Panthers face big decisions, starting with coach, QB

Much of Carolina’s surprising resurgence to go 6-6 under interim coach Steve Wilks was attributed to a dominant running attack, but the Panthers’ defense also deserves credit for its role in victories like Sunday’s 10-7 win about the Saints.

Carolina (7-10) held the Saints to 72 yards of offense and zero points in the second half, after a second quarter in which three New Orleans drives drove well into Carolina territory but came up empty with a missed field goal, a turnover. to losses and a balance from Chris Olave just before the break.

“For those guys to circle the wagon and find a way to go out and win a football game again is very 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] much to build on moving forward. Again, I couldn’t be more proud of the men in that locker room.”

The Panthers won Sunday without Pro Bowl running back Brian Burns, who was inactive with injury, and starting defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis, also injured, and a secondary depleted enough that 35-year-old Josh Norman played every time as to lift the training equipment. . 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 the Wilks team. 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 on 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 exchanging blows with the Saints’ pass rusher, Marcus Davenport. When Darnold threw an interception with less than 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, though, and the Saints lost two yards on two rushing plays, then failed 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 game-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 to pick up a road win against the Saints in Week 18. Eddy Pineiro kicked a 42-yard field goal as time expired.

The NFC South was packed enough that the Panthers finished one game behind 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 tough games against other division runners-up 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 highly regarded, though team owner David Tepper has already had a conversation with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, suggesting the organization will also be ambitious in its evaluation other candidates. The Panthers opened the season 2-7, but won five of their last eight games to stay in contention for the division title until last week’s loss to the Bucs.

The Panthers will have the No. 9 overall pick in the draft, and the additional picks acquired from the 49ers in the Christian McCaffrey deal, including San Francisco’s second-, third-, and fourth-round picks in that draft, could help if they’re looking to trade by one of the best quarterbacks in this class. Carolina could also return Darnold, a free agent, who went 4-2 as a 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’s happened this year, I’m really proud of the guys. I thought Coach Wilks did a great job preparing us for this game. Again, sometimes it doesn’t go be beautiful. but we made it.”

Panthers QB Sam Darnold in season finale win

Panthers QB Sam Darnold in season finale win

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

Carolina must decide how much it is willing to spend to get back Foreman, a surprise star with 915 rushing yards, most of that after the McCaffrey trade, with Chuba Hubbard also running heavily behind an improved offensive line. The Panthers don’t have a lot of salary flexibility, but they should be able to keep their top free agents however they want.

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

“I think it was profound, the character in that locker room, how those guys came together and stuck together for each other,” Wilks said. “It’s not about me. It’s about those men in that locker room. It’s about this organization, the coaching staff, the support staff. Everyone came together this year to endure all the things we had to go through . It’s not me. So I just congratulate everybody in this organization for the way we’ve come together and come together.”

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Greg Auman is the NFC South reporter for FOX Sports, 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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