CHARLOTTE — Everything was great.
The Panthers started their Week 13 meeting against 2-9 Washington, a team that starts a rookie quarterback and has an interim head coach, with two impressive touchdown drives. Kyle Allen was sharp and in control. Christian McCaffrey was playing like Christian McCaffery and leaving defenders in his dust.
Two possessions, a 14-0 lead. Carolina had snapped out of its three-game funk ... for a quarter.
Instead of winning the easiest game left on their schedule, the Panthers lost to an abysmal Washington team, 29-21. Carolina had ample opportunity early to put the ball in McCaffrey’s hands and control the game. Instead, slowly, Washington took advantage of the Panthers’ short offensive possessions to creep back and take it over.
First it was a 60-yard run by Derrius Guice. Next, it was giving up two field goals and following that up with consecutive three-and-outs on offense.
Then it was Allen falling victim to what he’s always been prone to do — turning it over. After an interception-free game last week at New Orleans, he threw one at Carolina’s 4-yard line. Guice ran for a touchdown on the next play.
Washington kicked a field goal on its first possession of the second half, and the Panthers saw their 14-0 lead disappear with a 15-point run. Everything got out of hand. Carolina played with no life and more closely resembled the team that entered the weekend with two wins.
“And at the end of the day, guys, there are two guys out there competing,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “(Washington) put the ball on the ground three times and (we) didn’t recover them. That’s hard to take. But that’s part of the game, you live and die by that. You know what they say, ‘It’s a game of inches,’ and the truth of the matter is the inches weren’t on our side this time.”
This did not look like the same offense that gave New Orleans trouble. Instead, the Panthers (5-7) were unable to get the running game going against the NFL’s fifth-worst run defense (allowing 137.6 yards per game) that was without one of its best defenders in veteran Ryan Kerrigan. McCaffrey carried the ball only 14 times, tying a season-low, eight of which came in the first quarter. In the second quarter, when the Panthers’ offense sputtered most, McCaffrey had just one carry and one catch. For playing a team that struggles so much to defend the run, the Panthers gave up on that approach early.
“We have to be more consistent throughout the game,” wide receiver Jarius Wright said. “If we don’t start the game fast, we usually pick it up. When we start the game fast, then we don’t finish. We have to put that together.”
It’s even more dumbfounding that a team with a 14-6 lead in the second quarter chose to almost entirely rely on passing the ball instead of running clock.
“We had a stretch where we didn’t come out on first down and do what we needed to do, we kept putting ourselves in second-and-long against an aggressive playcaller, a guy who is going to blitz a lot,” Rivera said. “You can’t do that to yourself.”
In the final three quarters, Carolina totaled just 30 rushing yards, with 17 of those coming on an Allen touchdown run with 1:51 remaining. The lack of using McCaffrey in the running game kept the pressure on Allen to perform while being protected by a struggling offensive line in its first game without left guard Greg Van Roten. Allen was sacked six times, and after an 8 for 8 start to the game, he went 19 of 38 the rest of the way.
“They’re all disappointing. ... These guys are doing the best they can,” Rivera said. “Are there some things we need to do differently? Probably. That we’re going to look at and try to correct? Probably. Are there things we’re doing well that we’re going to continue and try to do well? Absolutely.”
Carolina has the best running back in the NFL on its roster. But instead of taking advantage of him, the Panthers relied on a young quarterback who has been spotty behind a patchwork offensive line.
That’s how you lose to a 2-9 team.