CHARLOTTE – The Carolina Panthers had no business challenging the Baltimore Ravens well into the fourth quarter Sunday, but when career backup quarterback Brian St. Pierre hit rookie wide receiver David Gettis in stride for an 88-yard touchdown, the Panthers suddenly were in business.
Soon after, however, the Ravens gave them the business.
Baltimore was the statistically superior team against a Carolina roster decimated by injuries, but it didn't truly show up on the Bank of America Stadium scoreboard until the waning minutes, when the Ravens returned interceptions on back-to-back plays for touchdowns to run away with a 37-13 victory.
"The score certainly is not indicative of the type of game it was," said St. Pierre, making his first NFL start in his eighth NFL season and doing so just nine days after being signed to the Panthers practice squad. "We had a chance, and then I made two mistakes that hurt us. That's tough.
"I thought we really had some life there, but that's the NFL. They're a really good defense, and they made two good plays."
St. Pierre took the blame for two turnovers on consecutive offensive snaps that sealed the outcome with less than five minutes left: Dawan Landry's 23-yard return of an Ed Reed interception (Reed flipped the ball to Landry after 19 yards) and Ray Lewis' 24-yard return.
Head coach John Fox, however, said the blame was shared – as was the pain after the Panthers fell to 1-9 against a Baltimore team (7-3) that looks to be playoff-bound.
"I feel bad for those guys in the room that are still healthy and still fighting," said Fox, whose offense was without its top two quarterbacks, its top two running backs and left guard Travelle Wharton. "We've just got to fight through it. We will, and hopefully we'll get some more desirable results for the fans and for us."
The fans were in a frenzy when, on the second play of the fourth quarter, St. Pierre spotted Gettis running free near midfield and hit him in stride down the left sideline for what matched the second-longest passing touchdown in franchise history.
"Ed Reed, being the Pro Bowler that he is, is a very instinctive player. He relies on his instincts and really relies on watching the quarterback and where his eyes are," Gettis said. "So we practiced all week with the quarterback looking in the direction you're not going to throw.
"It was a great job by our quarterback and a great job by the line to get us time to do that. Then it was just me doing my job converting that play."
The Panthers had been statistically dominated before that play, gaining just 135 yards to 310 for the Ravens. St. Pierre had thrown for 51 yards; Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco had 261.
That strike of lightning, however, made much of that moot. The Panthers pulled within 20-13, and then their defense went out and forced the Ravens to punt for the fourth consecutive time.
"We had momentum," said defensive end Everett Brown, who collected a sack for the second straight game. "The crowd got behind us, and defensively we were able to get off the field. But then…"
But then, the Panthers couldn't pick up a first down when they got the ball back, trying to tie the game. Then, the Ravens worked their way into field goal range, and when Billy Cundiff drilled a 49-yarder with 5:55 left, the Ravens led 23-13.
That likely was enough to salt it away, but that wasn't all. Moments later, Reed stepped in the path of a pass intended for tight end Dante Rosario – who had yet to turn his head – and seconds later, Lewis stepped in front of tight end Gary Barnidge.
"It stinks losing, but those guys fought really hard," St. Pierre said. "I know that's not enough, but they really fought hard."
Early on, it looked like the game would be the blowout that it eventually turned out to be. St. Pierre managed things well enough but the offense managed to produce little, outside of a field goal set up by a 45-yard run from Mike Goodson, who produced his second consecutive 100-yard game with 120 yards on 22 rushes.
The Ravens, on the other hand, were the picture of efficiency, especially in the passing game. Flacco completed 16 of 18 passes in the first half for 213 yards.
"He got into a rhythm," safety Charles Godfrey said after the Panthers gave up a touchdown on an opponent's first drive for the fourth time this season. "We knew coming in that we needed to start fast, and we didn't do that. They came right out and scored. We have to do our job.
"The second half we played a little bit better, but we have to come out at the beginning of the game and play well also."
The Ravens headed to halftime with a 17-3 lead, and it grew to 20-3 early in the second half before the Panthers provided an ounce of drama.
"They controlled the game better than we did on both sides of the ball," Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross said. "We ran the ball pretty well against them, made a couple of real big plays in the pass, but that's just not enough. We've got to score more points."