Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera has spent much of the season preaching that it was just one play that beat his defense and, ultimately, his team.
Rivera didn’t use that phrase Sunday after Carolina’s 13-9 loss to Seattle, but that one play wasn’t hard to spot.
With less than 4 minutes to play and the Panthers up by three points, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson took the shotgun snap from the Seattle 36, found his receivers were well covered and scrambled for 14 yards to midfield.
To that point, Wilson had three rushes for 15 yards as Carolina’s defense looked much more like its 2013 iteration than the struggling unit that had taken the field in 2014.
“The one thing that got us at the end was the quarterback,” Rivera said. “He pulled the ball down and ran a couple of times that created some tough problems for us. It’s disappointing because we had opportunities to get after them and you’d like to be able to contain him. But that’s the one thing when you start try to take away certain routes and certain things, then he scrambles and makes plays.
“We called a little bit of man coverage down the stretch and ... we turned our backs. That’s the hard part whenever you turn your back to him.”
The frustration was clear on the faces of several defensive players in the locker room. The Panthers had allowed at least 31 points in each of the past five games, but they had a home lead late in the fourth quarter against the defending Super Bowl champions.
What’s more, the 27th-ranked defense had held Seattle to 4.6 yards per offensive play before the final drive, which started at the Seattle 20 and finished in the end zone.
“This is the NFL, man, and guys make plays,” veteran linebacker Thomas Davis said. “That’s what happened. He was able to put a drive together that ultimately ended up being the game-winning drive. For us defensively, we’ve got to play this game for four quarters and we’ve got to finish.”
The Seahawks gained 21 yards on their first two plays before a false start penalty made it first-and-15 from their 36-yard line with 3:54 remaining. Then Wilson hit the Panthers with his 14-yard scramble that put the Seahawks at midfield with the wind at their backs, more than three minutes on the clock and all three timeouts.
The Seahawks eventually scored a touchown on a 23-yard pass and catch from Wilson to Luke Willson, handing the Panthers their fourth loss of the season and third loss in as many seasons to Seattle.
But after a month of defensive futility, the Panthers finally held a team to just 13 points. That should be enough for a win, right?
“Well if you look at the scoreboard right now, we didn’t win,” Davis said. “No matter how well we played early in the game, when the game is on the line we didn’t execute. We didn’t get that win for our team.”