CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Even for a Panthers team accustomed to losing late leads, Sunday's 24-21 setback to the Minnesota Vikings was a new low.
Carolina coach Ron Rivera tried to console Olindo Mare after everyone else had cleared out of the Panthers locker room Sunday, walking with his arm around the shoulders of the kicker who had missed a potential game-tying 31-yard field goal with 26 seconds left, resulting in the devastating defeat to Minnesota.
It was the fifth time this season the Panthers lost a game in which they either led or were tied in the fourth quarter.
A victory would have sent the Panthers into their bye week at 3-5 with a chance to build on two-game win streak and Tennessee looming on Nov. 13. Instead, they're 2-6 with a bitter taste in their mouths.
"I think there's a lot of frustration right now," Rivera said.
Nobody was more frustrated than Mare, who called his miss "inexcusable."
He's trying to replace fan favorite John Kasay, who played 16 seasons for the club before being unexpectedly released this offseason. Outside of Sunday's miss, Mare had converted 13 of 15 field goal attempts, but this was his first with the game on the line.
"I let the team down, the coaches down, the fans down, everybody," Mare said. "Obviously I didn't do my job."
Mare's teammates rallied to his defense.
Quarterback Cam Newton said anyone who thinks Mare cost the Panthers the game is a "fool."
Newton pointed to the three straight second-half possessions in which the Panthers went three-and-out.
Tackle Jordan Gross talked about the critical sack-fumble he gave up to defensive end Jared Allen that led to a Vikings touchdown.
And linebacker James Anderson lamented the defense's inability to get off the field on third down against Vikings rookie quarterback Christian Ponder, who beat the Panthers in just his second NFL start.
"Olindo is a hell of a kicker and I would bet my last dollar every time in that situation," Newton said. "He makes that 99 percent of the time."
A win would have given the Panthers back-to-back victories for the first time since 2009 and kept their postseason hopes alive. Instead they're four games under .500 with a tough schedule that includes Detroit, Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans and Tampa Bay twice.
They have two weeks to think about what could have been — not just this week, but all season.
"It's been like (the movie) Groundhog Day around here," tight end Greg Olsen said of the team's uncanny ability to lose games late.
Rivera is trying to stay upbeat with a young team, making sure the Panthers don't fall into the mode of simply playing out the string in the second half of the season.
"We will see how they react tomorrow (because) what's going to define us is how we handle this situation and come back and get ready to play," Rivera said.
Gross, for one, believes the Panthers could use a bye.
The Panthers have been hit hard by injuries all year, particularly at linebacker. They lost two more on Sunday with Jason Phillips injuring his calf and Thomas Williams his neck.
"I think guys are going to respond really well," Gross said. "They get some time to slow down, get away from each other and let things heal up physically and mentally. We got a heck of a schedule these next eight games and there is no reason we can't win out. It's crazy to say but I don't think anyone is counting this season over."
Rivera believes the 38-year-old Mare, who signed a four-year, $12 million contract in July, will be just fine.
"I went up and told him to keep his head up," Rivera said. "He is a heck of a football player. He is going to get chances to win football games for us and I believe that."
Notes: Rivera said the team could look to add a linebacker if Phillips or Williams is out for an extended period. One option, he said, is signing either Kion Wilson or Lawrence Wilson from the practice squad. ... The Panthers have until Nov. 9 at 4 p.m. to make a decision on whether to activate rookie cornerback Brandon Hogan, the team's fourth-round draft pick, from the physically unable to perform list. Hogan started practicing with the team two weeks ago after missing all of the preseason while recovering from an ACL he tore in December while playing for West Virginia. ... Rivera said he doesn't plan to make any personnel changes in the return game, even though the Panthers rank 29th in the league in kickoff and punt returns.
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