The Panthers lost in the most frustrating way possible to the Vikings in Week 12 when they let Kirk Cousins drive down the field with less than two minutes left to score a go-ahead touchdown with 46 seconds to spare, and then followed that up with a soul crushing missed field goal with one second remaining after they had given fans hope of a miracle comeback a few plays prior.
As always, there are a few players (and coaches) who stood out in both good and bad ways yesterday, so let’s take a closer look at the winners and losers from yesterday’s 28-27 loss.
I cannot say enough positive things about Jeremy Chinn. Let’s get the stats out of the way first: he finished the day with 13 tackles (seven solo), a quarterback hit, two fumble recoveries and two touchdowns. Now, let’s talk about what everyone wants to talk about: Jeremy Chinn took over the game at the start of the third quarter. In back-to-back plays, he scored two touchdowns on fumble recoveries and became the first player in NFL history to accomplish such a feat*. Not only was it impressive to see, but it turned the game completely around and took the Panthers from a 10-7 deficit to a 21-10 lead in a matter of 10 seconds of game time.
One could argue that fumble recoveries are luck based and Chinn shouldn’t get as much credit as he’s getting, and I’ll somewhat buy that argument on the first play, but the second fumble recovery touchdown was all Chinn because he forced Dalvin Cook to fumble, recovered it and took it to the house. Chinn has firmly placed himself in the conversation for Defensive Rookie of the Year, and if you ask me it’s his award to lose at the moment.
(Once again, here’s a friendly reminder that the Panthers selected Derrick Brown at No. 7 overall and then traded up to the No. 64 pick to draft Jeremy Chinn instead of selecting Isaiah Simmons at No. 7 overall like most of us wanted them to do.)
Kerr has played well over the last few weeks and had another good game yesterday. He had eight tackles (three solo), a tackle for loss, a pass defensed, a quarterback hit and a strip sack (the first fumble that Chinn took to the house). It’s possible the Panthers have found themselves a diamond in the rough with Kerr, and since he’s only 30 years old he’s a guy I’d like to see stick around for a few more years. He’s also elite at taking his dear sweet time getting to the line when he’s subbed in, which causes the other team to burn a timeout or take a delay of game penalty, so he’s definitely a keeper in my book.
Carter had eight tackles (four solo) and a tackle for loss yesterday, but I wanted to talk more about how much better the defense has played over the last two weeks since he’s taken the starter’s share of snaps away from Tahir Whitehead. I know it says more about Whitehead than it does Carter, but I believe that Carter has come into his own and has shown that he deserves the starting spot regardless of how good or bad Whitehead has played this season. The defense is better when Carter is on the field, and I hope that trend continues.
Bridgewater’s homecoming in Minnesota didn’t go as well as he’d hoped is probably the understatement of the week, but that’s exactly how his day went. He finished the day 19-of-36 for 267 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He avoided being sacked and his quarterback rating was 74.7, but what the stats don’t show you is how he cost the team a chance to win the game. He missed several throws, but the one that sticks out like a sore thumb is the one to a wide open DJ Moore in the end zone on third-and-goal with 1:56 left in the game. The Panthers had to settle for a field goal to go up 27-21 instead of putting the game away with a touchdown (more on this later), and well ... you know what happened.
I still think Bridgewater is the right guy for this team right now (a veteran leader who can be a bridge to a rookie quarterback), but I don’t think he’s the guy they need to sign to a long-term deal. I think he’s fine for the present, but I don’t think he’s the future and I hope the Panthers don’t either.
Slye was 2-for-4 yesterday, and I’m not going to give him too much grief for one of his misses because it’s not his fault that the line allowed the Vikings to block it. However, I’m going to fault him for shanking the absolute shit out of the potential game-winner with 0:06 left in the game. It was in the middle of the field (left hash if I recall) and well within his range at 54 yards. We also can’t blame the weather because the game was played indoors, so the only person we can really blame is the kicker. Slye just bungled the kick. Slye told the media after the game that his foot got caught in the turf during his kick, so that at least explains why it was so badly shanked.
Normally I wouldn’t be so hard on a kicker who misses a kick from 50-plus because those are the most difficult to make, but Slye has been nothing but inconsistent since replacing Graham Gano** and it’s probably time for the Panthers to start looking for another kicker. Sure, it’s fun to watch Slye try to break the NFL record, but when this team is trying to actually compete I hope they have a guy back there who can be more consistent (and if that person ends up being Slye, I’m totally fine with that — I just want consistency at kicker no matter who it is).
I love Matt Rhule and I believe he’s the right man for the job, and I believe that he’s going to lead the Panthers to multiple NFC South titles and potentially a Super Bowl in the next five-ish years. However, he cost the team a chance to win the game yesterday when he decided to kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal with 1:51 left in the game. As soon as Slye went out there and made a chip shot to put the Panthers up 27-21 I knew the Vikings were going to come back to win, because that’s what seems to happen almost every time a team opts to take the easy three points to go up by six with less than two minutes to go.
NFL teams tend to play it safe unless they absolutely have to take risks, and putting a team in a six-point hole with less than two minutes left is 100 percent one of the times where teams will take risks, because they don’t have any other choice. By kicking that field goal to go up by six, the Panthers forced the Vikings to be aggressive. The Vikings already have a good offense, and the Panthers have a young defense that has struggled (plus they were gassed because there were less than two minutes left in the game). By taking the meaningless three points, the Panthers put themselves in a losing position.
Here’s ESPN’s analytics department with the numbers on why Rhule made the wrong decision:
ESPN’s win probability model did not agree with Matt Rhule’s decision to attempt a field goal on 4th and 3 with 1:54 left in the game. The field goal put the Panthers up 6. WP if they went for it: 92.8% WP by kicking: 90.6% Needed just a 22% conversion chance to justify going for it, league average there is 41%.
There are two scenarios that happen if the Panthers go for it on fourth-and goal: they either score a touchdown and go up by 10 points (assuming Slye makes the extra point), or they don’t score a touchdown and maintain a three-point lead.
If they go for it and convert, they go up 31-21 with less than two minutes left. If the Vikings drive down the field exactly as they did and score a touchdown, they still have to recover an onside kick to regain possession, which is a much more difficult task now than it has been in years past because of the new kickoff rules. The Panthers have a much better chance of winning the game with a 10-point lead when there are less than two minutes left and their opponent doesn’t have all of their timeouts. The Panthers also have a better chance of winning the game with a three-point lead and 0:46 remaining when the other team has to recover and onside kick and drive down the field to score with only one timeout.
(In the absolute worst-case scenario, the Vikings score a touchdown, recover the onside kick and then either kick a tying field goal and win in overtime or score another touchdown and win the game in regulation. If either of those happens, the blame is on the defense for giving up the yards and points rather than the decision making that put them in the best position to win.)
If the Panthers would have gone for it on fourth-and-goal and failed they would have only been up three points, and the Vikings would have known that they could be more conservative because they had a game-tying field goal attempt in their back pocket. They wouldn’t have had to run the two-minute drill as a desperation move because they wouldn’t have ‘needed’ a touchdown. Now, they could have done the exact same thing they did in the actual game situation and gone up 28-24, but then the Panthers would have still had 0:46 to try and win the game with a touchdown.
Assuming the completion to Curtis Samuel still happens, the Panthers are at midfield with 0:28 left and at least four shots to get into the end zone. The Panthers may have still lost the game, but losing 28-24 because they went for it on fourth-and-goal to try and put the game away is certainly less frustrating and soul-sucking than taking the meaningless three points and watching the other team drive straight down the field to take a one-point lead with less than a minute to go. I know a loss is a loss, but I’d rather see the Panthers lose because they tried to win and failed than watch them lose because they settled and tried to ‘not lose’ the game. Yes, they both count the same in the standings, but one certainly feels better than the other.
The bottom line is Matt Rhule should have trusted his offense to gain three yards on fourth-and-goal to put the game away, and he decided to take the safe route, and it came back to bite him in the ass. Hopefully he takes this as a learning experience, and if he has the chance to make the same decision in the future he opts for the better, more aggressive choice***.
Oh, and I haven’t even talked about the piss poor clock management at the end of the game, but I’m going to be brief because this column is already over 2,000 words: You cannot take the gift of a free first-and-goal after a muffed punt and fail to score more than three points while only taking 19 seconds off the clock in the NFL. It’s inexcusable, and when you fail to take advantage of those situations teams will make you pay for it almost every time, and that’s exactly what happened to the Panthers yesterday.
(To be fair to the coaches, the clock management probably would have been a non-issue if Bridgewater could have completed a pass to a wide open DJ Moore in the end zone on third-and-goal, but it’s still inexcusable to leave that much time on the clock for the Vikings.)
Robby Anderson had four catches for 91 yards and a touchdown (a 41-yarder where he burned the entire Vikings defense on a drag route), and Curtis Samuel logged five catches (on five targets) for 72 yards. They weren’t dynamic enough to get a spot in the winners’ section this week but I felt that they at least deserved to be mentioned.
Brian Burns had another ‘he almost got there’ week where he was all over the place but it didn’t show up in the score sheet. He had five tackles (two solo) and a quarterback hit, but he almost had a lot more than that. Corn Elder and Tre Boston also played well and deserve a shout out, especially Elder. I remember a time when no one wanted him on the roster because he was so bad, but it turns out that he’s actually pretty good and the previous coaching staff just didn’t know how to use him properly. Weird how that happens...
Who stood out to you yesterday, Panthers fans? Share your thoughts with us!
*- Chinn is the second player to score two touchdowns on fumble recoveries in the same game (Fred ‘Dippy’ Evans is the other, for Chicago in 1948), but he is the first to do it on back-to-back plays.
**-Not to start another kicker war, but friendly reminder that we chose Graham Gano over Harrison Butker and decided to pay him 10 times the salary, and then had to sign Joey Slye when Gano got hurt and decided to part ways with Gano after he spent 2019 on injured reserve. We could have avoided all this if we just went with Harrison Butker in the first place.
***- It’s easier to understand taking the three points and putting the game in the hands of your defense when you have a unit like the ‘85 Bears or ‘00 Ravens, but when you have a defense with four or five NFL-caliber starters (at best) and a group of rotational guys and rookies, you shouldn’t trust your defense to win a game for you.