I caught flak in the second quarter on social media for pondering the long-term risk of Carolina’s extraordinary ability to turn touchdown opportunities into field goals on Sunday.
But by the the final Buffalo Bills drive of the game, as the clocked ticked down, Sean McDermott’s squad was six points away from tying the Panthers, and seven points from winning.
Carolina missed two chances for touchdowns in the first half. The first, after a dominant opening drive, was a long pass from quarterback Cam Newton to receiver Kelvin Benjamin. Benjamin got his hands on it but was whacked by safety Jordan Poyer, and the ball dribbled incomplete.
The second was a throw into double coverage to receiver Russell Shepard, again broken up (and nearly picked off) by Poyer.
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“I just think Cam tried to squeeze it in there,” said Shepard. “He’s a strong-armed quarterback, he’s confident in his arm. So at times, he can get away with squeezing the ball in certain windows that most people can’t.
“Unfortunately, they had a coach that has been here, a coach that is familiar with our style of play, our quarterback, our offensive line, everything we do from an offensive standpoint. I think that, with a mixture of us just kind of shooting ourselves in the foot a couple times in the end zone, it created a lack of touchdowns, lack of production in the red zone.”
This was a 9-3 victory, yes, but an ugly one, after Carolina failed to close time and again.
After not allowing Buffalo’s offense to cross the midfield until the third quarter, after allowing just one first down in the first half, after putting up nearly 200 first-half yards with chunk gains to a variety of receivers, after smoothly clicking downfield with a well-executed game plan that teed off on Buffalo’s lack of presence in the middle of the field, after Newton used his legs to bite off big gains, after holding the ball for 23:07 in the first half to Buffalo’s 6:53 ...
The Panthers had still scored just six points through three quarters.
“We just have to find ways to put the ball in the last rectangle on the football field,” Newton said. “And that’s all it comes down to. It’s not like we were stagnant on offense. We were moving the football.
“We just have to find ways to move the ball, and when you’re going against a coaching staff that’s oh-so-familiar with what you do, what you like to do, and pretty much has your own playbook at their disposal, that can become a challenge in itself.”
Offensive line struggles
Those points would certainly have helped when McDermott cranked his blitzes up, and Carolina’s offensive line imploded.
Newton was hurried seven times and sacked six times, the latter of which began in the second quarter.
“They were bringing a lot of linebackers, mugging them up and then dropping them out,” left tackle Matt Kalil said. “Obviously they have some great pass-rushers and they got us a few times. We’re only going to get better.
“As a left tackle, you’re going to have plays where you’re going to get beat. You can’t dwell on them, otherwise the other guys are going to smell that at it’s only going to get worse for you. So you have to have a short-term memory.”
Newton’s rhythm suffered
Newton, who was in a great rhythm throughout the first half and found 129 yards’ worth of success in the air, lost that rhythm. And on the second of two consecutive sacks in the third quarter, he sprained his ankle and lay still on the turf for a few minutes while trainers attended to him.
He came back in without missing a snap, but his earlier cadence was not salvageable.
Newton ultimately flat-out missed running back Christian McCaffrey for a would-be touchdown on third down on the Buffalo 2.
“Just the accuracy, and knowing the expectations that I have for myself, missing layups like that is uncalled for,” Newton said. “I wish I had two or three balls back, but that’s in every single game.
“With those balls completed, the outcome of the game is completely different.”
Settling for field goals
Tell me again, about how settling for field goals is “just fine.”
During Buffalo’s final drive of the game, with Carolina up 9-3, were you replaying Benjamin’s drop, the pass breakup on Shepard and Newton’s overthrow of McCaffrey in your head? If you say no, I flat-out wouldn’t believe you.
If not for rookie receiver Zay Jones, the NCAA record-holder for catches while at East Carolina, dropping a catchable ball for a change, the pass quarterback Tyrod Taylor slung his way on fourth down with 14 seconds to play might have been a touchdown, and Carolina would have fallen to its former defensive coordinator.
The Panthers won’t always get off that easily.
“It is tough to win in the league when all you do is kick field goals,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said after the game.
The Panthers, who as you may remember weren’t quite so lucky in these close games last year, can’t depend on good fortune to squeak them through, or even always just fall back on their prodigiously talented defense.
But touchdowns, now those can be a heck of a crutch.
Newton, who was audibly irked at himself in his postgame press conference, summed it up well.
“We’re good. I’m good,” he said. “My job is to put points on the scoreboard. We didn’t have a touchdown today and I’m disappointed in that, but we will get better. And I know that.”