Halfway through the season, the Carolina Panthers were being discussed as dark-horse NFC contenders.
Five games later, and they’ve all but played their way out of the playoffs. The Panthers lost their fifth straight on Sunday, this time against the Cleveland Browns in a game with another blown late opportunity.
Panthers blow late chance to take lead
Trailing 26-20 with 8:46 remaining, Carolina took the ball over at its own 25-yard line. Quarterback Cam Newton found his rhythm and marched the Panthers to the Browns’ 3-yard line, connecting on five straight passes while mixing in timely runs from Christian McCaffrey.
But the Panthers couldn’t convert when it mattered most. Facing third-and-goal from the 3, Newton took the ball in shotgun and missed Curtis Samuel. On fourth-and-goal, the Panthers passed again. Newton overthrew a covered Jarius Wright in the back of the end zone to turn the ball over on downs with 2:35 remaining.
Second chance ends with interception
The Panthers forced a punt to get one last shot with 1:04 left. But Newton badly overthrew on first-and-10 from Carolina’s 35-yard line and was picked off by Damarious Randall, putting an end to the game and all likelihood the Panthers’ playoff hopes.
It was a maddening way to lose the game for the Panthers who have frustrated their fanbase perhaps like no other team in the second half of the season.
To get so close to the game-winning score but come up short is a microcosm of how this season has played out. Choosing to pass twice inside the 3-yard line is a decision that will be scrutinized.
Should they have run the ball?
The Panthers had twice successfully gone to McCaffrey close to the end zone, watching him convert on a 1-yard and 4-yard touchdown runs. Newton is one of the league’s most dangerous runners behind center, giving Carolina two prime options to run the ball in goal-line situations.
Instead, Panthers fans are left with a pair of Newton overthrows to end the game. Carolina falls to 6-7 with the loss, allowing the New Orleans Saints to clinch the NFC South with their win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But those division hopes were long gone.
Tough road remaining
It’s the wild-card picture that’s in play for the Panthers, and instead of moving to 7-6, they’re looking up at the Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings with two games against the Saints and one against the Atlanta Falcons remaining.
That’s not a schedule built for a reeling team in desperate need of wins.
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