A football floating through the air is one of the game’s great anticipatory pleasures, with everyone watching to see where it will come down and what will happen when it does.
But the longer the football spiraled in the air in the fourth quarter for Carolina Sunday in its devastating 30-27 home loss to Seattle, the worse off the Panthers were.
Three times in the final minutes, the ball flew high. By the time it descended, something else bad had happened to the home team. In chronological order of flotation:
▪ Cornerback Corn Elder’s “Why did you never look around?” terrible coverage on a 35-yard, fourth-and-3 touchdown pass from Seattle’s Russell Wilson that hung in the air forever and tied the game at 27.
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“He threw a perfect ball,” Elder said. “I’ve got to turn around and make a play on it.”
Well, yeah. Cornerbacks are supposed to have an internal clock. Elder had a sundial.
▪ Graham Gano’s 52-yard field goal try, which veered wide right. Take us through that miss, please, Gano was asked later.
“Um, no,” Gano said. “There’s nothing to take you through. I just missed it.”
▪ Wilson’s 43-yard pass to Tyler Lockett over Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who at first thought he had a chance for an interception. Said Munnerlyn: “When I saw the ball I was like, ‘Oh yeah. I’ll get a chance to make a play.’ And it just kept floating.”
Those three plays spelled out most of the difference between victory and defeat for the suddenly woebegone Panthers, who once were 6-2 and firmly inside the playoff picture and now are 6-5 and stumbling around just outside the frame.
“Three weeks ago, if someone would have said that this is what was going to happen, I would have slapped them,” Cam Newton said.
‘We can’t fool ourselves’
Yet it has happened. The Panthers were in scoring position on eight of their nine offensive drives Sunday. Christian McCaffrey had an incredible day, with a franchise-record 237 yards from scrimmage. Newton completed all 14 of his first-half passes. The Panthers set a season high in total yardage. But they also left 22 possible points on the field inside the red zone, with two empty possessions and two other ones when they settled for short field goals.
Said Newton: “We’ve just got to look ourselves in the mirror, understand what we aren’t, and fix it. ... We lack a lot of things, but we’re great at a lot of other things, too. ... We can’t fool ourselves.”
No, they can’t. And Sunday’s result was also caused in part by some really poor clock management by coach Ron Rivera and his staff.
With a first-and-10 at the Seattle 40 with two minutes left, the score tied at 27 and the Seahawks down to two timeouts, Carolina basically needed just one more first down to give Gano a field goal of less than 50 yards to attempt.
Or else the Panthers needed to run the ball three times in a row, burn all of Seattle’s timeouts and hope that their field-goal kicker — who had already made 41 in a row at Bank of America Stadium — would hit from 50-plus with less than a minute left.
Instead, Carolina did neither. An incomplete pass by Newton on second down allowed the Seahawks to stop the clock on third down with 1:45 to go. Gano’s miss (“I felt like I hit it really well, it just didn’t go in”) was his third critical misfire in the past two weeks (he said Sunday that having strep throat contributed to his poor day at Detroit). It also meant that Wilson really needed only about 25 yards himself to get in position for the final field goal.
A takeaway would have been nice, but the Panthers defense hasn’t had one for the past three games. So Wilson’s escapability on the 43-yard completion — Panthers defensive end Mario Addison briefly had a shot at him — seemed almost inevitable by then.
“That’s classic Russell, man,” Panthers safety Eric Reid said. “You get the pressure that you want, somebody gets free — but he escapes. A bad play turns into a huge play for them. ... He’s made his career off of plays like that.”
‘Did we punt?’
The ugly ending marred a game in which Carolina actually did a lot of good things. This effort would have beaten Detroit a week ago. Newton threw a bad interception, but he also spread the ball around, went 25-for-30 for 256 yards and also ran for 63 more. The Panthers moved the ball all afternoon.
“Did we punt?” tight end Greg Olsen asked. “… We lost the game when we didn’t punt.”
That wasn’t quite true — punter Michael Palardy actually got to kick once, in the second quarter. But the other eight Carolina drives ended some other way. Five of them produced points. The other three should have.
“We show a lot of flashes,” Newton said. “But at the same time, we miss a lot of layups.”
On the other side, Wilson was saying happily: “To be a championship team, you have to win in the fourth.”
That’s right. The Panthers have lost two games in a row in the final seconds.
They are losing the fourth quarter with regularity.
And soon, if they don’t show more resilience, they will lose the whole season.