perturbed and (ticked), but we’re beyond heartbreak. We’re just getting upset.”
And coach Ron Rivera is running out of words to describe what’s happening.
“Our guys played well enough to give themselves a chance to win,” he said. “Who would have thought Steve Smith would slip? You have a great situation and set of circumstances, and that happens — and it’s tough. It really is. The guys played well, and the guys played hard. I feel bad for those guys in that room.”
In the end, it was a familiar and frustrating result. Five of the Panthers’ losses are by six points or less, and in this one, they set the tone for most of the game.
Cutler completed 19 of 28 passes for 186 yards for Chicago after having his ribs bruised by Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh on Monday night.
Brandon Marshall had 98 yards receiving and Matt Forte ran for 70 yards and a touchdown for Chicago. And with Jennings running back that interception, Chicago’s defense has six touchdowns on the season.
Newton threw for 314 yards and Smith added 118 receiving for Carolina. Medlock nailed five field goals, but the Panthers suffered another stinging loss.
With the worst record in the NFC, they let longtime GM Marty Hurney go on Monday while making it clear no one except maybe Newton is safe.
Even he’s come under criticism in recent weeks for his demeanor, and adding to the Panthers’ woes was a mounting list of injuries, with three-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil (foot), cornerback Chris Gamble (shoulder) and three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Jon Beason (knee and shoulder) going down for the rest of the season in recent weeks.
“This was a challenging week, not only for myself, but for any Carolina Panther fan that has been following us,” Newton said. “We just have to come out and keep enduring and keep going and keep going. It tells a lot about the teammates and what type of team you have faced with adversity.”
The way this game started, it was hard to tell which team was in first place and which one was in disarray.
Hardy only had two sacks this season and never more than one in a game in his career, but he created all kinds of havoc in the first half.
The Panthers also had 226 yards while holding the Bears to 49 through the first two quarters.
Forte’s 13-yard scoring run through a big hole in the line on the Bears’ next possession made it 7-0, but it was a brutal half for the Bears. The Panthers might have broken it open had they converted a few more chances near the goal line.
Instead, they got two field goals by Medlock in the first half and a touchdown by Louis Murphy on a fumble recovery in the end zone after Newton coughed it up on an 8-yard scramble while building a 13-7 halftime lead.
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