CHARLOTTE — For the first 58 minutes of Sunday's game, neither Sam Darnold nor his supporting cast was good enough.
For the last two minutes of regulation, they did just enough to make it extremely interesting.
Caught between the low of the former and the ecstatic highs of the latter, the Panthers still have a serious question to answer on offense, and the lack of their best player doesn't help.
With Christian McCaffrey on the sidelines in street clothes (where he'll be for at least the next two weeks after being placed on IR with a hamstring injury Saturday), the Panthers again looked rudderless on offense, in a 34-28 overtime loss to the Vikings.
"I think right now, we have to figure out, especially with Christian out and some other guys out, what our identity is, . . ." Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said. "We're trying to figure out exactly how to win as best we can."
Knowing McCaffrey won't be available next week against the Giants or the following week at Atlanta adds some urgency, for a team that looks discombobulated on offense, having lost three in a row.
They again struggled to protect Darnold (four sacks, and steady pressure), but Darnold didn't help by throwing an interception on the first play of the game (his seventh in the last three weeks).
The Vikings were doubling wide receiver DJ Moore throughout the game (which makes sense), but Robby Anderson had trouble catching the ball throughout the day (until the very end). Moore had a couple of drops of his own, as well as a key fumble that the Vikings turned into a quick touchdown in the third quarter. Moore said he and Anderson discussed those issues on the sidelines, and he could tell how much it bothered Anderson, who declined requests to be interviewed after the game.
"I was like, just move on from it, bro, it's the next play," Moore said of their sideline conversations. "I can't speak on Robby and how he feels about it, but I know he's pretty upset."
There was a lot of that to go around, but Darnold said he never lost confidence in his top receivers.
"Not at all," he said. "It's all about trust as a quarterback. You've got to trust the O-line to block; you've got to trust the receivers to run and catch the football. That's really the nature of the game."
Asked if he trusted his offensive line, one that's allowed 23 QB hits and 12 sacks during the current three-game losing streak, Darnold replied: "Yeah, absolutely. I thought those guys did a good job for the most part in protection. But there are some things we've got to clean up, and we'll look at that."
McCaffrey helps with that as well, as he's excellent in pass protection (as he showed picking up a defensive tackle in the opener against the Jets).
But without a reliable running threat (Chuba Hubbard ran 16 times for 61 yards, and Rhule acknowledged they probably needed to run more often), everything is out of sorts, as Darnold was 8-of-24 when targeting Moore and Anderson in the passing game.
And yet, somehow, it almost still worked. Faced with a fourth-and-10 late, Darnold found tight end Ian Thomas for a 41-yard gain to give them life, before connecting with Moore for a 25-yard gain, and eventually Anderson for the touchdown, which allowed them to tie it with a two-point conversion shovel pass to Tommy Tremble.
There was some good stuff in there, but you really had to sift for it.
"What Sam needed today was a little bit of help from his friends at times," Rhule said. "He needed some plays to be made. We dropped a lot of balls. At the end, he makes that rope of a throw to Ian down the middle of the field, and Ian makes an unbelievable catch, and all of a sudden now it looks good. . . .
"I think when you're a quarterback who is a little bit out of sorts, a little out of whack, you need some guys to make some plays for you."
There weren't enough of those on the whole, however. They also lost third wideout Terrace Marshall Jr. to a concussion, and when Brandon Zylstra left with a hamstring injury in the first half, they looked confused and Darnold tried to call timeouts on back-to-back plays (which you can't do).
Darnold leading them on a 96-yard drive late to tie a game they shouldn't have been in made it look better, but the 210 yards in 58 minutes and all the mistakes before that are the things they can't allow.
They were the problems of a team that lacks an identity.
"I think we've got to figure it out," Darnold said. "We've got to understand what we're doing well, understand what we're not doing well, and I think we've just got to figure that out as players and everyone in the organization."
View in-game photos from the Panthers and Vikings in Week 6 at Bank of America Stadium.