The Panthers had to find a way contain Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, who’s on a short list of NFL problem solvers capable of turning any play into a highlight reel.
And for the most part, Carolina’s defense kept Murray in check.
It was instead the Panthers’ own quarterback who caused insurmountable issues for Carolina in a 26-16 loss at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday.
“That was a game that we had a chance to win,” coach Matt Rhule said. “It was 10-10 going into the fourth quarter and it got away from us. We couldn’t make the plays at the end to go win the football game.”
The Panthers were not close to winning largely because Baker Mayfield threw two interceptions. His second (and third in four games) swung the game early in the fourth quarter after future Hall of Fame defender J.J. Watt tipped a ball that was then intercepted. Arizona’s Dennis Gardeck returned the pick 24 yards to the Panthers’ 5-yard line, and two plays later, Murray scored on a 4-yard designed quarterback run.
Mayfield finished with three total turnovers — two interceptions and a lost fumble (which by rule was charged to him but was receiver Rashard Higgins fault) — and five passes batted at the line of scrimmage. He quarterbacked another erratic game. Some of his throws are pin-point accurate while other throws spray away from intended targets. His second-quarter interception on a throw meant for DJ Moore ended a promising six-play drive that briefly entered Cardinals territory.
“They showed up today,” Rhule said of Mayfield’s batted passes. “So there’s no denying that we have to get it fixed.”
Mayfield threw for 197 yards and one touchdown. He notched a 5.5 yards-per-attempt average and weathered boos from home crowd fans throughout the fourth quarter. Most of his yardage came late in the fourth quarter while Carolina trailed by 16 points.
“We’re going to come together as a locker room. That’s exactly how we’re going to handle it,” Mayfield said. “I don’t really care about the fact that our fans are booing. We’re gonna figure it out. And when we win, it’ll still be just us in the locker room. And that’s really all I care about.”
Carolina wasted another quality defensive performance. The Panthers held Arizona to 135 first-half yards and just three points. But the defense — which lost safety Jeremy Chinn to a hamstring injury early in the first quarter — was on the field far too long to sustain its first-half momentum.
Linebacker Frankie Luvu once again generated a first-quarter turnover. His 33-yard pick-6 of Murray on a pass intended for Marquise Brown set a tone Carolina failed to sustain.
Luvu undercut a short Murray pass, intercepted the ball and raced down the right sideline to score. He has quickly established himself as one of the Panthers best players. Luvu finished with 11 tackles and one tackle for a loss. Defensive end Brian Burns had one sack.
“It’s just hard to stop somebody for so long,” Burns said. “But, that’s our goal. We have to finish strong, no matter what.”
Once again, Mayfield and the offense did not complement the defense. The Panthers ran 51 plays compared to Arizona’s 70 offensive snaps. In the second half, Murray took 36 snaps. Mayfield ran 21 plays. Arizona scored 16 unanswered points in the second half.
“Offensively, I think we have to go back and look at everything and see you know what we can do better,” Rhule said. “See what we’re doing well and try to fix what ails us right now. Because it took a toll on us tonight.”
The Panthers offense has been wearing the defense out all season. Too often the defense is defending short fields or returning to the field after the offense runs a few plays and then punts.
For example, from the 5:48 mark of the third quarter to the 10:32 mark of the fourth quarter, Arizona ran 17 plays and scored 10 points. Over that same stretch, Carolina ran one play and threw an interception.
“The thing right now is to keep the locker room together. Also stay with our process and really just keep pounding,” Burns said. “Whenever I do cross paths with (Baker Mayfield) on the sideline. I let Baker know I got his back. D.J. Moore, Christian (McCaffrey) whoever it is, and they say the same to me. And that’s pretty much how you keep a team together.”
Last week, there was consistent sentiment that the players still believe in Rhule. Those beliefs were repeated following Carolina’s 26th loss under Rhule when the team allows 17 or more points.
The offense never found a rhythm. Not counting Laviska Shenault’s 67-yard touchdown in Week 2, the Panthers defense has outscored the offense over the past seven quarters, 14 points to 12.
Carolina is struggling to define itself. The Panthers entered Sunday as one of the better rushing attacks in football. Christian McCaffrey was the only NFL running back with consecutive 100-yard rushing games. He had eight carries for 27 yards on Sunday.
For a fourth straight week, Carolina struggled to convert third downs, going two for 10.
“This is a four-game stretch that everybody wanted to have more success, including us. It’s frustrating, we’re frustrated,” Mayfield said. “But it’s not the end of the world. But we can still turn this thing around. We’re four games into the year, we’re gonna be just fine.”
Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold is eligible to return from injured reserve this week. Rhule said he will wait until Monday to make any “big picture” decisions.
Burns was asked if it was difficult to have Mayfield’s back considering how he was played. He did not hesitate to support his new quarterback.
“It’s not tough at all,” Burns said He is my teammate.”