The Carolina Panthers nearly made one of the most startling comebacks in team history Sunday, going 96 yards and converting two fourth downs and a two-point conversion on a game-tying drive against the Minnesota Vikings in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter.
And then ...
Carolina lost again, 34-28, in overtime.
Minnesota’s Greg Joseph missed a 47-yard field goal with 0:01 left, giving the Panthers a chance in overtime, still tied at 28. But the Vikings won the coin toss and then marched directly down the field, scoring the TD on a 27-yard pass from Kirk Cousins to K.J. Osborn that meant Carolina’s offense would never see the ball in overtime.
This one — Carolina’s third straight loss — was a heartbreaker. Again.
Carolina’s unlikely comeback had ignited the home stadium late in the game. The most unlikely play on the 96-yard drive was on fourth-and-10 from the Carolina 4, when quarterback Sam Darnold shook off what had been a bad day and fired a 41-yard strike down the middle to tight end Ian Thomas. Later in the drive, Darnold found Robby Anderson for a 7-yard TD and then got the two-point conversion on a shovel pass to rookie Tommy Tremble to tie the game at 28.
The Panthers started the game with a Darnold interception on their first offensive play of the game, and that play was emblematic of the first 58 minutes.
Even with his late-game heroics, Darnold ended up completing only 17 of 41 passes for 207 yards. He didn’t throw another interception after that first play, but he lost a fumble. Until the last minute of the game, the Panthers’ only offensive TD came on a short field of only 18 yards after an early Minnesota turnover.
But Darnold came alive late, converting not only the fourth-and-10 to Thomas but also a fourth-and-6 from the Vikings’ 32. It would have been fun to have at least seen what he did in OT if the Panthers had gotten the ball.
The Panther defense and special teams kept trying to keep Carolina in this one early.
The Panthers got a special-teams TD thanks to a blocked punt from Frankie Luvu to give Carolina a brief 17-12 lead in the third quarter, but then Minnesota’s offense got rolling and the Panther defense couldn’t hold on and gave up some big plays in the fourth quarter once again. They were fortunate Joseph missed the field goal in regulation. But the defense looked gassed and out-of-sync on Minnesota’s one drive in overtime, which ended when Osborn beat 1-on-1 coverage from Carolina safety Sean Chandler for the winning TD.
The Panthers are 3-3 now after starting the season 3-0. Some thoughts on the game:
The Christian McCaffrey hangover
Carolina is 3-0 when McCaffrey plays and 0-3 when he doesn’t. That problem won’t solve itself anytime soon — McCaffrey is guaranteed to miss at least the next two games (on the road against the N.Y. Giants and Atlanta) due to his latest injury. Carolina has actually run the ball OK with Chuba Hubbard since McCaffrey left, but it’s the passing game where No. 22’s absence is deeply felt. Without McCaffrey as a safety valve, the shortcomings of Carolina’s top receivers are more apparent.
DJ Moore had a critical lost fumble Sunday and also dropped three passes, including one in the end zone. Robby Anderson had three dropped passes and a horrendous rate of targets (11) to actual completions (3), although he did have that late TD catch. And although the Panthers came into the game intent on taking and making more deep shots, that didn’t work out. They took some but made none until that final drive in regulation.
▪ In the loss, Luvu continued to make a name for himself. Once a protege of the late Kevin Greene at the New York Jets, Luvu has straight-ahead speed and made a couple of big plays Sunday. None was bigger than the punt block, which he almost took off the foot of Jordan Berry. It was picked up by Panthers safety Kenny Robinson and run in for a 4-yard TD.
▪ I kept seeing the name “S. Smith” as Carolina’s leading receiver for large parts of the first half. This brought back fond memories of the 2000s, when Steve Smith led the Panthers just about every year in receiving. However this time it was rookie Shi Smith, by virtue of a 16-yard pass.
▪ The Ultimate Frisbee players at halftime were a cut above most halftime entertainment, and also completed more passes in five minutes than the Panthers had the entire first half. Bring them back every season.
▪ Carolina offensive guard Michael (Not That One) Jordan made his debut for the Panthers subbing in for Dennis Daley at left guard in the second quarter. He played well enough that he started the second half but also appeared to give up the sack where Darnold lost his fumble.
▪ While Hubbard’s burst as a running back is undeniable, his skills as a receiver out of the backfield continue to need work.
▪ Minnesota star running back Dalvin Cook began slowly, as his first three rushes netted a total of minus-3 yards. But Cook gained momentum as the game continued and posted a number of impressive runs, none more so than the 16-yard TD run he had in the third quarter. He finished with 140 yards on 29 carries and a touchdown.