Carolina coach Ron Rivera took one of the biggest gambles of his career Sunday, going for a two-point conversion after Carolina scored a late touchdown to pull within 20-19 of Detroit with 1:07 left in the game.
Instead of kicking an extra point — no sure thing, given that placekicker Graham Gano had missed both an extra point and a 34-yard field goal already — Rivera went for two points and the lead.
The gamble failed when quarterback Cam Newton overthrew open wide receiver Jarius Wright — who had broken off his route and found a hole in the middle of the Lions defense — in the end zone.
I actually liked Rivera’s call there, because at that point I would rather the game have been in Newton’s hands than on Gano’s foot. The quarterback was having a lot better day.
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But the coach will get hammered now since Newton missed the throw. If Newton had made it, of course, we would be getting a whole new batch of “Riverboat Ron” T-shirts in stores just in time for Christmas.
Newton, who threw for 357 yards and three touchdowns, was downcast afterward.
“I gotta make that play,” Newton said. “That’s what it comes down to. Jarius did a good job kind of improvising and I’ve just got to make that play.”
“Jarius broke his route off, came back to the middle and presented a nice target,” Rivera said. “Unfortunately, the ball was a little bit high. We had a chance.”
Rivera was careful in his postgame comments not to blame his choice to go for two on Gano’s sudden inefficiency. Gano’s two misses had cost the Panthers four points and had been startling given that the kicker came into the game riding a “28 field goals in a row” streak.
“I think you go for two on the road to win the game,” Rivera said. “That’s what I did at the end of the day. What’s to say the coin toss (to begin overtime) is going to go in our favor (or) we’re going to stop ‘em? So why not go for two?”
Gano talked about his misses Sunday but was also careful not to second-guess Rivera’s decision to skip the likely overtime period that could have occurred if he had taken the extra point. Of course, Carolina’s defense would have had to stop Detroit one last time for that to happen.
Newton said he liked the two-point call.
“I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” Newton said. “He trusted in me and I’ve got to uphold my end of the bargain, and I didn’t do that. I let this team down.”
On the deciding two-point play, the Panthers lined up three receivers on the right side and one on the left. Wright was the inside receiver on the right side and ran a drag route to the left, headed for the front corner of the end zone on the left side. But Detroit had that so well-defended that Wright changed course in midstream and went back to the middle of the field, ending up open by about three yards on the letter “O” in “LIONS.”
Newton, though, was thinking about running, he said later. Because Detroit only rushed three players aggressively, he had all sorts of time. And when the quarterback saw Wright flash open, he didn’t get his feet set and threw the ball high and behind the 5-10 Wright (who later said it didn’t help that “I’m a short receiver.”) Wright couldn’t even put a fingertip on it.
The result: Carolina lost by a point.
Detroit (4-6) entered the game on a three-game losing streak and just isn’t very good. But Carolina was even worse, losing its second straight game and falling to 6-4 overall this season and 1-4 on the road.
▪ The Panthers deserved to lose this one for a multitude of reasons. Wide receiver Devin Funchess had one of the worst games I’ve ever seen a wideout have and was dropping a pass every 10 minutes. He had his hands on five balls that ended up hitting the ground. Not all of them were outright drops, but it was pretty horrendous.
Gano had his two misses. Newton held the ball too long in the pocket several times, threw into double coverage on an interception and then, most crucially, missed Wright on the two-point conversion. The Panthers’ special teams were outplayed all afternoon.
It wasn’t nearly as bad as Carolina’s dumpster-fire performance at Pittsburgh, but it was bad enough.
▪ Newton hobbled off the field in the third quarter because of a leg injury, which Rivera said occurred because Newton was hit “below the knees” by a Lions rusher. Trainers checked out his left knee on the sidelines. He came back into the game, however, after Taylor Heinicke threw a single incomplete pass. Funchess treated Heinicke much like he treated Newton most of the afternoon, getting his hands on Heinicke’s pass and dropping it.
▪ This is weird, but Carolina’s very first NFL game contained a very similar decision to this latest one. When Carolina scored a late touchdown on the road to make the score 20-19, coach Dom Capers went for two and the win. However, Panthers offensive tackle Derrick Graham false-started, and Capers decided to kick the extra point after that. Carolina then lost on a field goal.
▪ In terms of more recent history, if you watched the Maryland-Ohio State game Saturday, Maryland’s quarterback missed a throw on a two-point play with the Terrapins trailing 52-51 in overtime in a remarkably similar way.
▪ Since this game was in Detroit, no surprise that one of the pregame songs on the Lions’ playlist was “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” from Detroit icon Bob Seger.
▪ A field goal of 50-plus yards in the NFL used to be cause for celebration. Now it is humdrum. Detroit’s Matt Prater made a 54-yarder in this one. Of course, then you had Gano — who’s still perfect from 50-plus this year, for whatever that’s worth.