NASHVILLE - The Carolina Panthers couldn't quite overcome a slow start by starting units missing their top star, quickly falling 17 points behind in a 34-27 loss to the Tennessee Titans in their first preseason road game.
Graham Gano's 37-yard field goal with 3:51 left in the game tied the game at 27-all, but the Panthers' third turnover derailed their hopes. On the final play before the two-minute warning, quarterback Garrett Gilbert lost a fumble on a sack. On the first play after the two-minute warning, Titans running back David Fluellen scored from 3 yards out to regain the lead. Gilbert directed the offense inside Tennessee's 30-yard line in the final minute before running out of downs.
"You can't make mistakes like that. You can't turn the ball over," head coach Ron Rivera said. "It is a matter of four or five big plays a game that dictates the winners and the losers."
Before the late fumble, the final three quarters stood in stark contrast to the opening one. The first-team offense, without quarterback Cam Newton (shoulder) for the second consecutive game, turned the ball over on the two of its first three possessions and didn't net a single yard on the other drive. The Titans took advantage against a defense playing without linebacker Luke Kuechly (ribs).
The Panthers eventually answered behind a potential emerging star in rookie running back Christian McCaffrey and their backfield reserves.
Tennessee's offense clicked from the opening kickoff, marching 59 yards behind quarterback Marcus Mariota before settling for a field goal. Then on Carolina's first offensive snap, Derek Anderson's short completion to Devin Funchess was nullified and then some by a strip and fumble recovery, setting up Mariota for a 4-yard scoring pass to tight end Delanie Walker for a 10-0 lead.
After the defenses traded three-and-outs, Anderson was picked off on the first play of the Panthers' third drive by linebacker Justin Staples on a deflected ball bound for tight end Greg Olsen. On the Titans' subsequent snap, running back Derrick Henry got free around the left side for a 17-yard score and a 17-0 lead.
The Panthers righted the ship from there and made a game of it. Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin jumpstarted the offense and the drive with a 20-yard gain, then McCaffrey busted loose. After he had a 13-yard run and Benjamin added an 11-yard catch, McCaffrey capped the 75-yard march by scooting outside and down the right sideline for a 17-yard touchdown early in the second quarter.
"Just the explosiveness," Rivera said. "You're always holding your breath when he's got the football, especially in space."
McCaffrey gained 38 yards on a screen pass later in the half to set up a 46-yard field goal by rookie Harrison Butker, and the Panthers headed to halftime down 24-10. Joe Webb took over for Anderson at quarterback to open the second half and directed a 91-yard scoring march right off the bat to bring Carolina within 24-17. Wide receiver Brenton Bersin – who later left with a shoulder injury - had a 22-yard catch and run early in the drive, and running back Cameron Artis-Payne added a 22-yard run before capping it off with a 1-yard score.
The Titans answered the six-minute march with one just under six minutes that ended with a Ryan Succop 50-yard field goal. The Panthers quickly answered, covering 75 yards in just four plays to pull within 27-24 late in the third quarter. Artis-Payne zipped around the right side for a 43-yard gain, then rookie fullback Alex Armah, turned upfield with a screen along the right side for a 20-yard touchdown.
The Panthers (1-1) soon will be back on the road when they visit the Jacksonville Jaguars for their next-to-last preseason game Thursday night at 7:30.
View photos from Carolina's preseason game at Tennessee.