CHARLOTTE – The start of the second half was going exactly as planned for the Titans.
Running back Derrick Henry had just imposed his will on the opening drive of the third quarter, punctuating it with an 8-yard touchdown run to cut the Carolina lead to 10.
Then the Carolina offense went three-and-out. The Tennessee sideline was energized, and rightfully so. The momentum of the game had shifted, and they felt the comeback was on.
But Ron Rivera and the Panthers had other ideas.
Well, one really good idea in particular.
"I've been waiting on that for nine years," safety Colin Jones said with a big smile as teammates were congratulating him at his locker.
On fourth-and-4 from their own 36-yard line, Rivera green-lit a fake punt call the Panthers had discussed during the week of prep. The play was simple – a direct snap to Jones, who was lined up as the punt protector. It was designed for Jones to run off the right side behind a lead block from running back Jordan Scarlett and another from fullback Alex Armah.
"We knew it was going to be called at some point in the game," Scarlett said. "We had it planned all week."
Early in the third quarter, with Tennessee making a push, Rivera felt the time was right to go for it.
"I was really looking for something to give us an edge and I thought the moment was good," Rivera said. "I just thought the opportunity was right."
"They gave us the look that we were looking for," special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn said. "We got it early in the game and knew we'd get that look again. Coach Rivera made a great call and put it in our players' hands."
When Jones took the snap, he ran behind Scarlett, who got a good piece of defensive back Dane Cruikshank.
"Scarlett did a heck of a job driving him off the point," Blackburn said. "But they played it really well."
Cruikshank was able to get his hands on Jones right at the line of scrimmage. Then came linebacker David Long, Jr., who made contact with Jones three yards short of the line to gain.
"I saw the sticks," Jones said, "and knew Rivera would kill me if I didn't get there. I had no choice."
Jones powered through the two Titans and then got some help from linebacker Andre Smith and defensive end Efe Obada to make it through for a five yard gain.
"I told House (strength coach Joe Kenn) I'm glad I got an extra set of legs in this week," joked Jones, who, it should be noted, was an all-state running back at his high school in Texas.
"I know who Colin Jones is and once was," safety Tre Boston said. "A high school running back, 2,200 yards. I was surprised he didn't score!"
"Colin just ran it up in there and kept his feet churning," Blackburn said. "That's why he's our leader. That's why he's our captain."
Jones was reveling in his big moment after the game, letting everyone know he had a better yards-per-carry average than Titans star running back Derrick Henry, who finished with 4.8 per attempt.
"Give me the rock!" Jones joked. "I looked up on the board and saw 'Jones: 1 for 5' right under Christian. I had to make sure I had a better average than Derrick Henry today."
OK, back to the decision to make that call. Most of the Panthers sideline had no idea a fake punt was coming. That's partly by design – you don't want the players to look at all suspicious, you want them to act as though a run-of-the-mill punt is on the way.
"I didn't realize what happened," tight end Greg Olsen said. "I was taking my stuff off on the bench and then I heard the crowd cheer. I looked up and they're cheering for Colin? Then it dawned on me that we faked it. That was huge."
The Titans were caught off guard in more ways than one. A few seconds before they were celebrating a three-and-out on the bench. Now their defense was unexpectedly thrust back on the field with the Panthers offense having been given new life.
"Those are critical," Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said of the fake punt. "I would just say good execution. When I looked, I didn't feel like we had enough guys over there. We got a hat on them and they pushed the pile."
After Jones' gutsy conversion, it took five plays – and two Tennessee penalties – for Carolina to find the end zone courtesy of a 1-yard run from Christian McCaffrey.
Just like that, it was 24-7 and the Panthers went on to win 30-20.
"It's a point in our season where we've got to make something happen, right?" Blackburn said. "If we think we see something or have something, we have to be willing to put ourselves in the that position.
"That was a big momentum swing for us. It changed the game."