Players from both teams walked to midfield after the game, unsure of how to feel or how to act.
Several Panthers players admitted they weren’t familiar with the NFL’s overtime rules.
And Panthers coach Ron Rivera summed up the 37-37 tie with Cincinnati – the first in the Panthers’ 20-year history – thusly: “Bleh.”
It was that kind of day Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, where the Panthers and Bengals combined for 944 yards and 74 points in the highest-scoring tie of the Super Bowl era.
While the Panthers escaped when Bengals kicker Mike Nugent missed a 36-yard field goal as time expired in overtime, the mood in the visitors’ locker room felt more like a defeat.
“We came out here to come back with a W. We came back with a T,” rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin said. “We definitely didn’t accomplish the goal we came for.”
Benjamin, the first-round pick from Florida State, was among those who weren’t clear on the overtime format.
“I was like, what? I was confused. They had to explain what was going on,” Benjamin said. “In a way, it still kind of felt like a loss.”
It was the Panthers’ first overtime game since a 27-21 loss to Tampa Bay on Nov. 18, 2012. They are 5-10-1 in overtime contests.
The Panthers (3-2-1) still have not beaten an AFC North opponent in nine games, a streak dating to a 23-21 win at Baltimore on Oct. 15, 2006.
Cincinnati (3-1-1) rolled up season highs in points, yards (513) and first downs (29), but let a victory slip away when Nugent pushed the game-winning field goal attempt wide right.
“That was the worst ball I’ve ever hit in my career,” Nugent told reporters. “My plant foot was way too far forward. I think there was a little excitement. I was a little too quick.”
Said Panthers tight end Greg Olsen: “They thought they had the game won. We knew we were in trouble. That was pretty routine.”
Nugent made three earlier field goals, including a 42-yarder on Cincinnati’s first overtime possession that put the Bengals up 37-34 with 8 minutes, 35 seconds left.
The Panthers drove deep into Bengals territory on their only overtime possession before Benjamin came up a yard short on third-and-6. Faced with a fourth-and-1 at the Cincinnati 18 with 2:24 remaining, Rivera – nicknamed Riverboat Ron last season when he started going for fourth downs – sent Gano out for a 36-yard kick rather than keep his offense on the field.
Rivera said his assistant coaches in the press box told him the distance the Panthers needed was more like a yard and a half.
“It was hard to see how far we had. And I really thought about going for it,” Rivera said. “But it was outside of 1 (yard). So I figured the opportunity was kick it and let’s see what happens.”
Players defended Rivera’s decision. Quarterback Cam Newton said the offense had three downs to pick up 10 yards to keep the drive moving and couldn’t get it done.
One of those chances was a second-down to pass from Newton to Jerricho Cotchery, who had the ball go through his hands in the end zone.
Those who have been clamoring for Newton to run more got their wish: Newton had a season-high 17 carries, surpassing the 14 rushing attempts in his first four games combined, and finished with 107 yards.
It was the second career 100-yard rushing game for Newton, whose carries were the most by a quarterback since Tim Tebow’s 22 rushes in 2011 with Denver.
Newton, who had offseason ankle surgery in March, said he was ready following an “unbelievable” week of rehab. With the Bengals unable to stop Newton when he kept the ball on zone-read plays, offensive coordinator Mike Shula kept rolling with it.
“When you call one play and it gets 10-plus (yards), you highlight that play moving forward,” Newton said. “Coming into this game, I didn’t think I was going to run the ball as much. But anything it takes to win.”
Newton completed 29 of 46 passes for 284 yards and two touchdowns, and also ran for a score – a 12-yarder in the first half that was his first touchdown run in nine games. Newton wasn’t sacked.
Newton made one mistake, airmailing a fourth-quarter throw over the head of the 6-foot-5 Benjamin that safety Reggie Nelson intercepted and returned 31 yards to set up a Nugent field goal, which gave the Bengals a 34-31 lead.
The Panthers’ defense and special teams gave up a couple of big plays, including Adam Jones’ 97-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter.
In the first half, former North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard shot through the defense for an 89-yard touchdown run, the longest rush from scrimmage allowed by Carolina in franchise history.
The Panthers have given up the two longest runs from scrimmage in the league this season. They allowed an 81-yarder to Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell in a Week 3 loss.
The 513 yards the Panthers surrendered were the second most allowed in team history, behind only the 617-yard outburst by New Orleans in the Saints’ Week 17 win in 2011.
While the Bengals gained 103 yards in the extra period, Panthers defensive players said something has to change.
“We’re not used to that style of defense we’re playing right now. We have certain times we play good and certain times we don’t,” defensive end Charles Johnson said. “We’re up and down right now, so we need to learn how to be consistent.”
Up and down is a good description for the Panthers’ day in Cincinnati, which left nearly everyone with an uncertain feeling.
“A crazy flow of emotions,” Olsen said. “You put in a full week and we fought our (butts) off to tie, so a little disheartening. Everybody walked to the middle of the field after the game, I’m not sure anyone really knew what to do.”