In more than half of Carolina’s games this season, a common theme has emerged: The games will be close, so close that seven have been decided by three points.
It makes for exciting football. But the problem?
Carolina is also gaining a reputation for losing those close games. The Panthers have dropped five of the seven and are swirling the drain at 4-7 as the rest of the NFC South floats further away.
That theme didn’t alter on Sunday, as Carolina fell to the Raiders 35-32 after mounting a 17-point comeback and scoring 25 unanswered points in second half of a game that became a shootout in the fourth quarter. The repetition of this type of loss is perhaps worse than a tight loss itself – because at this point, the Panthers don’t seem to have the answers as to how to fix it.
▪ Jonathan Stewart finally showed up. The Carolina running back had been held under 50 yards for the past three weeks but eclipsed his three prior game totals in one 47-yard burst up the middle. The Panthers finished with 129 rushing yards.
▪ Ted Ginn Jr. also came to the bay to play, catching a career-long 88-yard touchdown pass that helped rally the Panthers.
▪ This time, when linebacker Thomas Davis gifted the Panthers offense two takeaways, they responded with touchdowns. However, after the first, Graham Gano’s extra point attempt was blocked and after the second, a two point conversion failed as tight end Greg Olsen dropped a pass. So, while Carolina capitalized on those opportunities given by Davis, the offense also left a total of three points on the board in those resulting series’.
▪ Injuries on the offensive line are another big theme for Carolina this season. By game’s end the Panthers were on their third-string center and third-string right tackle as both Gino Gradkowski and Daryl Williams had to leave the field. And as the adage goes, there are no bad players in the NFL – there are only better ones.
In this case, that meant defensive end Khalil Mack.
Mack was nearly unstoppable against the Panthers. He had a pick-six in the first half to put Oakland up 24-7, plus a sack, six tackles, three quarterback hurries, a pass deflection, and a forced and recovered fumble on fourth down with under a minute to play that sealed Carolina’s fate.
▪ A.J. Klein was targeted by quarterback Derek Carr and the Raiders often when isolated into one-on-one coverage with receivers. He did not stand up well to the task in his first game back from the concussion protocol and in place of star linebacker Luke Kuechly. Receiver Michael Crabtree burned him on a catch that put the Raiders into field goal position for the eventual game-winner, and he gave up a two-point conversion and a touchdown.
Two failed two-point conversion attempts and a blocked point-after attempt meant five points were left on the board in a game where every point mattered.
▪ Cam Newton was flat-out off in the first half, and he admitted as much after the game. He had a career-low 1.7 quarterback rating in the first half (originally a 4.9) in a performance so poor that when the official NFL stat crew removed an incomplete pass from his statline upon postgame review, it actually lowered his first-half rating. He had three completions on 11 attempts in the first half for a total of 18 yards, and rushed for the Panthers’ only first-half touchdown. He also threw a pick-six. After the game, he called his own performance “unacceptable.”
▪ Receiver Kelvin Benjamin ran out of bounds just shy of getting a first down late in the fourth quarter, and on fourth and one head coach Ron Rivera elected to punt with 5:15 left to play. He later said he considered going for it, but decided to punt because he thought he could get a good punt in and stop the Raiders offense with three time outs left.
Quotable: “I don’t know. In my experience, you just don’t really know until you know.” – Cam Newton, when asked why Carolina can’t seem to string together cohesive quarters.