The first quarter of Sunday’s game was bright for the Carolina Panthers — figuratively and literally.
The sun shined over Bank of America Stadium just two days after weather in Charlotte forced the team to practice at the city’s Convention Center. Backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke, making his first NFL start, led a 14-play, 73-yard scoring drive to open the game, finishing it off with his first career touchdown pass.
But as the cloud cover slowly shifted over Uptown, the Panthers’ on-field product became more and more bleak. Heinicke was briefly knocked out of the game with what appeared to be a dislocated elbow; he made an admirable return but the optimistic energy that filled the stadium had long left.
The Atlanta Falcons (6-9) extended the Panthers’ losing streak to seven games with a 24-10 victory, sealing the Panthers’ postseason fate in the process. It ain’t happening. Their chance of making the playoffs is no longer some mathematical roller coaster ride — it’s a hard zero percent.
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Sunday marked end of Carolina’s home schedule and possibly the end of an era for several prominent Panthers. Longtime mainstays Thomas Davis, Julius Peppers and Ryan Kalil might have each played their final home game at Bank of America Stadium.
If it is, indeed, their final home game, they should be proud of the ride.
It’s just a shame it had to end like this.
“I can’t speak for those guys, but it was probably very tough,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “They deserve better.”
Three who mattered
James Bradberry: The Panthers cornerback built on his strong game against the Saints with a strong performance against the Falcons, breaking up a trio of potential big gains — one of which would’ve been a walk-in touchdown.
Christian McCaffrey: Heinicke’s favorite unsurprisingly carried a heavy workload Sunday, compiling 178 total yards and crossing the 1,000 rushing-yard mark for the first time of his career.
Taylor Heinicke: He made several questionable decisions and his stat line won’t turn many heads. But he took a beating throughout the game and kept getting up. It was as gutsy a performance as one could ask for.
▪ Heinicke’s college head coach from Old Dominion, Bobby Wilder, was present for the game.
▪ During the pregame, Cam Newton wore a shirt with a Heineken beer bottle printed on it, but with Heinicke’s name on the bottle instead — a play on his nickname for Taylor.
▪ Davis and Peppers — the final defensive starters announced during pregame introductions — drew loud cheers.
▪ Kyle Allen briefly entered the game for an injured Heinicke, completing all four of his passes for 38 yards.
▪ The Panthers’ seventh loss in a row marks the third-longest in franchise history and longest of the Ron Rivera era.
▪ McCaffrey set a single-season NFL record for catches by a running back, passing previous record-holder Matt Forte’s 102 in 2014. He also set the Panthers’ single-season reception record with 106 , surpassing Steve Smith’s 103 in 2005.
▪ Heinicke’s 53 passing attempts were the third-most in franchise history. He completed 33 for 274 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions.
▪ Carolina allowed its second 100-yard rusher of the season — Brian Hill with 115 yards on eight carries, one of them for 60 yards. The other? Atlanta’s Tevin Coleman in Week 2.
They said it
▪ “You try to put yourself in the best position for those guys to let them go out on top, but we didn’t do that this year.” – Captain Munnerlyn, on playing with Panthers’ longtime veterans.
▪ “When you’re losing, it hurts. It sucks. The food don’t taste as good. When you’re home, you’re not sleeping well because you give so much to this.” – Torrey Smith
▪ “That’s probably the biggest thing I’m going to have difficulty with.” – Rivera, on Carolina’s defense giving up big plays during losing streak.