EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It was, as Roman Harper surmised, the most disappointed 14-0 team you'll ever see. Ron Rivera was ticked that his team lost its composure and its lead. Dwan Edwards was annoyed that the defense had gotten lax on tackling with the game nearly in hand in the second half on Sunday. And practically everyone was furious at Odell Beckham Jr., whose on-the-field MMA undercard with Josh Norman defined a chippy, chaotic, physical and -- yes -- slightly disappointing 38-35 victory for the Carolina Panthers over the New York Giants.
Norman, speaking -- literally -- through clenched teeth, questioned Beckham's toughness after the Giants' star receiver melted down, at one point running at least 10 yards just to launch at Norman's head with his own helmet. When the locker room opened, Norman was sitting on his stool, wearing half his uniform, staring into space. Even after he took his time to shower and meticulously dress himself -- two bracelets, a watch, cufflinks in his French cuffs, a camel colored dress coat -- Norman narrowed his eyes, the pupils rimmed in red, as he spoke with a fury.
He belittled Beckham's giddy dances and said he should have been ejected. He said if Beckham wants to "dance and prance around like a ballerina," he should not try to be something he isn't -- by which Norman meant not like the blue-collar toughness Norman thinks the Panthers possess but Beckham does not. He suggested Beckham is "in a dark place." He said maybe he's fed up with winter. Cortland Finnegan dropped a little casual misogyny into the conversation, saying Beckham may "have something in his blood. ... Maybe, it's female related." It all added up to an odd vibe, with one Carolina player wondering aloud to another why it felt like they had just lost.
They hadn't, and that's what matters. But set aside, for a moment, the question of whether Rivera should rest his players, especially after watching Cam Newton take a blast in the chest from Cullen Jenkins that had the quarterback briefly clutching his jersey and walking gingerly when he wasn't running up the middle of the Giants' defense.
This game was a reality check for the Panthers, who might have provided their own example for why Rivera should not ease off the gas in the final two games of the regular season. The Panthers did ease up Sunday, losing their focus, failing to wrap up and drawing penalties, all after building a 35-7 lead, and they very nearly did not recover in time. The Giants have made a painful habit of losing excruciating games like this, but they had been blown out just once this season, and the Panthers, at least for a while in the second half, seemed to forget how much fight the Giants have in them. The Panthers, then, got a glimpse at what they have to fear in the coming weeks. Not the pressure that surely accompanies a run at a perfect season. But that there will be people and events that could distract them, and if they stop paying attention, if they fail to maintain the intensity that has buoyed them through the first 3 1/2 months of the season, they are liable to lose one at the most inopportune times -- the playoffs.
"It shouldn't have been a thriller, I can tell you that," Newton said. "It's great for us to be in a game like this -- it's kind of like our first dose of mini-games of what playoff football is going to be about. We have to create that killer instinct."
Rivera was still seething as he made his way to his postgame press conference. Beckham and Norman were engaged in their jousting from the moment the game began, and it seems inarguable that Beckham was, at the very least, off his game because of his emotions. He is surely facing a hefty fine, at a minimum, and an argument could be made that he should have been ejected after he launched himself at Norman's head and should not have been on the field to catch the touchdown pass that tied the game late in the fourth quarter.
But Rivera has his own problems to worry about, and the glimpse he got of his team trying to handle strife did not please him.
"Very disappointed in ourselves," Rivera said. "We had an opportunity to close a team out and we didn't do it. Why? Because we didn't keep our focus and maintain our composure out there. Bottom line is, you've got to stay focused when you play this football game. If you don't, that's what's going to happen."
It never did happen, though, and so the Panthers roll on toward their final regular-season games against the Falconsand Bucs before their real tests begin again. Whether they win out is almost beside the point. More critical is whether they can -- repeatedly -- weather challenges like the one they faced Sunday. Norman's feud was a wild diversion that ultimately cost the Panthers nothing except the exuberance that might have otherwise accompanied the 14th victory of the year. But the Panthers also exited knowing something else: The time has come when there will always be another villain, one more distraction or another opponent giving their best shot. The Panthers have earned the target on their backs with their superb season. To avoid a far greater disappointment at the end of the season than the one they suffered Sunday, though, they'll have to show they can handle it.