CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)—Keenan McCardell took his time getting dressed, carefully buttoning his bright fuchsia shirt and securing his striped tie.
Perhaps he was savoring the moment, thrilled to be part of a team again. Or maybe he was just tired after playing a predominant role in San Diego’s 17-6 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
“You like my shirt? You think I can pull this look off?” he asked, his smile as bright as the shirt.
He could after pulling in five catches for 65 yards, including two big grabs to set up LaDainian Tomlinson’s go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter, helping the Chargers (4-3) equal their win total from a year ago.
“This was the role I envisioned,” McCardell said. “When you get into the flow of the game (playing time) really doesn’t matter. You just want to compete and do what you can to help the team win.”
Acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay on Tuesday, McCardell jumped into San Diego’s game plan despite not playing the first six games because of a holdout with the Bucs.
“It is amazing he was able to come in on such a short workload and be able to make the contribution he has,” coach Marty Schottenheimer said.
Trailing 6-0 in the third quarter, McCardell had catches of 23 and 18 yards to move the Chargers to the Carolina 8. Tomlinson scored on the next play, giving San Diego a lead it never relinquished.
McCardell helped make Tomlinson’s day a little easier after the Panthers stifled him most of the game. Carolina held Tomlinson, who led the AFC in yards from scrimmage with 724, to 47 yards rushing. He also had three catches for 13 yards.
Afterward, Tomlinson said he was bothered by a sore groin.
“I’m struggling a little bit,” he said. “But hey, injuries are going to happen. I can’t say its worse, but I don’t feel any better.”
It was a disheartening loss for Carolina (1-5). The defending NFC champions have lost four straight and had pointed to this game as one that could turn around the season.
Instead, the Panthers let it slip away with an inefficient offense and very questionable play selection late in the game.
“Never in a million years did I think we would be 1-5 at this juncture,” safety Mike Minter said. “But it is what it is. Everything is just a little bit off.”
Trailing 10-6 with 6:29 to play, the Panthers used three long pass plays to Keary Colbert to move into scoring range.
But after a sure touchdown slipped through Muhsin Muhammad’s fingers in the end zone, the Panthers seemed to panic. They ran Nick Goings for 5 yards on second-and-15 at the 30, then handed off to rookie Joey Harris for a yard on third-and-10, seemingly setting up Carolina for John Kasay’s field goal. Instead, the Panthers went for it and Muhammad failed to make the reception.
“It was a low ball, I tried to dig it out,” Muhammad said of the fourth-down pass. “It would have been a tough play to make. We were looking for a miracle play.”
Carolina’s run defense, maligned all season but solid for most of this game, then cracked. Jesse Chatman broke free for a 52-yard gain, then scored the game-breaking touchdown on a 5-yard run with 1:42 to play in a near-empty stadium.
It was such a lackluster game—the Panthers led 6-0 until Tomlinson’s touchdown with 8:13 to play in the third—that the largest cheer of the day came when the stadium scoreboard showed rival Atlanta getting blown out by Kansas City.
“Right now we are just not making the plays that we need to win,” Carolina coach John Fox said. “That’s why we aren’t winning.”
Chatman added 69 yards rushing, almost all on the final drive, and the Chargers finished with 302 yards.
But Carolina couldn’t do anything, despite opening the game with a 12-play scoring drive to Kasay’s 28-yard field goal.
Tomlinson fumbled on his first carry, giving Carolina possession at the San Diego 34, and Kasay’s 21-yarder put them up 6-0.
It stayed that way until Tomlinson reached the end zone.
Notes: San Diego’s Nate Kaeding missed his first field goal of the season just before halftime when his 29-yard attempt went wide left. He had been 9-for-9 this year. He did make a 44-yarder. … The Panthers shuffled their offensive line, starting Travelle Wharton at left tackle for injured Tutan Reyes, and starting Todd Fordham at right tackle instead of Matt Willig. … Tomlinson’s touchdown was the 43rd TD rushing of his career, tying him with Chuck Muncie for the Chargers’ team record.