CHARLOTTE – Ahead two scores and closing in on making it a three-score margin after three quarters, it only seemed like a matter of time at the end of a time-consuming drive before kicker Graham Gano would trot out and try to put some points on the board for the Panthers.
After 20 plays and more than 10 minutes of clock time, Gano finally made his way onto the field.
Gano, filling in for injured punter Andy Lee, had to punt after back-to-back sacks moved Carolina back from the 20-yard line to the 40. It seemed like it might prove to be just a footnote in what still stood as a 17-3 lead for the Panthers, but when the Kansas City Chiefs ran off the field with a shocking 20-17 victory about an hour later, the Panthers were left to kick themselves.
"You can't be up 17-3 at half, go on a drive for what felt like the whole quarter, have the ball on the 20, and not even attempt a field goal," tight end Greg Olsen said. "That's why we lost the game – things like that."
Quarterback Cam Newton tried to shoulder the blame (as did his linemen) for not getting rid of the ball on the sacks that took Carolina out of field goal range as the third quarter wound down. When Newton did get rid of the ball under similar pressure early in the fourth quarter, it resulted in an Eric Berry interception that he returned 42 yards for a touchdown to pull the Chiefs within 17-14.
"It's not easy," Newton said when asked about the delicate dance between throwing the ball away without throwing it to the other team. "But you just have to do it. I have full trust in myself and my teammates that we'll find ways."
But on this day, an important day for a Panthers team fighting to get back into the playoff race, it was the Chiefs – now winners of 17 of their last 19 regular season games – who found a way.
"We played against a good football team, a football team that stayed poised and made plays when they needed to. We didn't," head coach Ron Rivera said. "You have to protect the football. When you have opportunities, you have to take advantage.
"You can't take back-to-back sacks. You just can't. That's the bottom line there, and that's disappointing."
As what proved to be a 10-minute drive kept going and going, it began to feel more and more like the drive that would salt away an impressive and important victory. Already leading 17-3 with 10:29 to go in the third quarter, the Panthers took possession at their own 9-yard line and proceeded to play a gratifying game of keep-away.
A third-and-6 pass to Funchess gained 7 yards, then a third-and-5 run by Newton was good for 6 yards and a new set of downs. A third-and-3 resulted in a 4-yard pass to Olsen, then a third-and-2 at midfield and the resulting fourth-and-1 produced a pair of 1-yard sneaks by Newton.
Finally a couple of chunk plays through the air sped up the progression, moving Carolina to first-and-10 at the 20. But after a 1-yard loss on a Newton keeper and a Dee Ford sack set up a third-and-18 at the 28 – still well within Gano's range - defensive end Chris Jones burst through the middle of the line and wrestled Newton down for a 12-yard loss all the way back to the 40.
"We'll have to look at the film, but I know we've got to do a better job up front," said center Gino Gradkowski, subbing for injured starter and team captain Ryan Kalil. "It's big to control the ball for that long, but you have to find a way to get points. That hurt."
While a disappointing moment at the time to be sure, it didn't necessarily feel like a major turning point. The Chiefs did gain some momentum from it and got their short passing game in gear, but the Panthers defense derailed the drive and forced a field goal that kept the margin 11 points heading to the final 12 minutes.
But combine the stymied drive with the two turnovers that followed – Berry's pick-six and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin's lost fumble in the waning seconds – and it became in retrospect a pivotal moment in the game and quite possibly in the Panthers season.
"There are turning points throughout the game," Gradkowski said. "There are good plays and bad plays. We've just got to find a way to overcome it all."
View game action photos from Carolina's 20-17 loss to Kansas City.