CHARLOTTE – With 98 seconds left and a rookie quarterback at the helm without the benefit of a timeout, the Carolina Panthers liked their chances of preventing the Buffalo Bills from driving 80 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
"Whether it's a sack or keeping a guy inbounds or a tipped ball or an interception – the game's over," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "We've got to find a way to make a play on the last drive.
"We've got to handle that situation better, and we will next time."
Just about everything had to go right for the Bills to pull out the victory, and that's exactly what happened. Here's a look back at the drive, along with head coach Ron Rivera's observations after he reviewed game tape.
--On three of quarterback E.J. Manuel's first five completions of the drive, Buffalo got out of bounds to stop the clock. The Panthers limited the Bills to a total of 23 yards on the plays but only forced them to use 25 seconds.
"A couple of times we were a little deeper than we needed to be, and because of that they dumped the ball underneath and the guy was able to run and get out of bounds," Rivera said. "We have coverages where you're supposed to work from the outside in, and you're supposed to keep the receiver in and make sure they cut back in instead of getting out of bounds. We lost our leverage a couple of times."
--The two completions on which the Panthers did tackle pass-catchers inbounds totaled 26 yards but ate up 41 seconds. After Manuel hit Stevie Johnson for 8 yards and he got out of bounds to open the drive, Manuel connected with running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson on back-to-back plays that moved the ball to the Carolina 46 but left Buffalo with just 47 seconds.
--The Bills' two incomplete passes actually benefited them as much as zero-yardage plays can in such a time crunch. That was especially evident on the first one at the 47-second mark, when it initially looked like Jackson had caught the ball and had been tackled inbounds near the line of scrimmage.
The nearest official ruled it an incomplete pass. Had it been ruled complete, it's hard to imagine the Bills would have had enough time on the clock to do what they eventually did.
"You'd like to think it was a fumble, but it goes back to their interpretation of what a catch it is," Rivera said.
--After the second incomplete pass - which ticked off Spiller's hands and likely would have resulted in a tackle inbounds – and a Spiller reception for 4 yards, the Bills had just 21 seconds and 31 yards to go. That's when Panthers safety Colin Jones picked off a pass that Manuel sailed over the middle, only to have linebacker Luke Kuechly flagged for pass interference when he made contact with the intended receiver about eight yards in front of Jones' interception.
"With as much contact as there is out there that is allowed, you'd like to think that when a ball is thrown high – in my opinion uncatchable – that you don't throw the flag," Rivera said. "But that's not for me to decide. I don't have the flag. That was very critical."
--That gave the Bills the ball at the 11 with 14 seconds left, enough time for Manuel to scramble out of bounds at the 2 with six seconds left and finally for him to hook up with a wide-open Johnson in the left corner of the end zone.
On the decisive play, cornerback Josh Norman didn't get the message from corner D.J. Moore to be ready to switch to Johnson if receiver Chris Hogan tried to rub Moore off of Johnson.
"Apparently Josh Norman didn't play it," Rivera said. "You'd like to believe that when the call is played that you execute the call and you're in position to make the play."
Everything had to go the way of the Bills for them to pull out Sunday's victory, and it did. The Panthers couldn't close it out – not only on the last drive but on the ones leading up to the last drive.
"It's time for us to be in good position to close games out where you don't have to worry about the last drive at the last second," Rivera said. "When you have somebody down, you have to keep them down."