For the past three weeks, as the Panthers losing streak stretched to four games, they’ve consistently pointed to two or three plays in every game where mistakes have cost them the game – against Seattle, they gave up a 35-yard touchdown on fourth-and-3 in the fourth quarter; in Tampa Bay, Cam Newton missed an open Devin Funchess up the middle on fourth down and in Detroit, Newton missed an open Jarius Wright on a two-point conversion that would have given them the lead late.
In Cleveland, two plays for the Browns defined each half, with the final one – another pass sailing over the head of Wright in the end zone – defining the game, if not the entire season as the Panthers fell to the Cleveland Browns 26-20 to fall to 6-7 and likely end their chances at playoff contention.
After the Panthers took the opening kickoff and marched 65 yards on 10 plays before putting the first points of the game on the board with a Christian McCaffrey touchdown run that saw the second-year running back skate into the end zone up the middle barely being touched, rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield hit wide receiver Breshad Perriman for a 66-yard bomb on the first offensive play of the game for the Browns and two plays later, the Browns had answered with a Jarvis Landry three-yard touchdown run.
“We try to get it rectified every day in practice,” Ron Rivera said after the game about the big plays – his team has now given up 15 passing plays of 20 or more yards. “Unfortunately, it’s not sticking – we need to continue to work on it as coaches to make sure we’re getting it across. The most important thing is that they have to undertand how important it is to keep things in front of them and not give up big opportunities.”
But as last week, the Panthers failure to get off the field on third-and-long would cost them.
After giving up two first downs on third-and-17s last week, they would give up an even bigger play as Landry – but moreso Mayfield – would strike again in the second quarter after the gunslinging quarterback that Rivera compared to Jim McMahon or Brett Favre drifted to his left and uncorked a 51-yard strike to Jarvis Landry that hit the wideout in between the numbers as Donte Jackson and Eric Reid converged on the left side of the end zone. Reid even had his arm in between Landry’s hands but the fifth-year wide receiver who the Browns acquired this offseason was able to pull it in.
“I’m in position trying to get my hand around the ball. I had my hand on the ball, I’ve just got to get it out,” said Eric Reid. “We get ourselves in good positions and we don’t finish – that’s what keeps happening.”
Landry finished with two carries for 54 yards to go along with three catches for 57 and two touchdowns, one in the air and one on the ground.
“When we get the ball in his hands, that is what happens,” said Mayfield, who would finish with 238 yards on 18 completions – although 117 came on two of them. “You have to get him going early, you have to get that momentum; then he is a guy who he feeds off that momentum, that energy and that confidence.”
When Ron Rivera fired two defensive coaches earlier this week and assumed the defensive playcalling duties while demoting Eric Washington to overseeing the front seven as Rivera led the secondary, it was clearly a move meant to shake up a defense that had given up 126 points during their four-game losing streak; while on the surface, a defense that allowed two plays of over 50 yards in the first half might have looked overmatched, in the third quarter the defense stiffened to hold the Browns to only 18 yards in the quarter as a penalty-filled quarter had both teams playing sloppy. The pass rush was even able to get to Mayfield, who hadn’t been sacked in over three weeks, for a Captain Munnerlyn sack; they consistently ran the #1 pick off of his spot and forced multiple holding calls.
The two teams combined for 83 yards, nine penalties and three points in the third quarter as the Panthers clung to a 20-17 lead after 45 minutes of play.
“We were doing some things that I felt we were comfortable with,” said Rivera. “I thought out guys handled it very well and unfortunately, sometimes all it takes is one big play.”
The fourth quarter began with that one big play for the Browns as the Panthers – again – failed to get off the field on a third down as Mayfield handed the ball to Landry on the exact play he scored the touchdown on earlier and the wide receiver ‘blessed’ the Panthers with a 51-yard run up the middle that featured a juke move that had safety Mike Adams turned completely around – it was only Luke Kuechly chasing down the wideout from behind that prevented a touchdown.
“Super Luke, man,” said a frustrated Thomas Davis in the locker room after the game. “Giving max effort, an all-pro player, giving everything he has for the team and [when] you see things like that as young players on this team, that should motivate you – it should encourage you to keep working, keep pounding, keep fighting.”
Despite the chasedown by Kuechly, the score was only prevented for a single play as rookie runner Nick Chubb blasted his way for a four-yard score to put the Browns up 23-20.
While Christian McCaffrey dominated the first half – the running back had 13 touches for 53 yards and two scores in the first half, the Panthers would veer away from the running game despite having success – after fifteen rushes in the first half, the Panthers would run it only 10 times in the second half, despite McCaffrey’s first carry of the second half going for 25 yards.
With the Panthers getting the ball back with 8:46 left in the fourth quarter, a methodical drive that lasted more than six minutes of game time and featured a key third down conversion on a Cam Newton designed run would end just short of the end zone as the Panthers went from first-and-goal at the nine to turning the ball over on downs as three plays from the three-yard line failed, the final one a pass that sailed too high for Wright in the back of the end zone, evoking memories of the failed two-point conversion in Detroit.
“I practice for those moments,” said Newton. “As a player, you live for those moments and when those things keep constantly happening not in your favor, it’s easy to lose confidence and try to blame something. I still say the same – as far as me getting better [and] knowing that I will get better.”
“It’s nothing else that I have the words to say.”
There’s not much more to say for a team that had Super Bowl aspirations after starting the season 6-2, signed a high-profile defensive acquisition like Eric Reid, has the fourth-oldest roster in the league and hasn’t scored a fourth-quarter touchdown in seven possessions over the past two weeks. They haven’t won a game over the second half of the season and are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs with two games left against the 11-2 New Orleans Saints, who have already clinched the NFC South.
“It’s easy to point the finger and say who didn’t do what – whether it’s coaching or players,” said tight end Chris Manhertz. “But I think each and every one of us has to take a look in the mirror, take a look at ourselves and evaluate ourselves and see what we can do to be better.”
- Newton threw 42 times only four days removed from telling the media that he would likely need a second shoulder surgery to follow up his 2016 procedure of which he was still feeling lingering effects. Newton is clearly struggling on certain throws, particularly of the downfield variety, but Ron Rivera will be hesitant to rest his starting quarterback with the Panthers still within spitting distance of a playoff berth, which they still are. With both the Eagles and Redskins losing, the Panthers need only a Vikings loss on Monday night to stay within a game of the sixth wild-card slot; of course, the Panthers still have to face the NFC South Champion New Orleans Saints, whom they haven’t beaten since 2016, twice.
- The Panthers had 2016 first-round pick Vernon Butler inactive for the second game in a row; the team utilized defensive end Wes Horton in the defensive tackle rotation just as they did last week against the Tampa Bay Bucs. The Panthers had four sacks last week after having four combined in the three weeks previous – Butler had registered 16 combined tackles through the first 11 games of the season.
- With a completion on the first drive of the game, Cam Newton joined Peyton Manning as the only two players to start their career with 8 straight seasons of 3,000+ passing yards.
- The Panthers scored their first points off an opponent’s turnover since Week 9, not coincidentally their last win, as a fumble forced by Luke Kuechly and recovered by Thomas Davis led to a McCaffrey one-yard touchdown run. Davis recovered two fumbles in the game, his first two takeaways of the season; Kuechly forced both of the fumbles. Davis now has 11 career fumble recoveries, tied with Mike Minter for the most in franchise history.
- Browns kicker Greg Joseph missed an extra point in the fourth quarter after a lengthy discussion among the referees concerning a Donte Jackson offsides call; once the teams reconvened, Joseph bounced the shorter try off of the left upright.
- Taylor Heinicke was once again called upon to throw a Hail Mary at the end of the first half – the Browns talented pass rush was able to get to the backup quarterback as he laid out a deep ball that was hauled in by Curtis Samuel, who would finish with four catches for 80 yards.
- Cam Newton had two potential turnovers overturned – one, an attempted shovel pass to McCaffrey as Newton was under duress, was overturned as an incomplete pass and an interception over the middle was wiped away due to a defensive holding penalty. The Panthers won the turnover battle 2-1, their first loss of the season when they’ve turned it over less than their opponent.