ATLANTA — There was one play to be made.
And DJ Moore made it.
So the rush of emotions that followed seemed natural, seemed like the thing one does when you catch a 62-yard touchdown with 12 seconds left in a game that ought to have been a game-winner.
But when the Panthers wide receiver popped his helmet off to celebrate with teammates who rushed the field to celebrate what could have been an amazing comeback and a miracle finish, he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. That 15-yard penalty didn't have to be a big deal, but when kicker Eddy Piñeiro missed the extra point, it left the Panthers trying to explain what happened after what became a 37-34 overtime loss.
"It was a spectacular play," Moore said moments later in the locker room. "I had dropped the one beforehand, and so I just let it loose. But I've got to understand there's still time left on the clock, and I can't do that.
"When did I realize it? I seen everybody running on the field, jumping around. Then I looked at the clock; I seen the clock out of the corner of my eyes and said, 'Oh s*.' And that was that."
There was a lot more game left at that point, as the Panthers had a chance to make it a moot point in overtime. But when CJ Henderson's interception in the extra period was followed by a 32-yard miss by Piñeiro. For Moore, though, it was hard to think about anyone else's miscue when his penalty loomed so large.
"It was tough," Moore said. "We were out there competing, going back and forth with them. At the end of the day, they came out with the win. We just have to finish and execute and not have that penalty on me at the end. That was kind of major.
"I don't know. We've all got faith in each other to go out and make a play at big times. And that's what we bounced back and did at the end of the game. We've just got to bounce back and finish the game."
The play itself was a thing of beauty, a miracle unfulfilled, but the kind of offensive thunderbolt the Panthers have lacked. PJ Walker rolled to his left, and cut loose with the desperate heave, and Moore "re-accelerated and went and made a play on the ball." According to Next Gen Stats, the ball traveled 67.6 yards in the air, the longest completion by air distance in the NFL since at least 2016.
But the flag was also part of a larger problem for the Panthers, one of nine for 74 yards on the day, seemingly stacking up late in the game when the stakes were higher.
"Felt like we didn't find a way to finish," interim coach Steve Wilks said. "We had too many opportunities to win this football game and didn't find a way to get it done. That falls on me.
"We've got to make sure we're smart enough. It's something to learn from, the celebration penalty, big play like that, we've got to keep our poise. It was a great job with DJ coming up with the play at the end, great pass by PJ, but as a team, we have to make sure we're smart, and we're ready to take it to the next level, the next step."
Asked about the play later, Wilks said simply: "DJ is smart enough to understand that's something to learn from. Moving forward, that's something we'll learn from and won't make the same mistake."
For players, it was a wild swing of emotions, one that could have ended the kind of stunning comeback they needed (they played from their front foot last week in a surprising rout of the Buccaneers).
"To be honest, I wasn't even worried about the penalty," running back D'Onta Foreman, who had 118 yards and three touchdowns. "I was more like, 'we're about to win this game.' But things happen. And I still believe in those guys. There's no finger-pointing, no hard feelings. Just the way the game go.
"I'm sure a lot of people didn't feel like we were about to throw the ball 62 yards and get a touchdown. So it's just the way things go. I love these guys, and the way we fight and continue to battle. Nobody gave up, nobody quit, and that's all you can ask for in a game like this."
Wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. was there in the moment, but before the missed extra point, it didn't occur to them the penalty would be a game-changer.
"He let his excitement get over," Shenault said. "We talked about it on the sideline. You live and learn. You never know.
"He could have got that penalty, and we made the kick and everything would have been good. You know, it's just how it went. We just know not to do something like that."
"They just said I was a dog," Moore said when asked about the reactions of his teammates. "Everybody was really celebrating the catch, and I don't think we really all knew we were getting pushed back with the flag."
And yet, a thing that should have become a touchstone moment for a team in transition turned into another painful lesson for a team that's had too many.
"Sucks, deal with it, see them in a week and a half," team captain Shaq Thompson said. "It was a hell of a play. A lot of excitement.
"Penalties happen. We just got to go out there and finish."
Sunday, they did everything short of that.
View best in-game photos from Carolina's Week 8 game against the Atlanta Falcons.