Two big returns helped spark the Carolina Panthers’ near upset of the defending Super Bowl champions. One was Christian McCaffrey, the All-Pro running back who was back in the lineup for the first time since Week 2.
The second big return to the Panthers sideline was the ol’ riverboat.
While former coach Ron Rivera dubbed himself “Riverboat Ron” for his self-proclaimed penchant for taking risks, in his later years at the helm of the team, the Panthers seemed more likely to punt from the 40 or kick a field goal from inside the 5 than to roll the dice.
Against the Chiefs, however, all bets were off, as head coach “Moneyline” Matt Rhule and coordinators “Jackpot” Joe Brady and Phil “Snake Eyes” Snow didn’t see a risk they wouldn’t take. The Panthers took shot after shot against heavily favored Kansas City, and most of their chances paid off.
On the game’s opening drive, “Roulette Rhule” passed up a short field goal to go for it on fourth-and-goal. McCaffrey responded with a catch for his first of two touchdowns on the day.
“I think we felt like we had good plays. We went for it twice last week on fourth down and didn’t get them, so I don’t think it was any different mindset this week,” Rhule shrugged when asked about his first gamble.
There was much more to come, however.
The Panthers went for it on fourth down again later in the game, converting a fourth-and-19 that raised some eyebrows.
“That was just more of a, ‘Hey, what else can you do in the game but that.’ We came to win,” Rhule said. “We came to play to win. We wanted to get a win and tried to play that way.”
Rhule denied that the players would have gotten any additional motivation from the staff’s willingness to go for it on fourth down. But the plays did give the team momentum.
“Well yeah, they led to touchdowns and I think that that’s what we needed,” he said. “We needed some energy, but I think our guys were here to play no matter what. They came knowing it was going to be a battle. They fought back — we took the lead and fought back. We had every chance to win the game.”
His players seemed pretty motivated, however.
“I think that’s just us trying to make it happen and laying it all on the line,” receiver Robby Anderson said. “I think it’s just trickled down to simply playing with heart and the want to and (quarterback Teddy Bridgewater) really laying it all on the line to keep the chains going and trying to fight for that win.”
“That mentality is just starting to go throughout the team and the fact that, if we play aggressive and we go all-out for certain situations, we’ll give ourselves better opportunities to win the game,” kicker Joey Slye said. “The percentages of us winning goes up. We’re playing the Kansas City Chiefs and they’re known for a high-powered offense, so any possession that we’re able to steal or any opportunity that we’re able to get more points than them, we need to take full advantage of.”
Throw in a couple of onside kicks, a fake punt for a touchdown and an NFL record field goal attempt to end the game, and it was clear that the Chiefs were going to have to defend the entire bag of tricks from the Panthers staff.
“(Special teams coordinator) Chase (Blackburn) and (assistant special teams coordinator) Ed (Foley) had a great punt fake that they thought would be up and I was going to use it on the first drive but we converted, so I used it on the second drive,” Rhule said. “We just felt like those things were there.”
The second onside kick came with less than two minutes remaining, so it wasn’t unexpected. The attempt earlier in the fourth quarter was, however.
“They were lined up 15 yards off the ball,” Rhule explained. “That’s something that we practice all the time. We were down two scores and we’d been watching it all game, we felt like we had it, so we went for it. We thought we had it, just that the ball didn’t go 10 yards. If the ball goes 10 yards there, I think we probably recover it. Momentum was on our side.”
So, while the Panthers need McCaffrey back running and catching the rock, just as significant was the return of the riverboat, docked in port on the Panthers sideline once again.
“Those are decisions that I have to make. I have to live with them,” Rhule said. “I’d tell you I’d do it again.”