Bears stun Panthers with last-second 23-22 win

jperson@charlotteobserver.comOctober 29, 2012 

— Ron Rivera stepped to the podium in the stadium he called home for nine seasons, and let out a long sigh.

Was it the air going out of Rivera’s stint as the Panthers’ head coach?

The Panthers have found ways to lose every game but one during this broken season. On a brisk and windy Sunday at Soldier Field against the NFC North-leading Chicago Bears, the details were different but the result remained the same.

Robbie Gould’s 41-yard field goal as time expired lifted the Bears to a 23-22 victory, spoiling Rivera’s second game against his former team and putting another loss on his record for the next general manager to evaluate.

The Panthers (1-6) dropped their fifth consecutive game and fell to 1-10 in games decided by a touchdown or less under Rivera, who said last week he expected to follow former general manager Marty Hurney out the door if things aren’t “trending up” over the remainder of the season.

“This would have been sweet. Coming back here and winning in Chicago, where I played and coached, it would have been outstanding,” Rivera said. “You’d like to take a shot at an elite team, and a team that is as good as they are – that would have been a feather in our cap. I think it would have helped to build some momentum.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t win.”

The anatomy of the Panthers’ latest loss came down to a Brad Nortman shanked punt, a Steve Smith slip and the soft coverage the Panthers stayed in as the Bears drove 55 yards in the final two minutes, 20 seconds to set up Gould’s game-winning kick.

The Panthers sacked quarterback Jay Cutler six times in the first half, including three by defensive end Greg Hardy. But the Bears went to more quick passes in the second half, and the Panthers never sacked him again.

With the Panthers rushing four, Cutler was 5-of-6 on the final drive, with none of the completions going for more than 12 yards. Four times Cutler found Brandon Marshall on slant routes in front of rookie cornerback Josh Norman.

It was the same defense the Panthers used at the end of the Atlanta game, when free safety Haruki Nakamura let Roddy White get behind him for a 59-yard reception to set up Matt Bryant’s game-winning field goal.

No one got behind the Panthers’ defensive backs this time. The Bears’ receivers didn’t need to.

“They threw the same pass play all the way down the field,” said strong safety Charles Godfrey, who was on the backside on the throws to Marshall. “It wasn’t nothing they were doing. It was what we were in, the coverage we were in. That was a great play for that coverage. And they just ran that play all the way down the field.

“The coverage we were in, we stayed in that coverage. That’s what happened.”

Rivera said the Panthers wanted to keep the ball in front of them.

“It’s one of those things where if you jump (the route) and they double-move you, now all of a sudden it’s a touchdown or the ball is in field goal range,” Rivera said. “We were trying to make them systematically beat us.”

The Bears did.

Norman, the fifth-round pick from Coastal Carolina, said there shouldn’t be any finger-pointing when the Panthers break down the game video.

“The coverage was the coverage. That’s that. I really don’t have nothing else to say about it,” Norman said. “We’re all together in this. Not one individual deserves to be pointed out over the others, coaches included, along with players.”

Mindful of Devin Hester’s big game against the Panthers last year, Rivera opted to kick away from the NFL’s all-time leading returner. The strategy was effective until, with the Panthers leading 19-7 midway through the fourth quarter, Nortman hit a 6-yard punt off the side of his foot.

The Bears (6-1) took over at the Panthers’ 38, and seven plays later they were in the end zone after Kellen Davis’ 12-yard touchdown catch.

On the first play after Davis’ score, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton threw left for Smith, who slipped coming out of his break.

Cornerback Tim Jennings intercepted it and returned it 25 yards for the Bears’ sixth interception return for a touchdown – a franchise record and the most by any team through seven games in NFL history.

It was the second interception of the game for Jennings, the league leader with six.

And it gave the Bears 13 points in 8 seconds.

“I slipped. The ball was thrown. He picked it,” Smith said. “That was the best play he made all game on me. But it was a key moment in the game, changed the momentum.”

Smith caught seven passes for a season-high 118 yards, but Jennings said he tried to minimize his impact.

“Everybody knew No. 89 was the guy. (Newton) was going to go to him on every pass play,” Jennings said. “The defense was kind of aware of that, and I wanted to stay aggressive and if the opportunity was there, I wanted to be close and make the tackle.”

The Panthers reclaimed the lead 22-20 on Justin Medlock’s fifth field goal – a 45-yarder with 2:27 remaining. But they couldn’t hold it, losing for the ninth time in 16 games under Rivera when they have had the lead or been tied in the fourth quarter.

Hardy, whose three sacks were a career high, had red-rimmed eyes as he discussed the Panthers’ latest letdown.

“It sucks, man. Makes you feel like a loser. It’s hard. Your whole life is to play and win, and we just keep losing,” Hardy said. “I felt good all the way up to the fourth quarter, till the last play. Somebody’s got to (make a play). That’s about it. Somebody’s got to do it.”

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