In eight seconds, the Carolina Panthers went from leading the Chicago Bears 19-7 in the fourth quarter to trailing. The Panthers would bounce back to re-take the lead, but Robbie Gould nailed
a 41-yard field goal as time expired to hand the Bears a 23-22 victory at Soldier Field.
"We put ourselves in position (to win), and honestly, if we continue to do that, eventually it'll turn," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said.
Sunday's game turned with 6:58 remaining in the fourth quarter, when Bears quarterback Jay Cutler connected with tight end Kellen Davis in the back of the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown to cut the Carolina lead to five. On the first play of the ensuing Panthers possession, quarterback Cam Newton took the snap and immediately threw left to wide receiver Steve Smith.
Smith slipped coming out of his break.
"Who would have thought Steve Smith would slip?" Rivera asked. "You have a great situation and set of circumstances, and that happens."
It was a timing pattern, and the timing for a mistake couldn't have been worse. Bears cornerback Tim Jennings easily intercepted the pass – his second interception of the game – and sprinted 25 yards down the sideline for a touchdown. The Bears led 20-19.
Carolina responded with an 11-play drive to set up Justin Medlock for a 45-yard field goal attempt. Medlock's kick caromed off the right upright and through, giving the Panthers a two-point lead with 2:32 left. The Bears took over at their own 22-yard line, and Cutler proceeded to complete 6-of-7 passes to seamlessly move the ball 55 yards downfield.
With the Carolina corners playing off, wide receiver Brandon Marshall took advantage with quick slants over the middle. He hauled in four catches for 36 yards during the final drive.
"They threw the same pass play all the way down the field," Panthers safety Charles Godfrey said.
Added Rivera: "We were trying to keep the ball in front us. It's one of those things where iif you jump it they double-move you, and now all the sudden it's a touchdown. We were trying to make them systematically beat us."
Chicago called a timeout with four seconds left before Gould knocked in the game-winner.
"You make your own fortunes in this league. You make your own bed," Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. "Here and there something doesn't go your way, but in the end it all evens out. We got a couple of breaks today, and we still didn't capitalize. It's our responsibility to figure out what's going on, and we obviously haven't."
The Bears held a 7-3 lead in the first quarter courtesy of Matt Forte's 13-yard touchdown run, but a strip of Cutler by Charles Johnson and fumble recovery by Frank Alexander allowed the Carolina offense to go to work from the Bears' 16-yard line.
On third-and-3, Newton took off for the end zone up the middle. Chicago safety Major Wright drilled a diving Newton and forced him to fumble just before he reached the ball across the goal line. Carolina avoided catastrophe, however, as wide receiver Louis Murphy pounced on the loose ball in the end zone for the touchdown.
"I have to do a better job protecting the football," Newton said. "I was lucky that (Louis) got the football. He did a great job getting on the football."
Medlock added a 31-yard field goal in the second quarter, and Rivera elected to attempt a Hail Mary instead of sending his kicker out for a 51-yard attempt with three seconds left in the first half.
Rivera said the stiff crosswind deterred him from sending out the field goal unit. Newton's heave sailed out of the end zone, but the Panthers still led 13-7.
Medlock added two more field goals (22, 43) in the third quarter to give the Panthers 19 unanswered points, but the failure to produce touchdowns in the red zone proved costly as the Bears rallied back in the fourth quarter.
"Any time you get down in the red zone, obviously you would like to score touchdowns," Rivera said. "But you've got to give the Bears credit – they are one of the better red zone teams in the league. That's kind of the character of who they are."
As for the Panthers, they are 1-6 after yet another devastating loss in the closing moments.
But as disappointing as the defeat was, Newton came away encouraged by the team effort that nearly resulted in a road win over one of the NFL's top clubs.
"We just have to keep enduring. Keep going and keep going," Newton said. "The defense played an excellent game throughout, giving us the ball.
"We came out and put together a couple great drives. Something that came from this game – we can move the football. There are too many good things that we did out there today to just dwell on the bad things."
Photo Courtesy: Robbie Gould, Carolina Panthers