Scott Fowler

4 ‘what-if’ moments loom after Panthers’ loss to Seahawks

You saw the game. You saw Russell Wilson’s three touchdown passes and Cam Newton’s three turnovers and the other scoring plays, too.

All of those were big in Seattle’s 31-17 reality check of a playoff win Saturday night over the Carolina Panthers, who were back in Charlotte cleaning out their lockers Sunday.

But in every NFL game there are hidden plays – those that don’t make the highlights and don’t involve points – that also determine the game’s outcome.

Here are four that worked out badly for Carolina.

If these four had gone differently, I believe the game ultimately would have as well. And the Panthers – who played a respectable game overall despite the loss – would have pulled off perhaps the biggest upset in their history.

1. Mike Tolbert’s drop. The Panthers were down 17-10 in the fourth quarter and had the ball, which was really a good situation to be in at that point against the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

On third-and-11, Newton came off his first read and checked the ball down to Tolbert, who was in as the third-down back. Although the coverage was decent, the ball hit Tolbert exactly in stride and he would have had the first down. Instead he dropped it, Carolina punted and Seattle was in the end zone again less than three minutes later.

My related question to this drop: Why wasn’t Fozzy Whittaker used more in this game? He has shown so much in limited duty, and if he could have caught a couple of passes and converted a couple of third downs like this one, things could have changed.

2. Russell Wilson’s fumble recovery. The Panthers defense caused no turnovers in this game. “We needed them to make some mistakes and that would help,” coach Ron Rivera said.

This was the best chance. Carolina’s defense did well for the most part against Marshawn Lynch. On the second play of the third quarter, with Carolina trailing 14-10, Wes Horton banged the ball loose from Lynch. A recovery would have given Carolina the ball at the Seattle 23. Instead, Wilson jumped on it. The guy just makes so many plays – this was one of his biggest.

“The game is based on turnovers,” Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “They scored on defense. We had the ball on the ground a couple of times (but didn’t get it).”

3. DeAngelo can’t shake loose. Down 14-7 late in the second quarter, the Panthers gambled and made a huge fourth-and-1 on a Newton sneak. The next play call from the Seattle 24 was a beauty – the Panthers rolled everything right and then set up a screen on the left to DeAngelo Williams.

Only one Seahawk had much of a chance – safety Kam Chancellor. Carolina had a 2-on-1 advantage – Williams also had a blocker with him. But Chancellor blew past the blocker and Williams, who just doesn’t have the elusiveness he once did, couldn’t get away and gained only 2 yards. If Williams was five years younger and had shaken Chancellor, I think he might have scored and the game would have been 14-14 at halftime.

Instead, Chancellor was the one who scored late in the game on a 90-yard interception return. He was one of this game’s dominant players.

4. Bersin falls down. OK, this actually was a scoring play, but there was a hidden part that is just too important to miss.

On Chancellor’s 90-yard interception return, Brenton Bersin was Newton’s first option on the left. That’s a real problem in itself – the fact that the Panthers were relying so heavily on Bersin in a playoff game like this is an indictment of both the Panthers’ receiving corps and their general manager.

But to make it worse, Bersin fell down. That forced Newton to look elsewhere on the right for tight end Ed Dickson. And when he eventually threw the ball – far too late – Chancellor was there and went 90 yards. Ballgame.