The Panthers had another shot to produce a fourth-quarterback comeback and, perhaps this time, finally win a close game. But Sunday’s 32-27 loss to the Broncos ended in a similar fashion.
Another failed final drive.
The Panthers are 2-7 in games decided by one possession, and 0-7 when they’ve had to engineer a game-winning drive. The Panthers were without two of their best weapons in Christian McCaffrey and DJ Moore, and Teddy Bridgewater struggled in the first half without them. But he bounced back until that final drive when the Panthers couldn’t even pick up one first down.
The final drive wasn’t the only issue Sunday. The Panthers’ defense also struggled.
And now the Panthers sit at 4-9 with only three games left in the season as they move closer to a top-five pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
Here are four takeaways from Sunday’s loss:
1. Too many communication issues
On the second-to-last drive of the Panthers’ 28-27 loss to the Vikings two weeks ago, with the ball at the Vikings’ 3, Teddy Bridgewater said he got the play call late from offensive coordinator Joe Brady before he had a chance to read the Vikings’ defense. He then threw an inaccurate pass to DJ Moore on third down, which would have been a touchdown and sealed the game.
Panthers coach Matt Rhule said the issue stemmed from the staff not being aware of how much time was on the clock. He took responsibility last week.
But this week, the Panthers dealt with another communication issue. On the final drive of this week’s loss, after the Panthers picked up 8 yards on second-and-16 with 2:21 remaining, Bridgewater rushed his team to the line to try to get a play off before the two-minute warning.
He did so with one second to spare, but the play appeared rushed, and Bridgewater’s pass on third down fell incomplete. Had the Panthers allowed the clock to reach the two-minute warning, they might have had time to draw up a better play on third down.
“Obviously, that play, I did not want a play to run before the two‐minute (warning),” Rhule said. “Unfortunately, we ran one right before the two‐minute (warning). That wasn’t what we wanted, so I have to get that corrected.”
That Rhule did not want to run a play before the two-minute warning — but one was run — indicates there there was another late-game miscommunication between the staff and Bridgewater or Brady and Rhule.
Those mishaps tend to be the difference in tight games, and it happened in the past two games.
“That communication, I have to go back through and work with the staff to see how that happened,” Rhule said.
2. Panthers couldn’t get out of their own way
The Panthers committed penalties in crucial times Sunday that extended drives and prevented them from getting into a rhythm. Defensive end Brian Burns was called for a questionable roughing-the-passer penalty on third-and-8 with 3:31 left in the second quarter, which extended the drive.
Had Burns not committed the penalty, the Panthers would have gotten the ball back after trailing by one.
On the same drive, deep in Carolina territory, linebacker Jermaine Carter tackled Melvin Gordon for no gain on second-and-4 with 1:45 left in the half. It would have brought up third-and-4, but Carter stood over Gordon and flexed his muscles after making the tackle. He was then called for taunting penalty, which gave the Broncos another first down at the Carolina 2-yard line.
“All of their drives were stopped, but they got calls on third down that helped them extend plays,” Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson said.
One of the biggest penalties occurred before the Panthers’ final offensive drive. Return specialist Pharaoh Cooper returned a punt 13 yards to the 50-yard line with more than three minutes remaining.
But defensive back Natrell Jamerson, who the Panthers recently signed to a two-year deal, was called for a holding penalty, pushing the Panthers back to their own 27-yard line. Instead of having to go 50 yards in three minutes to score a touchdown, they now had 73 yards to go.
That made things more difficult for the Panthers’ offense, and they couldn’t overcome it.
3. Jeremy Chinn deserving of rookie honor?
For the second consecutive game, Chinn showed why he deserves to be in serious consideration for defensive rookie of the year award. After scoring two defensive touchdowns in 10 seconds in Week 12 against the Vikings, Chinn sacked Broncos quarterback Drew Lock with 6:34 left in the second quarter, knocking the ball loose.
Defensive end Efe Obada recovered the fumble and returned it 54 yards to the Broncos’ 3-yard line before he was brought down by Broncos wide receiver Jerey Jeudy.
“It came on a blitz. I saw the center protected away from me, you know, just kind of wrapped around. It was wide open,” Chinn said of the play. “It was drawn up perfectly, and I was just able to capitalize on it.”
Chinn leads the Panthers with 95 tackles this season. He also has two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, two defensive touchdowns, one sack and one interception.
Chinn’s biggest competition is likely Washington defensive end Chase Young. Young has 5.5 sacks this season, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery for a touchdown he scored on Sunday.
As the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft, Young was the favorite for the award before this season. Chinn, who the Panthers traded up to get in the second round, will make it difficult for voters.
4. DJ Moore’s production was missed
The Panthers missed Moore, who was out Sunday while on the Covid-19/reserve list. Before Sunday’s game, Moore led the Panthers in receiving yards (924) this season. He has been the Panthers’ deep threat this season, and that was noticeably absent Sunday.
Bridgewater’s longest pass completion Sunday went for 32 yards. His next two longest went for 23 yards and 20 yards.
Moore has averaged 18.5 yards per reception this season and has 14 catches for 20 or more yards.
The Broncos appeared to put a lot of focus on Robby Anderson, who caught eight passes for 84 yards. He was targeted 12 times.
Having Moore not only would have given the Panthers a deep-play threat, but also as a playmaker, and the Panthers missed that, especially in the first half. Bridgewater had only 62 yards passing in the first half. He would have also taken some of the attention off of Anderson.
Wide receiver Brandon Zylstra started in place of Moore and had only one catch for 3 yards. Pharoh Cooper also played some and had three catches for 52 yards.
“We never want to make excuses,” Bridgewater said. “We have complete confidence in the guys who are out there with us. Guys know that in this league they get an opportunity to step up when their number is called, and some of those guys made plays today.”