The Carolina Panthers’ playoff berth hinged on a single yard – that much was clear. But whether or not running back Jonathan Stewart got that yard ... well, that’s up for interpretation.
Some context: With less than a minute left in Sunday’s 22-19 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Panthers trailed 19-15 and were driving for a game-winning score. Quarterback Cam Newton hooked up with Brenton Bersin and Kaelin Clay to ignite the drive, but eventually that rhythm stuttered to a halt, as it had for most of the game. Still, facing fourth down and 3 from Tampa’s 5, the Panthers needed a conversion (and subsequent score) to steal the game.
After a neutral-zone infraction penalty turned that fourth-and-3 into fourth-and-1, the Panthers needed just a single yard to keep everything – the drive, their chance at winning the game, and a playoff berth – on track.
And this is where it comes back to some interpretation.
Carolina handed off to Stewart, who plowed into the middle of a pile. According to the referees, who gave Stewart the first down, he got that yard. But Tampa Bay’s defensive line, the ones who swallowed Stewart up, didn’t agree.
“We stopped ’em, man. That’s a bad call,” defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “I never critique the refs and I’m not going to start today, but I just think that’s a bad call.
“We really had it stopped, they gave us a bad spot, but whatever, we’ve gotta get off the field.”
McCoy wasn’t the one who actually got his hands on Stewart first, though. That was Chris Baker, whose penalty the play before made it a shorter distance.
“I thought he was short,” Baker said. “I was asking the referee if you could review the play because I know I grabbed him and he went backwards, not forwards.
“And when they spotted the ball, it was like, ‘How did you spot that?’”
Under NFL rules, teams can’t challenge within the last two minutes of either half, meaning the ruling stood once the officials had decided. McCoy didn’t even think the play needed a second look, though.
“I don’t think it should’ve been reviewed,” McCoy said. “I think it should have went in our favor.”
The very next play, Newton fumbled the ball on the snap, recovered it himself and then charged into the end zone from 2 yards out for what became the game-winning score. With the win, Carolina moves to 11-4 and secures at least a wild-card playoff spot. Had the spot been short, Tampa would have run out the clock and stolen the win, sending the Panthers to a win-and-you’re-in situation with Atlanta in the regular-season finale.
Instead, the Panthers are into the playoffs and the Bucs ... well, their season is almost over.