EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - There were moments when it looked like the Panthers were about to emerge from another slow start on offense.
One minute-long moment, in particular, made it look like they had figured out the Giants and come up with a way to come back again.
But that didn't last long, and after a third quarter that saw the Panthers score their only touchdown of the day, they were left looking for answers again after a 19-16 loss to the Giants.
After surviving a couple of turnovers in the first half, the Panthers slouched in the second, failing to convert a third down after the break (0-for-5) and allowing pressure at all the wrong times.
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"It's not overcomplicated, to be honest with you," quarterback Baker Mayfield said. "We just have to come out and play. It's the mental hump of the 0-2 record, but knowing there's a lot of ball left, and you think about it, we're 6-6 at halftime when we should have been losing, if you look at the stats and situations.
"But we're very close; we're going to correct our mistakes, and go play. We put in the work; we deserve to have fun on Sundays and go execute."
Too many times Sunday, particularly down the stretch, they did not. Mayfield was only sacked twice against a defense he has some familiarity with, since Giants defensive coordinator Don Martindale used to have the same job with the Ravens while Mayfield was in Cleveland. It wasn't the amount of pressure though, it was the timing.
The final blow was a third-down sack approaching the two-minute warning, when the Giants brought safety Julian Love through unblocked past left tackle Ikem Ekwonu, effectively killing any final opportunities the Panthers thought they had.
Ekwonu said that when the defensive lineman across from him dropped, he should have slid inside, but he never did.
"It shouldn't be hard; it's something I have to be able to read quicker; that's on me, technique stuff like that," Ekwonu said in a quiet locker room. "The biggest thing is being consistent. There are too many ups and downs in this game. Something I'm going to really key in on this week is making sure I'm consistent in everything I do. It's just preparation. Learn as much as I can, study as much as I can to prepare a little bit more. . . .
"I feel like everything we saw today was something we were preparing for. I've just got to make that play. That's on me."
Head coach Matt Rhule admitted the difficulty of losing another close game when there had been signs of promise.
The quick touchdown drive in the third, capped by Mayfield hitting DJ Moore for a 16-yard score, looked like it was going to be symbolic.
"That's when we're clicking, when everyone's doing their jobs," Mayfield said. "We have to eliminate negative plays so we can stay on the field, convert on third downs, most importantly and obviously, it helps if it's a shorter distance."
After struggling to get running back Christian McCaffrey incorporated a week ago, he had 102 yards on 15 carries and another 26 yards worth of receptions.
He popped big plays (including a 49-yard rush), and gave them a chance. But afterward, he was like the rest of them, looking for answers.
McCaffrey admitted it was "frustrating" to be having these discussions again, specifically regarding third downs. The Panthers were 2-of-12 converting this week, after going 4-of-11 last week against the Browns. The game's key stat: the Panthers were 0-of-5 on third down in the second half; the Giants were 5-of-11.
"We want to be better on third down," McCaffrey said. "Better on first and second down will help."
It was a clipped answer, but McCaffrey is not prone to big speeches in the best of times. That's why he looked straight ahead when asked how to steer out of the current skid.
"It's the only thing to do," he said. "Getting emotional is not sustainable in this league. It's about working every single day, and that's about it. You show up every day. You put in work, you work as hard as you can, taking care of your body, perfecting the playbook, understanding their defense, being prepared for all the looks.
"That's what you should consume your head with, and that's what we have to consume our head with, is just work."
And with that in his mind, McCaffrey turned his focus to the only thing they can look to.
"Every loss hurts," he said. "We're 0-2 and onto Week 3."