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Big Mo: The key plays that ignited a dumpster fire in a Week 14 loss to Atlanta

Let’s look at the biggest plays in swinging momentum in the Panthers loss to the Falcons.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

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 14 the Panthers came into the game as the favorites, jumped out to an early lead, then got absolutely dominated.


Just look at that chart. After the first quarter the trend line is basically a 45-degree angle leading to “100% Atlanta”. Here’s how the Panthers once again found an uninspiring way to lose a football game:

First quarter 8:19 - Panthers 0, Falcons 0

Cam bullies his way for a touchdown (73% to 81% Panthers win probability): The Panthers defense forced a three-and-out to start the game. On Carolina’s first possession Cam Newton orchestrated a methodical drive down to the Atlanta 12. Facing third-and-3 Newton executed a perfect option, faked the handoff, and trucked his way into the end zone for a touchdown. Carolina now led 7-0 with an 81% win probability.

First quarter 4:21 - Panthers 7, Falcons 0

Russell Gage beats CJ Henderson (72% to 57% Panthers win probability): After the Panthers first touchdown the Falcons drove down to the Carolina 24 and faced third-and-8. Russell Gage easily beat CJ Henderson on a quick slant for a first down to extend the drive. Atlanta eventually scored a touchdown to tie the game at 7-7 and reduce the Panthers win probability by 15 points to 57%.

Second quarter 8:35 - Panthers 7, Falcons 7

Cam throws a pick-six (61% to 45% Panthers win probability): The Panthers defense was stepping up and the offense was getting some momentum. In a 7-7 game Carolina had driven from their own three yard line all the way down to the Atlanta 36. On third-and-6 Cam Newton tried to laser a pass to Chuba Hubbard but didn’t see linebacker Mykal Walker drop into coverage and undercut the route. Walker made an outstanding play to make the interception and run it back for a touchdown. The Falcons now suddenly led 14-7 and momentum completely flipped Atlanta’s way. The Panthers never got it back.

Third quarter 14:02 - Panthers 7, Falcons 17

Tommy Tremble’s first down grab (23% to 45% Panthers win probability): Carolina trailed by 10 at the half and got the ball to start the third quarter. Facing a potential three-and-out, Cam Newton connected with Tommy Tremble over the middle for a 14-yard gain. The drive continued and was ultimately capped with a Chuba Hubbard touchdown and a 17-14 deficit.

Third quarter 3:27 - Panthers 14, Falcons 20

Kyle Pitts gets 14 on third-and-13 (25% to 12% Panthers win probability): After Cam Newton coughed up a fumble trying to force a handoff while falling down, the Falcons subsequent drive nearly stalled. Facing third-and-13 from their own 48, Kyle Pitts ran into a wide open spot in the Panthers drop zone coverage as Shaq Thompson and Jeremy Chinn covered empty space. Pitts hauled in a 14-yard gain for a first down and the Falcons drive ended with a touchdown and a 26-14 lead after a failed two-point conversion. Carolina’s win probability plummeted to 12%.

Fourth quarter 4:54 - Panthers 14, Falcons 29

DaQuan Jones forces a late fumble (0.4% to 6% Panthers win probability): The Panthers were stopped on fourth-and-10 with 5:02 left in the game and trailed 29-14. The game was seemingly over. But on the Falcons first play of the next possession, DaQuan Jones stripped Qadree Ollison and Jermaine Carter Jr. recovered the fumble. PJ Walker led Carolina on a late touchdown drive to cut Atlanta’s lead to 29-21, but it was too little, too late.

Big Mo MVP - Derrick Brown

What a game for the 2020 first round draft pick. It’s not always easy to quantify the impact interior defensive linemen have on the game, but in this one Derrick Brown was credited with four tackles, two tackles for loss, and two quarterback hits. Put simply, he was dominant in the middle.

What I liked

  • There were some early well designed quarterback runs to utilize Cam Newton’s legs.
  • The Panthers offense converting on fourth-and-2 with 12:16 left in the game from their own 33 to keep hope least briefly.
  • Brandon Zylstra looking pretty good with four receptions for 45 yards.

What I didn’t like

  • Starting Cameron Erving at left tackle and Brady Christensen at right guard. Then when Erving exited with a third quarter injury, Dennis Daley was installed at left tackle. Erving later returned and was smoked by Dante Fowler for a sack on the Panthers fourth-and-10 desperation play with 9:59 left in the game. It’s simply baffling that Matt Rhule refuses to give Christensen reps at left tackle.
  • Seeing AJ Bouye, Jeremy Chinn, and Stephon Gilmore each be oh-so-close to first half interceptions but all three balls fell to the ground.
  • Playing musical chairs between Cam Newton and PJ Walker. It reeked of desperation.
  • Matt Rhule’s bizarre decision to originally go for a two-point conversion with 3:11 left in the game while trailing 29-20. I know Carolina would need a two-point conversion at some point, but why go for it then? Failing at this point creates a nine-point, two-score deficit and it’s basically game over. Kicking a simple extra point keeps it an eight-point, one-score game. Fortunately the Panthers were flagged for a false start then kicked the extra point to pull to the score to 29-21. It didn’t matter in the end, but Matt Rhule just seems to be in over his head.

The 5-8 Panthers are not a good football team. The themes continue to center on questionable coaching, poor quarterback play, and a bottom-tier offensive line. Carolina now goes on the road to face a very good Buffalo Bills team as they play out the string of a forgettable season.