There were many ways Carolina wanted to start its day against Tennessee on Saturday.
But a turnover on its very first offensive play, a badly blown coverage-for-Titans-touchdown, a tipped pass-turned-interception and a resulting way-too-easy score by Titans running back Derrick Henry was not it.
And the Panthers certainly didn’t want the day to end in a 34-27 loss after mounting a 27-point comeback.
Carolina went 1-and-out on its first offensive series after a Derek Anderson pass was fumbled by receiver Devon Funchess and recovered by Tennessee. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota then capitalized on a miscommunication-turned-blown coverage between cornerback Daryl Worley and safety Mike Adams to easily lob a touchdown pass to tight end Delanie Walker.
Then, Anderson tried to fire a pass up the seam to tight end Greg Olsen, but didn’t see linebacker Jayon Brown, who jumped up to tip the pass to teammate Justin Staples. A play later, Henry cruised into the end zone for a 17-yard score.
Oh, and this all happened in the first quarter. Carolina’s defense stayed on the field for 10:46 as the Titans built an easy 17-0 lead. Carolina’s offense ran just nine plays, rushed for five yards, passed for 34 yards and converted a single first down.
Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey shimmied through a hole provided by guard Andrew Norwell and tight end Ed Dickson early in the second quarter, and scuttled around the edge for a 17-yard touchdown – some optimism for Carolina, and the rookie’s first-ever NFL score.
Henry floated into the end zone untouched again with 4:40 left in the second quarter on a hurry-up end zone play.
A 46-yard field goal by rookie Harrison Butker before the half and a 1-yard punch-in by backup running back Cameron Artis-Payne to open the third quarter kept the Panthers alive.
Rookie fullback Alex Armah zipped into the end zone on a 20-yard catch with 1:09 left in the third quarter to pull the Panthers within three points.
Kicker Graham Gano tied the game at 27 with a 37-yard field goal with 3:51 left to play.
But fourth-string quarterback Garrett Gilbert was strip-sacked with two minutes left in the game, and Tennessee recovered at the 3-yard line. Running back David Fluellen punched in the go-ahead touchdown to seal the Titans victory.
Three who mattered
Marcus Mariota: Mariota finished his day after two series in the first quarter, going 6 of 8 with 61 yards, a touchdown and a 9-yard keeper. The quarterback looked poised and surgically precise, and kept Carolina’s defense on its heels early.
Daryl Worley: Worley allowed two early chunk plays by Tennessee that helped Mariota get into a rhythm early. He also was a key factor in the blown coverage for the Walker touchdown.
Christian McCaffrey: McCaffrey was the lone bright spot on offense for Carolina in the first half. His touchdown gave a limp offense a little twitch, and he broke open a massive 38-yard run on an Anderson dump-off screen pass run near the end of the second quarter that set the Panthers up in great field position to score (they settled for a field goal after three Anderson incompletions).
▪ Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly did not play on Saturday because of some soreness in his ribs. The Panthers said that holding him out was “precautionary.” Additionally, receivers Keyarris Garrett and Fred Ross did not make the trip to Nashville as they recover from undisclosed injuries.
▪ Mariota and the Titans bit off chunk gains of 21 and 20 yards in the air and Mariota used his legs to gain another nine as Tennessee appeared to have the Panthers defense back on its heels. A pass breakup by corner James Bradberry on third down and 14 in the red zone came in handy to hold the Titans to a field goal.
▪ The Panthers lucked out with a flag late in the first quarter on an Adoree Jackson punt return that would have been a touchdown.
▪ McCaffrey had two nice gaps pulled open for him by Carolina’s offensive line in the second quarter, one of which helped him find the edge on his 17-yard touchdown run.
▪ Veteran sack artist Julius Peppers was active Saturday, and looked like an absolute menace as he chased down Titans backup quarterback Matt Cassel on a play that may have required the latter to change his pants.
▪ Backup linebacker David Mayo had a solid game in place of Kuechly, getting snaps with both the first- and second-team defense. Mayo led both teams in tackles with seven by the middle of the second quarter, and saved the Panthers from giving up another easy Henry touchdown by flying across the field to make the stop.
▪ As with Houston last week, Carolina’s second-team defense struggled to contain chunk plays. Late in the second quarter, Carolina’s linebackers couldn’t get unblocked and safety Colin Jones missed an initial tackle on David Fluellen, who broke off a 53-yard run before getting pulled down by corner Teddy Williams.
▪ Receiver Brenton Bersin made two nice catches in the third period before leaving the game with a shoulder injury.
▪ The Titans actually allowed two fans to call the team’s first two offensive plays, one a 20-yard Mariota dart to Taywan Taylor, and one a 9-yard keeper. It’s notable that a fan called a run play for a franchise quarterback who spent last season recovering from a broken leg.
▪ Third-string quarterback Joe Webb brought some life into Carolina’s offense with his legs, evading a sack in the third quarter for a 17-yard gain. This helped set up Artis-Payne’s touchdown.
▪ Backup Tennessee quarterback Matt Cassel laid a huge hit on backup linebacker Jeremy Cash on a keeper in the second quarter that quickly went viral on Twitter.