DENVER (AP)—You could have timed the play with a sundial.
Rumblin’, bumblin’, stumblin’, Julius Peppers looked up and saw nothing but 104 yards of thin, Mile High air between himself and the end zone. He only made it 101.
That pretty much defined the day for the Carolina Panthers, who came up just short Sunday, falling 20-17 to the Denver Broncos in a wild game filled with lots of strange and unexpected performances from lots of strange and unexpected places.
Reuben Droughns ran for 193 yards for Denver (4-1) and Jake Plummer made up for his fourth-and-goal interception to Peppers by throwing a pretty, 39-yard touchdown pass to Ashley Lelie for the winning points.
Lelie’s touchdown—caught over the shoulder in the corner of the end zone, then upheld after Carolina asked for a review—was one of the few things that went to script on an otherwise crazy day.
“I think of myself as someone who can put the bad things behind me,” Plummer said. “It was an emotional roller coaster. To go down there and throw that pick was bad, stupid.”
Despite the loss, Peppers will surely get a game ball—maybe a bottle of oxygen, too—for his 101-yard trek that goes down as the longest interception return in NFL history to not result in a touchdown.
Sure not to get a game ball for Carolina (1-3) is Matt Willig, who got called for unsportsmanlike conduct when he picked up a flag and chucked it downfield after the Panthers were called for false start before a tying field-goal attempt with 6:42 left.
The 20 yards in penalties forced Carolina to punt and the Broncos, mostly behind Droughns, ran the rest of the time off the clock.
Willig said he got hit in “the eye area,” a la Orlando Brown, who got nailed directly in the eye by an official’s flag in a game five seasons ago.
“It’s not too often that one player single-handedly costs a team a chance to win. That’s how I feel,” Willig said.
Peppers, meanwhile, gets credited for arguably the NFL’s wackiest play this season.
After picking off Plummer’s pass 4 yards deep in his end zone, the 283-pound lineman took off down the sideline. He started running out of steam around the Denver 20. Then he cut inside. Then he started looking backward.
“I was really worried about someone chasing me, so I was looking back to see who it was,” he said.
It was Broncos receiver Rod Smith. With Smith bearing down, Peppers stumbled, Smith pounced on him, the ball rolled into the end zone and Smith recovered. Carolina challenged the play, however, and kept the ball when referee Larry Nemmers ruled Peppers was down before he lost control.
“First down, California,” Nemmers announced. Yes, it was that kind of day.
“I owe it to the other guys that are out there to play hard and do anything,” Smith said, explaining his excellent effort.
Three plays later—with both Smith and Peppers sucking oxygen on the sidelines—quarterback Jake Delhomme scored on a 3-yard run to put Carolina ahead 17-13.
After a change of possessions, though, Plummer drove the Broncos 87 yards for the go-ahead score.
The Denver quarterback threw two touchdowns, one with his right (and correct) hand and one with his left.
The left-handed TD—Plummer’s second left-handed throw of the season—was a 5-yard shovel pass to Droughns, a fullback-turned-tailback who started in place of the injured Quentin Griffin. The fifth-year veteran put spark back into Denver’s struggling ground game and did wonders for his own stats. He had a career total of 127 yards rushing entering the game.
“On Playstation I’d seen him a couple times returning kickoffs,” Panthers defensive lineman Mike Rucker said. “That’s all I really know.”
It left things to a pair of fullbacks—Nick Goings and Brad Hoover—who had three carries between them this season. Forced to improvise, the Panthers lined up in the wishbone a couple times and depended on Delhomme through the air.
Delhomme threw for 173 yards, Goings ran for 22 and Hoover had 21, none of which was good enough to keep the NFC champions from losing their second straight.
Jason Elam made two field goals in the first quarter and became the 16th player to kick 300 field goals. … Panthers S William Hampton sprained his knee early and did not return. … Fox said Davis wasn’t 100 percent during warmups so he made him inactive, hoping to avoid further injury.