This was ugly. The Panthers' first win of the 2009 season was so unsightly that ESPN did not air a single highlight from the game for the first THREE hours of SportsCenter Sunday night.
(Even the Browns-Bills game got a little ESPN love, although that may have been because that game was not just ugly but historically inept).
Sunday's win over Washington was a test of the Panthers' character, however, and probably one of their most fulfilling victories in the John Fox era. While the Redskins were self-destructing, Carolina's special teams and its beleaguered defense made a handful of big plays to secure the victory -- including four that spurred the second-half rally from a 15-point deficit. Here is an in-depth look at those key plays:
The situation: Washington ball, 2nd-and-8 at its own 3. 8:30 to play in the second quarter. 7-0 Washington.
Formations: Washington came out in an I-formation with a tight end on each side and a wideout split left. Carolina stacked nine players in the box, with a corner in press coverage.
What happened: Redskins tailback Cliinton Portis ran a stretch play right and was tackled in the end zone for a safety.
How it happened: Portis took the handoff and followed fullback Mike Sellers towards the edge. Defensive end Julius Peppers shed Washington tackle Stephon Heyer and closed in on Portis. Linebacker Thomas Davis lined up in the middle and shot a gap in the Washington line untouched, coming quickly behind Portis. Sellers continued to run wide, right past Peppers, likely expecting Heyer to block Peppers. Peppers appeared to miss Portis, but slowed him, and Davis cleaned him up.
Analysis: It's hard to understand why the Redskins ran wide this close to their goal line, especially with two backups on the offensive line. But give the Panthers credit for taking advantage and pulling within 7-2 just two plays after a deflating goal-line stand by Washington.
The situation: Washington kicking off from its own 30. 10 minutes left in the third quarter. 17-2 Washington.
Formations: Both teams lined up in ordinary kickoff formations.
What happened: Kenneth Moore returned the kickoff 55 yards to the Washington 40.
How it happened: Moore caught the kick in the right corner at his own 5, ran straight and then took steps to his left. When he got to the 14, he quickly veered right and sprinted through a hole near the sideline. Moore juked kicker Shaun Suisham at the 35 and sprinted down the sideline until Washington's Devin Thomas forced him to step out of bounds.
Analysis: A great play by Moore and two holds that were not called. When he got to the 14, Moore likely saw Sellers flying down the field unblocked to his left. He smartly veered to his right and flew through a hole that was created in part when a teammate tackled a Redskins at the 24. After Moore juked the kicker, another teammate appeared to hold Thomas for several yards as the Redskins receiver gave chase, allowing Moore to run for at least another 10 yards until Thomas knocked him out.
The old adage, of course, is you could call holding on every play in the NFL. So credit Moore and the Panthers for seizing the opportunity that jump started a comeback. Four plays later quarterback Jake Delhomme hit tight end Jeff King for a 17-yard touchdown. The extra point drew Carolina within 17-9 only 90 seconds after Porits had scored on a 1-yard run -- and maybe 89 seconds after thousands of Panthers fans had pondered heading for the exit (THIS time, I would not have blamed them).
As FOX analyst Brian Billick pointed out, "This (kickoff return) is what Carolina had to have."
The situation: 4th-and-3, Washington, at the Carolina 37. 2:30 to play in the third. 17-9 Washington.
Formations: Washington lined up with three receivers, including two on the right side and a tight end on the right. The Panthers stacked seven in the box, with the corners in press coverage.
What happened: Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell threw a slant pass for receiver Santana Moss, but a Panthers lineman knocked it down.
How it happened: After a quick dropback, Campbell fired to his left for Moss, who was split left and fired inside of the Panthers' corner. Center Casey Rabach blocked a Panthers tackle well, but the tackle (whom I could not identify from replays) jumped when Campbell threw and got a hand on the pass. The ball harmlessly fell incomplete.
Analysis: Davis got credit for batting this pass on the telecast, but the blitzing linebacker did not appear to touch it. Credit whichever Panther made this pay, because Moss was in good position to make the catch for the first down.
This play was huge, but just as their was a hero, there was also a goat -- or multiple goats. Washington had countered the King touchdown by moving 36 yards in seven plays for a first down at the Carolina 44. Then tight end Chris Cooley missed a block, leading to a 1-yard loss on a Ladell Betts run. Two players later Cambell hit receiver Antwaan Randle El for 12 yards on third-and-11, moving the ball to the Carolina 33. But the play was negated because left tackled D'Anthony Batiste lined up off the line of scrimmage.
A completion to tight end Fred Davis moved Washington to the 37, setting up the fourth-down play. With an 8-point lead, a defense playing well and a sputtering offense, Zorn could have tried to pin the Panthers deep on a punt. Instead he chose to go for it -- and then burned a timeout to call a play the Redskins had already used multiple times on the drive. You think the Panthers did not expect a slant pass? Check the replay. If Washington had called for Campbell to pump fake, Moss would likely have run wide open down the left sideline.
It's plays like these that make me think Zorn will get fired well before John Fox.
The situation: 4th-and-15, Carolina, at the Carolina 46. 10 minutes to play. 17-12 Washington.
Formations: The teams lined up in ordinary punt and punt return formations.
What happened: Panthers safety Quinton Teal pushed Washington's Byron Westbrook into punt returner Randle El, the ball struck Westbrook's foot and the Panthers recovered it at the Washington 13.
How it happened: Randle El had signalled for a fair catch, meaning no Panther could get too close to him. But the rulebook allows for the punt team to push opponents into the return man, as long as the opponent is engaged in a block. Westbrook and Teal were engaged when Teal shoved him into RandleEl, knocking both Redskins onto the ground. The ball struck Westbrook's heel and caromed towards the end zone, where Carolina recovered it.
Analysis: A great play by Teal and an alert play by his teammates who chased the loose ball. Two plays later the Panthers took the lead on a Jonathan Stewart run and added a 2-point conversion.
On the other side, Zorn burned a second timeout challenging the call because he thought what Teal did was against the rules. He did not challenge the the fumble, because it was clear the ball hit Westbrook.
The situation: Third-and-7, Washington, on the Washington 47. 6 minutes to play. 20-17 Carolina.
Formations: Washington lined up in the shotgun with three receivers (two to the right side), one back and a tight end on the left. The Panthers were in a 4-3 with their corners a couple yards off and safeties deep.
What happened: Campbell scrambled up the middle, but was tackled by defensive ends Tyler Brayton and Everette Brown for a 1-yard gain. Washington then punted.
How it happened: A Panthers tackle beat Washington guard Mike Williams with a quick rush up the middle, flushing Campbell up in the pocket. As Campbell ran, the tackle dove and got just enough of Campbell to make him stagger. Brayton and Brown were able to converge on Campbell and tackle him at the Washington 48.
Analysis: A great play by the tackle, whose identity was skewed by the lack of a good FOX replay. Campbell had a lot of space. Had the tackle not hit him, he likely would have scrambled for the first down and more.
The Panthers also caught a break when the Redskins made another mistake two players earlier. Thomas got open deep and Campbell hit him in stride with a bomb inside the Panthers 20. But Thomas dropped the ball for an incompletion. Even earlier in the drive, Washington burned its last timeout when Campbell could not engineer an audible and beat the play clock.
The Redskins punted after the Campbell scramble and the Panthers burned the final five-plus minutes of the game. They earned the victory. It was ugly, but give them credit. While the Redskins blew several chances in the second half, the Panthers were smart and opportunistic.