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Panthers objected to two late calls in Browns comeback win


CHARLOTTE — The Panthers had plenty of opportunities to not be in the position they were in and plenty of chances to not let the Browns kick a game-winning field goal with eight seconds left.

But in the aftermath of their 26-24 loss to the Browns Sunday, they also had questions about a couple of calls on the final Cleveland scoring drive.

After Eddy Piñeiro's 34-yard field goal gave the Panthers a 24-23 lead with 1:13 left and the subsequent touchback, the Panthers had the Browns backed up at their own 25 with a chance to secure a dramatic comeback win.

But defensive end Brian Burns was flagged for a roughing the passer penalty on the first play of that drive, giving the Browns 15 yards with a stopped clock.

Running back Christian McCaffrey called the roughing the passer "a horrid call," and he was not alone in that opinion in the Panthers' locker room.

Head coach Matt Rhule was more polite about it, but it was clear he did not agree with the decision announced by referee Brad Rogers.

"The new rule in the NFL, as it was explained to me and the best I know, that defensive linemen, grazing to knock the ball, if they make contact with the quarterback's helmet this year, it's not a foul, it has to be forcible," Rhule said. "Burns drove the tackle back into him and extended his hand out, I expected that to not be a foul, and it was called a foul."

In a pool report, Rogers said, "it was called because there was forcible contact to the head and neck area."

Burns said he hadn't seen the play in question when he talked to reporters in the locker room, but he didn't believe it was forcible.

As he rushed Browns left tackle Jedrick Wills, Wills fell backward into Browns quarterback Jacoby Brissett.

"We've had meetings on that to understand the new rules," Burns said. "My understanding was that if it wasn't blatantly like you said, forcible, they wouldn't call it. But I haven't seen the play yet, so I don't know exactly what happened.

"I know I was in a bull rush, I was moving the guy back, and they fell. That's all I know."

"It wasn't forcible," defensive end Marquis Haynes said. "Burns went speed to power, the tackle hit the quarterback, and then it looked like Burns hit him. But we all know he went speed to power; he ran the tackle over, and the tackle hit the quarterback. What the referee saw, I don't know.

"I can't say much. They made the call. We'll look at it tomorrow, flush it, and get onto the next team."

Defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis also thought Burns pushed Wills into Brissett, making the contact look more convincing.

"My thing is, if Burns knocks that tackle into the quarterback, that's fair game," Ioannidis said. "I don't want to speak on the call. I thought it was a good rush by Burns; I thought it was a clean rush. It's unfortunate, it has an effect. And hopefully, we get clarity on that."

Safety Jeremy Chinn said he saw one quick replay on the scoreboard, and "it looked like he barely touched him, it looked like the offensive lineman was pushed into him."

"But I'm not going to say it's deflating because as a defensive mind, it's always, 'what's next, what's next, what's next.' But it definitely hurt us, for sure," Chinn continued. "Those are situations we practice a lot, but any time you give them yards, that's tough."

The Browns moved the ball another 20 yards, setting up rookie kicker Cade York's 58-yard field goal.

But there was another call that Rhule thought was going to change the outcome.

With 13 seconds left, Brissett appeared to step back and pump-fake before spiking the ball. Spikes have to be immediate, or else they're subject to being flagged for intentional grounding. That would have also caused a 10-second run-off, and the Browns would have had to throw a Hail Mary or another play.

"I started screaming, intentional grounding, 10-second runoff, the game's about to be over," Rhule said. "They obviously called it and changed it, and then it was told to me that he just pump-faked. . . .

"A lot of things at the end didn't go our way."

In the pool report, Rogers acknowledged that Brissett's "right foot stepped back," but said Brissett stepping back did not "disqualify the quarterback from spiking the ball, and we allowed him to do that by rule."

Again, there were so many other things the Panthers could have done a better job of before the Browns' final drive. They gained 21 yards on their first 20 plays, as quarterback Baker Mayfield struggled until the last few minutes of the first half. They allowed the Browns to run for 217 yards, controlling the clock and the pace of the game. Coupled with some third-down defense issues early, that left a Panthers defense on the field too long, and the ensuing fatigue appeared to be a factor.

Coupled with his own role in the late stages, that left Burns feeling conflicted.

"A little hurt inside," Burns said. "Not going to make, what's that saying, a mountain out of a molehill, I'm not going to make a big deal of it.

"But I am hurting inside because I felt like that game was for us; it was ours."

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