Zay Jones’ near miss costs Bills game against Panthers

Rookie from ECU has potential game-winner bounce off his hands

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Zay Jones can't bring in a catch on fourth down in the final seconds of Buffalo's 9-3 loss to the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. (Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE — The Carolina Panthers held on to win the lowest-scoring game in franchise history, 9-3 over the Buffalo Bills.

It was the first time the team won while scoring in single digits since a 9-6 win at Atlanta on Sept. 7, 1997. Kickers John Kasay and Morten Andersen traded field goals in the only other Panthers game without a touchdown.

Former East Carolina receiver Zay Jones had the chance to end the touchdown drought in the final seconds of the game. The leading receiver in Pirates history and a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award last season, Jones had two catches for 18 yards in the game. Both catches led to first downs on Buffalo’s drive in the final two minutes of the game, as the Bills sped down the field looking for the game-winning score.

On fourth and 11 from the Panthers’ 33, with 11 seconds remaining, Jones blew past linebacker Thomas Davis, who appeared to lose his balance. Behind him was open field.

“You hope he drops it,” Davis said, recalling his thoughts at the time.

Corner James Bradbury left his man to try to get to Jones in time, but he was going to be too late.

“I saw him throw it, and I thought someone was going to be behind me,” Bradbury said. “That is my fault. I have to stay back.”

As he crossed the 10 yard line, with a four-yard lead on Bradbury, Jones turned to look for the ball, on its way from quarterback Tyrod Taylor. At the six, he jumped.

The ball hit Jones’ fingertips and bounced away. He ended up on his stomach at the three-yard line. The Panthers took over on downs and took a knee to end the game.

“We were coming out of a time out,” Jones recalled. “Coach saw a great opportunity to capitalize on the defense. Tyrod made a good throw. I just didn’t come down with the catch. I beat the coverage. It just didn’t bounce my way.”

“It’s a catch I’ve made a thousand times,” he continued. “I’m not going to make excuses for myself, just because I had to turn to catch the football. Ultimately, it hit my hands.”

As the heartbreak of the moment hit him, Jones was met in the end zone by his quarterback, who was the first person to reach him.

“He’s a young player,” Taylor said. “A lot is being asked of him. There are a lot of plays that are going to be made and a lot not going to be made. The main thing is to learn from it and continue to move forward. Don’t let that hinder him. Just learn from it. Brush it off.”

Taylor and Jones were joined by the rest of the offense, offering their support.

“It was very tough,” Jones said of the moment. “Especially because of the guys in this locker room, who I play my heart out for and absolutely love. It’s just really difficult now. These are my guys. I love them to death.”

Of course, had Jones made the catch, the heartbreak would have merely shifted to the other side of the field.

“If he would have caught it, I would have been hurt,” Bradberry, who would have been the only other player in the highlight with Jones, said. “I probably would have cried. Fortunately, he didn’t catch it.”

The near miss also meant that Jones came within inches of being the hero, delivering a win in his return to the state.

“It’s always great to be in North Carolina,” he said. “It’s better with a win.”