LANDOVER, Md. – After all the miscues, all the sloppiness for the better part of the first half, the Panthers clawed their way out of a 17-0 hole and were in position to beat the Redskins in the closing moments.
Trailing 23-17, quarterback Cam Newton and the offense took the field at their own 16-yard line with 3:11 remaining and all three timeouts at their disposal.
The last time they had the ball, they marched 75 yards down the field in nine plays to cut the deficit to three without even facing a third down.
"We thought we were going to score," tight end Greg Olsen said. "I mean, they hadn't stopped us. In the second half, we were really rolling pretty good. We went right down the field, then we went right down the field again."
The Panthers were on the move quickly. Newton completed passes to running back Christian McCaffrey for 15 yards, wide receiver Jarius Wright for three and Olsen for 18, and just like that they were in Washington territory at the two-minute warning.
A few completions later, Newton rushed for three yards on third-and-1. Carolina then called its first timeout after McCaffrey picked up five to spot the ball at the Washington 21-yard line with 47 seconds left.
"That's pretty good position to be in with two timeouts," Olsen said.
Two timeouts gave the Panthers the option to run the ball more, but Newton went to the air on the next three snaps.
"We try to execute the plays that coaches call," Newton said. "I feel extremely confident in (offensive coordinator) Norv (Turner) and the play selection that he had. I don't plan on it changing."
Second-and-5 was a shot to the end zone intended for McCaffrey, who was lined up out wide and had a step or two on safety Montae Nicholson, but it was too far out in front.
Third-and-5 was another shot to the end zone – this time for wide receiver Devin Funchess, who was lined up slot left – but again the pass was too far.
The game hinged on fourth-and-5, and Newton tried to connect with Wright, who was lined up slot right. Cornerback Fabian Moreau grabbed onto Wright as he tried to break toward the sideline, but no flag was thrown. The pass fell incomplete, and the game was over.
"I watched the video and he definitely held on. I warned the ref earlier in the game that he was doing that," Wright said of Moreau. "We expected to come back and win. It's a letdown."
Defensive holding on fourth down or not, the Panthers know they had multiple opportunities to punch it in from prime position and complete the comeback. It was right there for the taking despite such a poor start. That's what stings.
"I had some throws that I wish I could have back on that last drive," Newton said. "But that's the game of football."
And Rivera was adamant that this particular game shouldn't have come down to a late fourth-down toss.
"When you don't play well in the first quarter-and-a-half, you make it harder on yourself, and we did," Rivera said. "We felt pretty comfortable we could get the ball down there and it was just a matter of finishing.
"Ultimately, we didn't."
View game action photos from the Panthers 23-17 loss against the Redskins.