The Carolina Panthers were looking for a signature win Sunday against Minnesota.
What they got instead was a signature loss, one in which all phases of the Panthers — but especially their coaches — cracked under pressure in a 28-27 road loss to Minnesota.
Panthers coach Matt Rhule blamed himself and the coaching in general for the loss. Said Rhule afterward: “That’s unacceptable by us as a staff. ... I try to look and see where the fault lies and today I would put it squarely on us as a staff, which starts with me.... We’ve got to put the ball in the end zone there and end the game. Or we’ve got to stop them. Or we’ve got to make that field goal.... So instead of pointing fingers, I better just point the thumb back at me. And that’s not coach speak. I’m disappointed in myself and my staff tonight.”
Carolina’s game management was terrible on its final two possessions. Its goal-line offense was ineffective. Its two-minute defense was a sham. I didn’t like Joe Brady’s playcalling in the fourth quarter, and especially not the speed at which the plays got into Teddy Bridgewater at the end. I didn’t like Rhule’s decision-making. I didn’t like Phil Snow’s occasional three-man rushes.
And then, just when it seemed the Panthers might salvage a win anyway, Joey Slye hooked a 54-yard field goal halfway to Canada with one second to go.
Rhule overruled a Panthers PR spokesman who tried to cut his press conference off after the normal amount of time Sunday, saying he felt that on an afternoon like this he should answer every question thrown at him.
The coach said the Panthers’ biggest problem was an inability to score — 14 of their 27 points came courtesy of two defensive touchdowns by Jeremy Chinn in a wild 10-second span. Bridgewater threw a red-zone interception, and Slye had a 28-yard field goal blocked.
Ahead 24-21, Rhule didn’t go for the touchdown on fourth-and-goal from Minnesota’s 3 with 1:54 to go. He said he would have gone for it if it had been fourth-and-goal the 2. He said the analytics would say go for it at the 2 there, but not at the 3.
I would have gone for it regardless; if Carolina doesn’t score, so be it, but at least you take one more shot at putting the game away. As it was, Carolina took a six-point lead on a short field goal with 1:51 to go.
Then Minnesota marched straight down the field, with receivers open by 5 yards and no pressure on quarterback Kirk Cousins whatsoever. Sometimes the Panthers blitzed; sometimes they didn’t. It didn’t matter. The Vikings needed only 1:05 to go 75 yards in seven plays, with Chad Beebe (who had muffed a punt earlier) scoring from 10 yards out on a pass from Cousins.
That made it 28-27, and Carolina got a difficult 35-yard catch from Curtis Samuel to give the Panthers one more chance. But Slye’s field-goal attempt was way off — and yes, he’s had a bunch of these end-of-game misses by now in his Carolina career, and that’s a problem — and the Panthers (4-8) had lost yet another close game. Slye said a 54-yard field goal should be “in my wheelhouse” and that “I let the team down, and I’m very frustrated about that.”
▪ DJ Moore (ankle) didn’t play in Carolina’s final drive and limped off the field in the last two minutes after not being able to come up with a third-down throw in the end zone that was behind him. Bridgewater came off the field with six seconds left, also hurt; it was unclear what his injury was, but Bridgewater said he was OK after the game after his arm had gotten “sideswiped or something.” Rhule had no injury update on either player immediately after the game.
▪ Robby Anderson’s 41-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the second quarter was his first TD since Week 1. On the play, Bridgewater correctly diagnosed a blitz and the closest player to Anderson on a slant was Minnesota defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo. In terms of difficulty, Anderson’s fingertip grab on a 34-yard sideline throw in the fourth quarter was tougher.
▪ Panthers rookie defensive tackle Derrick Brown has had a good year, but he tries to anticipate the snap count too often. Brown was drawn offsides by a hard count again by Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins on Carolina’s first drive, giving the Vikings a first down on a third-and-4. It was Brown’s ninth penalty of the season, according to nflpenalties.com. No other Panther had more than four penalties entering the game.
▪ Long before the “Double Chinn” two touchdowns, there was another great play Chinn made that won’t show up in the stats. On a blitz, the rookie was blocked by two players, including Minnesota running back Dalvin Cook. Chinn ran through Cook and got to Cousins, who smartly scrapped the play and threw the ball away. Still, it was impressive the way Chinn got there so fast.
▪ As much as the Panthers practice special teams, why do they seem to do something wrong — and often, something that gets flagged — on nearly every punt return? Then again, they didn’t fumble one away, like Minnesota did in the final two minutes.
Rhule didn’t sound very happy with the Panthers’ blitz percentages on Minnesota’s final drive. Snow, the Panthers defensive coordinator, blitzes at one of the lowest percentages in the league, and the Panthers’ four-man rush has been inconsistent all season.
“We’ve only been good on defense when we’ve been able to get pressure on the quarterback,” Rhule said. “We don’t really stop people the other way. We stop people by getting pressure. We just didn’t get any pressure. Didn’t pressure them at all. Didn’t bring any blitzes and they got the momentum, and they moved the ball down the field.”