Luke DeCock

Panthers’ failure to seize the moment against Rams summed up by one three-and-out

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) looks to the bench for an answer as Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera talks to players on the field during the first half at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, September 8, 2019.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) looks to the bench for an answer as Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera talks to players on the field during the first half at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, September 8, 2019.

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Greg Olsen stood in front of his locker Sunday afternoon and winced many times, not from any physical pain but the mental anguish of everything the Carolina Panthers did wrong on offense. Other than Christian McCaffrey, there was so, so much.

One grimace was grander than any of the others, Olsen’s eyes squinting nearly shut, the tight end’s lips pulled back in an almost lupine gesture.

Among the cataloging of all the points the Panthers left on the field, nothing stung like the memory of the moment when the Panthers had momentum on their side and the game in their hands, and utterly failed to seize the moment: That three-and-out in the fourth quarter, after a blocked punt led to a McCaffrey touchdown and the Los Angeles Rams’ response was quickly snuffed by a timely James Bradberry interception.

“It was tough,” Olsen said.” Obviously, off the blocked punt, we were able to score, cut it to three. James had the pick. We couldn’t get anything going and they went down ...”

Olsen paused to sigh before complementing the defense. If he had been in a dentist’s chair, he would have raised his left hand and begged for the gas at the thought of it.

There aren’t many chances like that against the defending conference champions, against a team likely, if not expected to return, to the Super Bowl. The Panthers may not have been at their best to open the season, but neither were the Rams. Coach Ron Rivera’s first words after the 30-27 loss were “missed opportunities,” and there were almost a season’s worth for the Panthers, but none loomed larger than that sequence early in the fourth quarter when the Panthers took control of the game — and then gave it away just as quickly.

It started with a blocked punt in the shadow of the goal posts, the Panthers having spotted a vulnerability in the Rams’ punt protection and Jermaine Carter capitalizing with a deflection high into the air. McCaffrey took it from there, two plays later, and the Panthers were somehow within a field goal despite a mess of errors that included two turnovers, a gift-wrapped touchdown for the Rams, and a timeout followed by a delay of game when Cam Newton’s helmet radio malfunctioned and the Panthers still managed not to get a play called after 30 seconds conversing on the sideline.

Three plays after McCaffrey’s second touchdown, Bradberry nipped in front of Robert Woods on a crossing route to snare Jared Goff’s pass, and the Panthers were back in business with a chance to flip the entire script. The Rams were wobbling; one good drive might have dropped them to the canvas.

“(Bradberry) made the play that gave us the chance,” Rivera said. “Unfortunately, that’s one of the opportunities we missed.”

Instead, Newton scrambled nowhere on what might as well have been a busted play. McCaffrey caught a short pass for a few yards over the middle, and Newton overthrew an open Curtis Samuel deep down the right sideline — another long-range miss on a day when his longest completion went for 17 yards. The Panthers went all of 4 yards in 79 seconds on what might have been their most listless possession of the day, punted and watched the Rams grind out a four-minute scoring drive to put the game away.

“Just a bad series,” Olsen said. “Three-and-out, had to punt.”

It all slipped through their fingers then. Given an unexpected chance to atone for their many previous errors, they returned the favor to the Rams. There is no shame in losing to a powerful opponent in a sloppy opening game, even at home; there is shame in lacking the spirit or ability to capitalize in the game’s most pivotal moment.

That, more than the loss or the looming four-day turnaround to Tampa Bay’s visit on Thursday, should worry the Panthers. There aren’t many moments in a season where the gates of victory open. Letting them slam shut on your foot is no way to go through it.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.