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Panthers drop heartbreaker

Posted Oct 30, 2011

CHARLOTTE - As Panthers kicker Olindo Mare prepared for a 31-yard field goal attempt with 29 seconds left that could have sent Sunday's game into overtime, some of his teammates prepared for the ensuing kickoff.

Shockingly, it never reached that point.

Mare missed the kick wide left, unable to match Ryan Longwell's kick of the same length with 2:43 to play that gave the Minnesota Vikings a 24-21 victory at Bank of America Stadium.

"Everybody did their job. It came down to me to tie it up, and I didn't do it," Mare said. "I let the team down, the coaches down, the fans down – everybody.

"I thought I hit it well, but as we all know, it wasn't that well. I don't know what to say about the kick. No matter how good I thought I hit it, it obviously wasn't good enough. It's disappointing."

Mare's teammates shared his disappointment, but they also shared in the blame.

Another strong outing by rookie quarterback Cam Newton was tempered by the first two lost fumbles of his NFL career, both of which set up Minnesota touchdowns.

The offense racked up 405 yards, but it also went three consecutive possessions in the second half without so much as a first down to open the door for the Vikings to rally.

And the defense had held a Minnesota rushing attack spearheaded by Adrian Peterson – the NFL's leading rusher – to 26 net rushing yards midway through the third quarter, but the Vikings piled up 106 rushing yards from there.

"Olindo, it's not his fault," said Newton, who completed 22-of-35 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns. "Yeah, he missed the field goal, but go back in the third quarter and look at the drives. We had our opportunities.

"I'll be damned if someone sits up there and puts the pressure on one particular person when it was a collective loss – offensively, defensively and special teams."

The outcome left both teams at 2-6 heading into their bye week.

The Panthers appeared to be in good shape when they opened the second half with an impressive 80-yard march featuring a 23-yard catch by Legedu Naanee, a 24-yard designed run by Newton and finally a 22-yard touchdown reception by Steve Smith for a 21-14 lead.

The offense, however, followed with three consecutive three-and-outs that affected the Panthers beyond the obvious.

With linebackers going down to injury left and right – Jason Phillips, Omar Gaither and Thomas Williams – and with cornerback Darius Butler excused for a serious family situation, fatigue became a factor.

"That was huge for our defense because when we go three-and-out, they don't get any breaks," Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross said. "Their offense really controlled the clock in the second half, and that had a lot to do with the final result."

The Vikings tied it up late in the third quarter when they finally got their running game going on a 90-yard march capped by Peterson's 9-yard touchdown run. They piled up 61 rushing yards on the possession - more than double their total output before the drive - including 48 yards on the first five snaps.

The Vikings then won it with a 72-yard drive that consumed more than seven minutes of the fourth quarter and resulted in Longwell's field goal. The Panthers had a chance to stop the drive before it really got started, but the Vikings converted a third-and-7 from their own 18-yard line when wide receiver Percy Harvin shook free of cornerback Chris Gamble on a short pass.

"Those hurt," safety Charles Godfrey said. "When you have them but they somehow get loose, it's tough. In this league you have to get off the field on third downs, especially when you have a chance like that."

The Panthers got a chance to answer. Facing fourth-and-15 from their own 35-yard line with 1:09 left, Newton spotted wide receiver Brandon LaFell deep over the middle, and LaFell sped down the left side for a 44-yard gain down to the 21.

On third-and-3 from the 14 with 50 seconds to go, Newton took a quarterback keeper around the right side to inside the 3, but a holding call on Smith pushed it back to the 18 and left it in the hands of Mare.

"If the ref says it was holding, I can sit here and say this and that, but he's the guy with the flag," Smith said. "He calls it."

The teams headed to halftime tied at 14-14, a first half in which Newton tossed a touchdown pass to each of his tight ends but also lost two crucial fumbles.

On Carolina's first offensive snap of the game, after Minnesota missed a field goal following a 78-yard kickoff return, the Panthers gave it right back. Newton fumbled when linebacker E.J. Henderson hit him from behind, and Jared Allen scooped it up. Two plays later, Harvin – lined up in the backfield – scampered through a seam up the middle for a 10-yard score.

The Panthers made nearly all the big plays the rest of the half, until the final minute.

They tied it early in the second quarter when Newton capped a 90-yard march with a 1-yard touchdown toss to Jeremy Shockey. Smith, who caught seven passes for 100 yards, set it up with a 26-yard catch to the 1.

The Panthers took the lead on their next drive, getting 39 of the 49 yards on the drive on a perfectly placed touchdown pass to Greg Olsen that he caught in stride at the 12.

Carolina appeared likely to lead at the half after cornerback Captain Munnerlyn stymied a long Minnesota drive, stripping Harvin of the ball on a third-down conversion at Carolina's 5-yard line.

With 1:03 to go, however, Allen got to Newton and forced another fumble. Linebacker Chad Greenway recovered the ball, and Peterson followed with a 20-yard run and then a middle screen that he effortlessly turned into a 19-yard score with 42 seconds left in the half.

"We are not mature enough to get past those types of mistakes – we just aren't," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "This is a good football team that has to learn. We have to mature and we have to make plays when we get opportunities to make plays. We have to stop hurting ourselves."