Another sad Sunday
A back-and-forth game came down to the final snaps, but the Panthers again couldn't convert winning plays and fell for the fifth consecutive game, falling 26-20 at the Cleveland Browns. Carolina is now 1-6 on the road and 2-6 in one-score games.
The loss pushed the Panthers (6-7) closer to elimination in the playoff race. The NFC South race was virtually a foregone conclusion even before Sunday's games, but the Saints officially clinched the division crown. Now the Panthers will host the Saints next week on Monday Night Football in a situation where a loss would surely sap any remaining postseason hopes. Any loss from here on out will.
Red zone shortcomings
The offenses shined in a first half that ended in a 17-17 tie, but the Panthers' offense didn't cash in on second-half chances, and it cost the Panthers the game. A go-ahead touchdown on a Christian McCaffrey 3-yard run midway through the third quarter was negated by a holding call, and the Panthers had to settle for a field goal.
They never scored again.
Cleveland claimed its first lead with a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, then extended its edge to 26-20 with a field goal midway through the fourth. The Panthers methodically marched down the field looking for a late lead, but they stalled close to paydirt. Facing second-and-goal at the 3, quarterback Cam Newton couldn't connect with three different receivers, and the Browns took over with 2:35 remaining. Newton and Co. did get the ball back with about a minute left, but his first pass sailed and the Browns picked it off – their first and only takeaway – to seal with victory.
Both offenses were pretty much unstoppable in the first half, with one player for each team proving impossible to keep out of the end zone. McCaffrey opened the scoring on the opening drive with a 4-yard run, a drive he dominated with 41 yards on seven touches. Not to be outdone, Browns receiver Jarvis Landry answered with a 4-yard touchdown run of his own, and the duo wasn't done.
McCaffrey scored again on the second play of the second quarter on a powerful 1-yard run. Landry answered right back, catching a dime from Baker Mayfield on third-and-17 for a 51-yard score that tied it at 14-14.
Landry's answers followed a pattern that had haunted Carolina during its recent slide. Opposing offenses have routinely scored right after the Panthers offense scored, doing it on 10 of 14 chances in Carolina's four consecutive losses entering play Sunday. The Browns kept that problematic pattern going all three times Carolina scored in the first half to send it to halftime at 17-17. The defense did came up with a stop after an early-second half field goal, but it was none other than Landry that brought the Browns back with a 51-yard run early in the fourth quarter to set up Cleveland to take its first lead all day at 23-20.
(Landry, incidentally, had a chance to pull off a rare triple play with a rushing, receiving and passing touchdown in the same game, but Carolina cornerback Donte Jackson broke up Landry's pass attempt in the end zone on a trick play.)