Carolina Panthers

With 4 TDs, Kyle Allen directs Panthers to first win — and should start next week

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The Carolina Panthers had to travel 2,100 miles to find themselves. But they did so, emphatically, in a 38-20 win over Arizona at State Farm Stadium on Sunday.

After two embarrassing home losses to open the 2019 season, the Panthers (1-2) got their first win behind four touchdown passes from backup quarterback Kyle Allen and a 76-yard TD run by Christian McCaffrey. Frustrated Panthers fans finally got something to cheer about, albeit mostly in front of their TV screens or smartphones.

In their most recent game 10 days earlier, Carolina hadn’t scored a single touchdown against Tampa Bay — and there were a lot more negative stats where that one came from. Cam Newton hadn’t accounted for a passing or running touchdown for four straight games, and the Panthers were 1-9 in their past 10 contests dating back to last season (the one win came with Allen starting the 2018 season finale).

But after sitting Newton out for this one with a foot injury he re-aggravated in that game, Allen (19-for-26, 261 yards) came on and inspired a Panthers team that suddenly came to life.

Granted, this was Arizona, a 3-13 team a year ago that is now 0-2-1 this year. It wasn’t like Carolina just whipped the New England Patriots.

But the win did at least mean that there will be different questions asked of the Panthers now, and they won’t all start: “When are the Panthers going to fire (fill in the blank)?”

Here’s a big question: With Newton’s injury status uncertain, will Allen — way more effective in this game than Newton was in the first two — start again against Houston next week?

I would think so. I would hope so. That’s what needs to happen.

Put it this way: Allen is 2-0 in his past two starts, and Newton is 0-8 in his past eight.

Now if you’re the Panthers, you’re not making a final decision on who your long-term starting quarterback is right now — and Newton is going to play again at some point. When I asked coach Ron Rivera after the game if it was “automatic” that when Newton was healthy he would return as the starting quarterback, Rivera said yes.

But right now you’re just making week-to-week decisions. And it would be very hard to bench a guy who just threw four TD passes and not a single interception in one game in favor of a guy who has no TDs in four games and missed every practice last week.

After a bad start in which he fumbled the ball away in the red zone on Carolina’s first possession, Allen was nearly perfect. He thoroughly outplayed his former Texas A&M teammate Kyler Murray in a stadium only about a half-hour away from where the Panthers’ quarterback played high school football.

There was more to the victory than Allen, although he had the first four-TD passing game for Carolina since Newton did it against Green Bay on Dec. 17, 2017. For instance: Cornerback Donte Jackson made two big interceptions for the Panthers. Tight end Greg Olsen repeatedly beat man-to-man coverage and scored twice. DJ Moore took a slant pass over the middle and turned it into a 52-yard TD. Curtis Samuel kept finding open gaps and making big-time catches while scoring once. McCaffrey burst away from Arizona’s secondary on his 76-yarder — a career long — on his way to a 153-yard rushing day.

Panthers rookie Greg Little got his first work of the year at left tackle, subbing in early for Daryl Williams and generally playing well in a rotation with Williams while trying to protect Allen’s blind side.

One of those little plays that saved about 50 yards but doesn’t show up in a boxscore: Arizona wide receiver Christian Kirk had a great punt return going in the second quarter, making three consecutive Panthers miss with his speed. He was an eyelash from going a whole lot further when Carolina fullback Alex Armah barely got enough of Kirk to push him out of bounds.

Another similar play was made by Panthers safety Tre Boston, who hit Christian Kirk about 50 yards downfield as Kirk was about to haul in a perfect strike from Murray. The hit separated Kirk from the ball and ended up as an incomplete pass.

Panthers defensive tackle Dontari Poe looks far more mobile than he did last year.

Although Jackson had two acrobatic interceptions, he still needs to work on his tackling. He had a couple of beautiful open-field ones Sunday, but he also missed David Johnson at the 10 in the third quarter, resulting in a touchdown. But Jackson’s second interception was a real beauty, as he baited Murray into trying the ball and skied for it. While TV announcers said Jackson must have a “40-inch vertical jump,” Jackson said later it was “about 42 inches.”

“Put it this way -- I was windmill dunking in eighth grade, when I was about 5-foot-8,” Jackson said.

After Murray only ran for 17 yards total in his first two games, the Cardinals really let him fly in this one. They repeatedly used Murray in space on designed quarterback runs on third-and-short. By the end of Arizona’s first drive, he already had 28 rushing yards.

Panthers defensive end Mario Addison was one of the few Carolina players with enough speed to keep up with Murray, who tailed off badly in the second half. Addison had a monster game with three sacks, pushing him into the team lead with 3.5 after three games. The Panthers ended up with eight sacks as a team, as Christian Miller had two and Brian Burns, Eric Reid and Shaq Thompson one apiece.

Arizona wide receiver Trent Sherfield dropped a sure touchdown pass in the third quarter on what was a coverage mistake by Carolina. He could have walked into the end zone on what would have been a 35-yard TD. Instead, the Cardinals had to settle for a field goal on that drive.

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