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Big Mo: The anatomy of a second half collapse against Washington in Week 11

Let’s look at the biggest plays in swinging momentum in a dispiriting loss to the Football Team.

Washington Football Team v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

The Big Mo series highlights the plays (or series of plays) that had the biggest impact on swinging the Panthers win probability as calculated by ESPN. In Week 11 Carolina laid an egg in the second half and lost a very winnable game. If the Panthers miss the postseason by one game, we can probably point back to this second half collapse.

ESPN

The Panthers jumped out to an early lead and enjoyed a win probability exceeding 80% midway through the first quarter, but momentum slowly, consistently shifted to the Football Team from there. Here are the defining plays:

First quarter 11:29 - Panthers 0, Washington 0

McCaffrey delivers on fourth-and-1 (58% to 81% Panthers win percentage): On the game’s first possession the Panthers faced fourth-and-1 at the 50. In a well-designed play, Christian McCaffrey took a pitch right, gained 15 yards, and Washington was also flagged for a horse collar tackle on the play. The Panthers suddenly had the ball at the Washington 20 and capped the drive with a touchdown and a 7-0. Their win probability jumped to 82%.

First quarter 0:06 - Panthers 7, Washington 0

Terry McLaurin gets 39 on third-and-9 (71% to 50% Panthers win percentage): Carolina’s defense had forced a punt and a fumble on Washington’s first two possessions. The Panthers had Washington with a 3rd-and-9 for a potential three-and-out on their third series, but Terry McLaurin got past Donte Jackson (a common refrain in this game) for a big 39-yard gain to set up a touchdown and a 7-7 tie. It was now a 50/50 ballgame.

Second quarter 3:57 - Panthers 14, Washington 7

Panthers defense can’t get off the field (75% to 49% Panthers win percentage): Late in the second quarter the Panthers defense gave up conversions on third-and-1, fourth-and-5, and third-and-9. Washington eventually scored a touchdown on a 12-play, 71-yard drive to tie the game at 14-14 at the half. The Panthers win probability dropped from 75% to 49% as a result.

Fourth quarter 13:30 - Panthers 14, Washington 21

Cam scrambles for a first down (11% to 46% Panthers win percentage): The Panthers trailed by seven to begin the fourth quarter and had the ball facing third-and-4 from their own 16. A punt in that situation would’ve been devastating. Cam Newton dropped to pass, felt pressure, rolled left, and made an athletic scramble for six yards and a first down. The drive eventually resulted in a Panthers touchdown and a 21-21 tie with 10:44 left in the game. Carolina's win once dismal win probability jumped 35 points to 46%.

Fourth quarter 8:10 - Panthers 21, Washington 21

Washington converts, Carolina fails on fourth down (56% to 16% Panthers win percentage): With 8:10 left in a tied game the Football Team faced third-and-21 from their own 39. Taylor Heinicke hit a wide open Adam Humphries for a frustratingly easy 18 yards to set up fourth-and-3 from the Carolina 43. On fourth down Heinicke made an athletic play to elude Jermaine Carter then completed an improbable pass for a first down. The drive culminated in a field goal and a 24-21 Washington lead with 4:13 remaining.

The Panthers then took possession and faced a similar fourth-and-3 but from their own 32. With 3:02 left in the game Matt Rhule had to maddeningly burn a timeout before deciding to go for it. Christian McCaffrey ran a shallow route to the left flat and caught the pass short of the first down. The Panthers turned the ball over on downs and gave up possession with Washington already in field goal range. The Football Team kicked a field goal with 1:50 left to go up 26-21 and it was game over from there.

Washington converted their crucial fourth-and-3. Carolina failed on theirs.

Big Mo MVP - Cam Newton

Cam played well and led an offense that should’ve been competent enough to win this game had it not been for the Panthers defense. Cam was a dual threat with accurate passing (21-of-27 for 189 yards and 2 touchdowns) and the ability to tuck the ball and run (10 carries for 46 yards and a touchdown). It’s impressive he played this well considering the limited time he had to digest the playbook.

What I liked

  • Cam Newton’s midfield celebration after his gorgeous 24-yard touchdown run.
  • Brady Christensen surrendering zero pressures and zero sacks in 26 pass-blocking snaps at left tackle. I’ve been preaching for over a month now that Christensen should start the rest of the season at left tackle so he can gain experience and let the coaching staff see if he has what it takes to be the long-term solution. Developing Christensen into a viable starter would be huge for this franchise that has floundered at left tackle for nearly a decade now.
  • Morgan Fox making his presence felt with four tackles, one tackle for loss, and a big forced fumble. Fox seemed to be in the backfield a lot in this one.
  • Frankie Luvu’s fumble recovery. For a guy who doesn’t play very many snaps, Frankie seems to be in the middle of a lot of big plays. He has only played 152 defensive snaps in 11 games this year (about 14 per game) but somehow has two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble, and four tackles for loss. Luvu has become my favorite under-the-radar guy this year.

What I didn’t like

  • Wishing Taylor Heinicke was on the Panthers roster playing on the first year of a 2-year, $4.75 million contract, which is the deal he signed with Washington. I’m not saying Heinicke should be the Panthers starting quarterback — he’s not a franchise guy — but I’d put him back on the roster in a heartbeat for a cap hit averaging about $2.4 million per year. Oh, and Heinicke currently has a better QBR than both Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Darnold this season for what that’s worth.
  • The botched direct snap that skidded on the ground to Christian McCaffrey on third-and-1 in the first quarter for no gain, forcing a punt. When you’ve got Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey in the backfield together, there’s no need to get cute in that situation.
  • Donte Jackson getting repeatedly beaten by Terry McLaurin.

Welp, there go all of the good vibes and playoff momentum after last week’s invigorating win against Arizona. With this disappointing loss the Panthers slipped to No. 10 in the playoff seedings, so they’re now on the outside looking in. A win against Washington would’ve put them at No. 6 and firmly entrenched in the playoff picture.

Up next is a road game against the 4-7 Miami Dolphins. This is a game that looks winnable on paper, but so did the game against Washington.