CHARLOTTE – The Panthers have endured their share of inconsistencies on offense this season, but there’s one thing Carolina could count on.
Well, there was one thing Carolina thought it could count on.
“We’ve been a great red zone team all season,” wide receiver Curtis Samuel said.
“We expect to get it done in the red zone, expect to score touchdowns and win games for our team,” fellow wideout Jarius Wright said.
“We haven’t had any struggles in the red zone,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “We’ve been one of the best red zone teams in the league until today.”
Quarterback Cam Newton and running back Christian McCaffrey put up gaudy numbers against a good Seattle team, and the offense put up a good amount of crooked numbers on the scoreboard, becoming just the second team not named the Los Angeles Rams to score 27 points against the Seahawks.
But there were so many more points for the taking – a problem since the Seahawks scored 30 to halt Carolina’s home winning streak at 10.
“Did we punt? We didn’t punt. We lost the game when we didn’t punt,” Olsen said (the Panthers did actually punt but just once). “It’s tough. Our red zone stuff killed us.
“Against good teams, those extra three points, the difference of four points, seven versus three or … obviously on the first one we got stopped a little short … they come back to kill you.”
The Panthers, who entered the game with touchdowns on 73.5 percent of their red zone drives – the third-best conversion rate in the league – looked unstoppable early in the game. Their first two drives gained 129 yards. Newton completed all five of his pass attempts for 73 yards.
And, when the dust settled, the Panthers had just three points.
“It always comes back to haunt you,” Wright said. “When you just score three, it’s always going to come back to haunt you.”
Carolina’s opening drive bogged down inside the Seattle 10-yard line. On second-and-5 from the 8, McCaffrey picked up 1 yard. On third-and-4 from the 7, the Panthers called a quarterback run up the middle, and Newton patiently waited for a path to clear but it never did, making it fourth-and-2 from the 5.
Head coach Ron Rivera opted to go for it and the offense tried the same play, this time with seemingly a little more running room – but apparently not quite enough.
“I thought he picked it up,” said Rivera, whose challenge of the spot didn’t result in a reversal. “I was as bewildered as anyone watching that play.”
Added Newton: “I felt as if I got the first down, but I didn’t get it. So therefore I didn’t get it.”
On Carolina’s next drive, the Panthers had second-and-3 at the Seattle 5. McCaffrey ran for 2 yards to set up third-and-1, but this time McCaffrey was met in the backfield by Nazair Jones and thrown for a 3-yard loss that brought out Graham Gano to put three points on the board.
Carolina clicked in the red zone later in the half, when Newton hit Curtis Samuel for a 7-yard score and a 10-3 lead. The Panthers returned to the red zone one more time before halftime but couldn’t punch it in, settling for a Gano field goal as time expired to lead 13-10.
The Panthers received the second half kickoff and marched right back into the red zone (for the fifth time in six possessions). Newton, who at that point had 15 touchdown passes and zero interceptions in the red zone for the season, tried to squeeze a ball into tight end Chris Manhertz in the middle of the end zone. Safety Bradley McDougal, one of two Seahawks in position, got his hands on the ball and tipped it to himself for a critical takeaway.
"In that situation, we definitely needed a stop or a turnover - something big - because they were going to score and create a bigger lead," McDougal said. "We ended up capitalizing off of that with a score, so it definitely helped us."
The Panthers were better from there, with their next two drives both reaching the red zone and reaching the end zone courtesy of McCaffrey on the ground and McCaffrey through the air.
But on this day, when seven of nine drives reached the red zone and one of the other two went deep enough to set up a late 52-yard field goal that sailed just wide, three touchdowns and two field goals wasn’t quite enough.
“We didn’t finish,” center Ryan Kalil said. “It caught up to us. Thus the result.”