Carolina’s promising season took a sharp and sudden downturn Thursday night, as the Panthers lost 28-23 to Philadelphia and also lost linebacker Luke Kuechly in the second quarter to a concussion.
Kuechly, the Panthers’ best defensive player, has missed nine games over the past two years due to two other concussions. He banged the left side of his head into a Philadelphia offensive lineman on a second-quarter running play, walked off the field under his own power and did not return. The Panthers announced in the third quarter that he was in the “concussion protocol” – a place that Kuechly has been too familiar with the past two seasons.
That huge injury hurt the Panthers considerably Thursday night and, of course, would hurt them even more in the future if Kuechly is out for a considerable amount of time.
But there were more problems than No. 59’s absence Thursday night for Carolina (4-2), which had a hard time handling the defensive front four for Philadelphia (5-1). Carolina’s running game was painfully awful unless Cam Newton was running the ball. The Panthers’ offense also at one point dropped three consecutive Newton passes – the most costly of which was Jonathan Stewart’s bumbling away a short pass right into an Eagles player’s hands for an interception.
Newton tried his best to keep Carolina in the game, scoring on a beautiful zone-read run from 16 yards out and willing the team for a 75-yard drive midway through the fourth quarter that ended in a 1-yard touchdown pass to Christian McCaffrey.
That score got Carolina to within 28-23, and the Panthers got a stop and the ball back with 5:49 left. Carolina then advanced to a first-and-10 at the Philadelphia 41. But after two deep misfires, Newton threw his third interception of the game on what looked like a miscommunication with wide receiver Russell Shepard.
Philadelphia, needing at least one first down to seal the game with 3:06 left, instead went three and out. That gave Newton the ball back at his own 31, needing a TD and with no timeouts and 2:03 to go.
But his second shot at a game-winning drive also went awry when Carolina couldn’t convert on third-and-1 or fourth-and-1 from the Eagles 48. Instead of running Newton up the middle on either play, the Panthers threw two passes out of the shotgun formation, and both fell incomplete.
▪ I thought Carolina coach Ron Rivera made a mistake at the end of the first half by not allowing kicker Graham Gano to try a 58-yard field goal on the final play of the half. What’s the point of having one of the strongest-legged kickers in the league if you’re not going to use that leg?
Instead, Rivera had the Panthers run one more hurried play from the Eagles 40, and it never had a chance.
▪ Julius Peppers continues to lead the Panthers in sacks. He moved his total to 6.5 with a first-quarter strip sack of Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz. At age 37, Peppers has had at least a half-sack in five of Carolina’s six games this season.
▪ There were no protests during the national anthem for the Panthers. For Philadelphia, safety Malcolm Jenkins stood and thrust his right first in the air as he has done since the 2016 season. Safety Rodney McLeod joined him in the gesture and defensive end Chris Long put his hand on Jenkins’ shoulder.
▪ Tony Romo, the former Dallas quarterback turned TV announcer, was fun to listen to as usual. (I had the TV audio on while watching the game from the Bank of America Stadium press box).
Before Luke Kuechly left the game in the second quarter with a possible concussion, Romo mentioned that when he played against Kuechly that No. 59 sometimes called out the Cowboys’ plays before they ever got run. Romo said he would wonder while standing over center: “Should I change the play now?”
Romo also noted that Carolina defensive coordinator Steve Wilks had kept the same system as former coordinator Sean McDermott but generally blitzed far more often, which proved true throughout the night (for better and for worse).