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Panthers pull out all the stops, proving their potential against Super Bowl Champion Chiefs

By Zach Goins

Photo: William Purnell/Icon Sportswire

November 8, 2020

For 58 minutes and 30 seconds, the Panthers played well enough to knock off the defending Super Bowl champions. 

But after a back-and-forth game against the Chiefs, the Panthers once again fell apart in the final minutes and were unable to complete a game-winning drive, as Joey Slye’s 67-yard field goal attempt missed wide right and Carolina fell to Kansas City 33-31. 

“We had every opportunity to win the football game and we did not. Coaches, players, staff, not any one person– all of us. We did not make the plays to win the game,” head coach Matt Rhule said. “We came here to win, we didn’t get it done, and so we’ll head back to Charlotte and continue to work, get ready for next week.”

An offense that had been clicking all game– as well as a coaching staff that had been rolling the dice all day long– both fell stagnant at the game’s most critical moment. The combination of a lack of urgency and a string of short passes held the Panthers back from moving the ball into scoring position in order to help steal a win.

Despite the meltdown in the final moments, Carolina’s performance on Sunday was both shocking and admirable.

Here are some takeaways from Sunday’s game:

Welcome back, C-Mac

From the very first play on Sunday, it was clear the Panthers were thrilled to have Christian McCaffrey back in action. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater connected with the All-Pro running back on a swing pass on the first play from scrimmage, and the touches kept coming for CMC.

Sunday marked McCaffrey’s first game back since suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 2 against Tampa Bay, and there were no signs of rust after six weeks off. CMC tallied 18 carries for 69 yards and a touchdown, plus 10 receptions for 82 yards and another touchdown. On the game’s first drive alone McCaffrey touched the ball six different times on his way to scoring his fifth touchdown of the year.

“He’s a great player and great players show up in crucial areas, crucial times. Third down, red zone, two-minute, all those things. He showed up in those areas today,” Rhule said of McCaffrey. “Our ability to run the football results in way more red zone touchdowns.”

Despite McCaffrey’s return, it seemed as if the Panthers’ coaching staff finally learned its lesson when it comes to managing the superstar’s load. In his absence, backup Mike Davis filled in at running back without missing a step, and wide receiver Curtis Samuel mixed it up in the backfield, too. Pre-injury McCaffrey would take nearly every offensive snap at running back, but on Sunday the offensive game plan did a nice job of sharing the wealth between McCaffrey, Davis and Samuel.

“It was definitely good having Christian back this week,” Bridgewater said. “He fought for us, he ran hard, he put the ball out of the backfield, picked up guys in protection and then when Mike came in, Mike made some plays as well. It was good to just have both of those guys rolling.”

McCaffrey still took the majority of the snaps– as he should– but the addition of a few two-back sets allowed the offense to use Davis as a lead blocker, and Samuel’s presence even led to a touchdown on a 14-yard jet sweep, although the slight toss technically counts as a receiving touchdown.

Now, we’ll just have to wait and see whether this style of load management is truly the new mindset to help preserve McCaffrey, or if it’s just a preventative measure in his first game back before getting back to an all-CMC game plan next week. 

Mahomes, Kelce and Hill expose Panthers secondary

It’s no secret the Chiefs are one of the most dangerous teams in the NFL, particularly on offense. In case anyone forgot, quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his receivers reminded the world why on Sunday.

“Patrick is a different beast,” safety Sam Franklin said. “He can move up in the pocket, extend plays, he can throw the ball underhand, overhand, side-armed. There’s just so many ways that he can attack you.”

Mahomes completed 30-of-45 passes for 372 yards and four touchdowns, picking apart the Panthers’ already thin secondary. On the receiving end of Mahomes’s passes were tight end Travis Kelce (10 catches, 159 yards) and wideout Tyreek Hill (nine catches, 113 yards, two touchdowns), two players Carolina could not figure out how to stop.

“They do great things about hiding him,” Franklin said of Kelce. “Putting him in different spots so you can’t really press him sometimes, he gets free releases.”

It didn’t help that the defense was without arguably its best player in linebacker-defensive back hybrid Jeremy Chinn, who was out with a knee injury. Chinn’s versatility and unique combination of size and speed would have provided Carolina with a possible answer against a tight end as dominant as Kelce, but without Chinn, the All-Pro was able to terrorize the defense. 

One bright spot for the unit was Franklin, an undrafted rookie out of Temple who has filled in at safety since Juston Burris’s rib injury in Week 6. Franklin came up big on back-to-back plays in the third quarter, blowing up a screen pass to running back Le’Veon Bell before sacking Mahomes. The two stops forced the Chiefs to attempt a 48-yard field goal that ended up missing wide left, allowing Carolina to maintain its lead at the time.

Everything but the kitchen sink

Riding a three-game losing streak and facing the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Panthers had nothing to lose against the Chiefs. 

If Rhule somehow pulled out a miraculous upset, he would notch a signature win to help jumpstart his tenure in Carolina. Well, the dream scenario didn’t play out, but the team’s effort was impressive nonetheless. 

With the freedom of low expectations, Rhule and company used the opportunity to dial up every last trick play in the playbook. Some worked, others didn’t, but the amount of guts shown by both the Panthers players and coaches showed just what this team is capable of accomplishing.

“We came to win, we came to play to win,” Rhule said of the mindset. “We wanted to get a win and tried to play that way.”

Rhule set the tone early with a fourth down conversion on the game’s opening drive that led to a touchdown, and he would end up converting the team’s two other fourth down attempts as well, including 28-yards gained on a fake punt. The trick play marked the second fake punt in as many weeks for a team desperate to create a spark.

On top of the fakes, the Panthers attempted two onside kicks– one as a surprise and one out of necessity. Neither bounced in Carolina’s favor, but the surprise attempt came at a perfect time and caught Kansas City off guard, although it ultimately fell a yard short.

“Got to be able to execute that kick, give our team an opportunity to steal a possession on special teams,” Slye said. “That was one of our big keys this week, and I let the team down in that aspect and I didn’t execute my job.”

The coaches weren’t the only ones putting it all on the line, though. On a critical fourth-and-14 early in the fourth quarter, Bridgewater made sure to do whatever it took to convert. As the pocket collapsed around him, he stepped up and took off, before launching himself airborne to pick up the final yards.

“As I was running, I just looked to the sideline to see where the chains were,” Bridgewater said of the conversion. “I knew if I would have went down head first, they might have marked me down a little shorter, so I just decided to take flight and sacrifice my body and try to get the first down.”

All the gutsy calls and rolls of the dice came up short against the Chiefs, but with seven games left on the schedule and a shot at the playoffs virtually nonexistent, expect to see a lot more of this mindset moving forward. Because, why not?

The Panthers host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, November 15 at 1 p.m. in Charlotte on FOX. 

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