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Panthers face big decisions, starting with coach, QB

So much of Carolina’s surprising resurgence to go 6-6 under interim coach Steve Wilks was credited to a dominant running attack, but the Panthers defense also deserves credit for its role in wins like Sunday’s 10-7 victory over the Saints.

Carolina (7-10) held the Saints to 72 yards of offense and zero points in the second half, this after a second quarter in which three New Orleans drives went well into Carolina territory but came up empty on a missed field goal, a turnover on downs and a Chris Olave fumble just before halftime.

“For those guys to circle the wagon and once again find a way to come out and win a football game is extremely impressive,” Wilks said Sunday. “We won our last game at home in front of our fans, and we won our last game of the year on the road. [There’s] a lot to build on moving forward. Again, couldn’t be so proud of the men in that locker room.”

The Panthers won Sunday without Pro Bowl pass-rusher Brian Burns, who was inactive with injury, and without starting defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis, also injured, and a secondary depleted enough that Josh Norman, 35, played every snap as a practice-squad elevation. The defense has faced adversity all season, with defensive coordinator Phil Snow fired along with head coach Matt Rhule after five games, and interim coordinator Al Holcomb taking over as part of Wilks’ staff. Of the Panthers’ seven wins this season, five came in games in which they held their opponent to 15 points or fewer.

Carolina won without much offense Sunday, as quarterback Sam Darnold completed just five passes for 43 yards, and leading rusher D’Onta Foreman was ejected in the third quarter for trading punches with Saints pass-rusher Marcus Davenport. When Darnold threw an interception with under two minutes left, the Saints were at the Carolina 35, in position to win the game with a field goal.

The Panthers defense stepped up, however, and the Saints lost two yards on two running plays, then missed on a throw to Olave, setting up a long field-goal attempt for Wil Lutz. Cornerback CJ Henderson got a hand on the kick for a partial block, and that defensive stand set up Carolina’s final drive and a winning field goal by Eddy Pineiro as time expired.

Eddy Pineiro drills a 42-yard field goal as time expires

Eddy Pineiro drills a 42-yard field goal as time expires

The Panthers came from behind and got the walk-off win against the Saints in Week 18. Eddy Pineiro kicked a 42-yard field goal as time expired.

The NFC South was closely packed enough that the Panthers finished one game out of first and also shared the worst record in the division. They officially finished second in the South, thanks to a 4-2 division record, and that gives them a second-place schedule next season, which means three challenging games against other division runner-ups who all made the playoffs: at home against the Cowboys and on the road at the Seahawks and Dolphins. 

Carolina’s first offseason priority is deciding whether to make Wilks the permanent head coach or make an outside hire. Wilks will be strongly considered, though team owner David Tepper has already had a conversation with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, suggesting that the organization will be ambitious in evaluating other candidates as well. The Panthers opened the season 2-7, but won five of their last eight games to stay in contention for a division title up until last week’s road loss to the Bucs.

The Panthers will have the No. 9 overall pick in the draft, and the extra picks acquired from the 49ers in the Christian McCaffrey deal — including San Francisco’s second-, third- and fourth-round picks in this draft — could help if they seek to trade up for one of the top quarterbacks in this class. Carolina could also bring back Darnold, a free agent, who went 4-2 as starter with modest production, throwing seven touchdowns against three interceptions.

“Listen, this is the NFL. Every team goes through a lot,” Darnold said after Sunday’s game. “But for us, the way we battled through what has happened this year, I am just really proud of the guys. I thought Coach Wilks did a great job getting us ready for this game. Again, it wasn’t pretty at times, but we got it done.”

Panthers QB Sam Darnold on final win of the season

Panthers QB Sam Darnold on final win of the season

FOX Sports’ Megan Olivi catches up with Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold after their 10-7 win over the Saints.

Carolina must decide how much it’s willing to spend to bring back Foreman, a surprise star with 915 rushing yards, most after the McCaffrey trade, with Chuba Hubbard also rushing well behind an improved offensive line. The Panthers don’t have great salary-cap flexibility but should be able to keep their best free agents as they wish.

Much like for Darnold, Sunday could have been the end of Wilks’ time with Carolina, but a hard-fought, all-around team win was something to celebrate as a positive end to a difficult season.

“I just think it was profound, the character in that locker room, how those guys pulled and came together for one another,” Wilks said. “It’s not about me. It’s about those men in that locker room. It’s about this organization, the coaching staff, support staff. Everybody pulled together this year to endure all of the things that we had to go through. It’s not just me. So, I just commend everybody in this organization for the way we just rallied and pulled together.”

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Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.


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