For 18 games the Carolina Panthers managed to produce more on offense than any other team despite a lackluster receiving corps that was without a No. 1 threat. In a 24-10 loss in Super Bowl 50, the wide receivers finally came back to haunt them.
Granted, it was far from Cam Newton's best performance. He missed on several passes, overthrowing a few receivers early in the game and finishing with just 18 completions on 41 pass attempts. But of his 23 incompletions, a handful rest on the shoulders of receivers, including Jerricho Cotchery who dropped three of the five passes thrown his way.
Carolina's inability to move the ball through the air wasn't just due to mistakes by Newton and the Panthers receivers. The majority of the credit deserves to go to a Denver Broncos defense that had a tremendous year and was the only team in 2015 to allow fewer than 200 passing yards per game.
"They force you to play at a very small, narrow margin for error, but again, a lot of what we had was just breakdowns in our own scheme, breakdowns in our own plays," Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said after the game. "So, hats off to them. We knew coming in that it was going to be a challenge with the guys that can get after the quarterback and the guy they have in the backend. We knew if it became a pass-happy game, that it'd be tough, but we obviously would have liked to have given it a little bit better shot."
All three of Cotchery's drops would've resulted in first downs and his final one would have put the Panthers inside the 5-yard line for a potential go-ahead touchdown. Instead, Carolina settled for a 44-yard field goal attempt that was missed by Graham Gano. The first drop of the day drew controversy and a challenge from Ron Rivera, but was one that Cotchery had ample opportunity to secure long before his contact with Darian Stewart.
It wasn't just Cotchery, though. Ted Ginn, Jr. had a strong regular season for the Panthers even if it came with nine drops. But his notoriously suspect hands cost Carolina more than ever on Sunday when a pass deflected off his hands into the waiting arms of Broncos safety T.J. Ward.
Was it a perfect throw from Newton? No, but it absolutely was one that a wide receiver starting in the Super Bowl should be able to haul in.
With Greg Olsen mostly taken away by the Broncos defense, Corey "Philly" Brown stepped up to finish with 80 receiving yards on four receptions. However, he suffered a concussion on a 42-yard reception in the third quarter and didn't return, further slowing the passing offense. The lack of a true top threat on the outside for Newton to target finally cost the Panthers and it was a problem the Broncos anticipated Carolina would have.
"We dared him to throw," Broncos cornerback Chris Harris told reporters after the game. "The game plan was can you throw on us? Me, (Aqib) Talib and (Bradley) Roby. We knew he couldn't throw on us."
With Kelvin Benjamin set to return from an ACL tear that cost him his entire 2015 season, the Panthers already have one top talent to add to the team's No. 1 offense in 2016, but even that might not be enough. Finding more pass catchers to surround the MVP quarterback has to be one of the team's top priorities to get the Lombardi Trophy that eluded the Panthers on Sunday.