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Fourth-down stop ends Panthers' comeback effort

Fourth down stop

CHARLOTTE — Down 34-30 late in the fourth quarter, the Panthers faced fourth-and-inches on Las Vegas' 46-yard line. Running back Christian McCaffrey had been the only player to touch the ball on the possession, taking four carries for 24 yards.

But on this critical fourth down, the handoff went to fullback Alex Armah.

He was stuffed for no gain, turning it over on downs.

Why not just give the ball to McCaffrey again?

"It's a great question, and I'm not second-guessing anyone," head coach Matt Rhule said after the Panthers' 34-30 season-opening loss. "That's something I have to think about walking away with this.

"We have confidence in our plays and that inside of a yard, that sort of fullback belly/quarterback sneak, that's kind of the world we are in. It had worked before so we thought it would work again. I think when you write up who to blame for that, I think the one person you can blame is the head coach."

The successful run Rhule referred to came early in the fourth quarter when Armah converted a third-and-1 in the red zone with a 1-yard carry. That led to McCaffrey's second touchdown of the game, which cut into Las Vegas' lead.

Still, with the game on the line, the Panthers elected to put the ball in Armah's hands — not McCaffrey's.

"I don't think it matters if I was surprised or not. Alex is a heck of fullback and is very capable of getting that," McCaffrey said.

McCaffrey finished with 134 scrimmage yards (96 rushing, 38 receiving) and a pair of rushing touchdowns. Most of his production came in the second half, as he had just 31 yards rushing and one reception for 11 yards in the first 30 minutes.

Regardless, the Panthers scored on each of their first half possessions with three field goals and a touchdown. But they sputtered at the start the third quarter, going three-and-out on both of their possessions in the period.

"We just didn't execute to our standard and to our capability," wide receiver Robby Anderson said.

But then, McCaffrey got the ball rolling. He began the fourth quarter with a 16-yard reception on third-and-14, putting the Panthers on the Raiders' 13. A few plays later, he ran in a 3-yard touchdown.

"He pulled off some good runs, so I definitely think that gave us that juice and momentum that we needed," Anderson said.

After the defense made its first stop since the Raiders' opening possession, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater tossed a 75-yard touchdown to Anderson down the right sideline. The duo then connected in the back of the end zone for a two-point conversion, giving Carolina a 30-27 lead.

"It was a double move. We ran a play like that earlier in the game, and the corner jumped it," said Anderson, who finished with five receptions for 115 yards. "We knew coming back to it, it would be there. Played out perfect. Man coverage, and we just executed."

Bridgewater had an up-and-down day. He was nearly intercepted multiple times and, at a few points, missed open receivers. But he finished 22-of-34 for 270 yards with a touchdown, adding 26 yards on four carries.

"I thought Teddy was excellent," Rhule said. "I thought he excelled in the two-minute drive at the end of the first half, and I wish we had gotten him the fourth-and-1 so he could have taken us down and won the game at the end."

Despite the loss, Sunday was special for Bridgewater. It was his first time opening the season as a starting quarterback since 2015 with Minnesota.

"When they sang the Negro national anthem ("Lift Every Voice and Sing"), I shed so many tears I had to leave the field a little early," Bridgewater said. "I was just thinking about the process, the journey, and what all it took for me to get back to this stage."

There are positives and negatives to take from each game. After an offseason of change and outside criticism, the Panthers rallied to put themselves in position to start off the year with a win. But ultimately, failing to get a half-yard left the most lasting impression.

"It was a play we were all on board with and stuff like that happens all the time. It's tough to put something on one play," McCaffrey said.

"Maybe they make an adjustment, maybe they don't, but all I know is that it doesn't matter. It happened and we've got to move on."

View game action photos from the Panthers-Raiders game in Week 1.

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