Finishing strong: Panthers need to improve on end-of-game situations

Carolina has missed on six potential comeback drives in eight weeks

Matt Rhule has been critical of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s late-game performance, but the first-year coach gave his starter a public vote of confidence earlier this week. (Jim Mone / AP Photo)

There are three games left in the regular season, and that could be a problem for the Carolina Panthers.

Finishing things off successfully hasn’t exactly been their strong suit this season.

Six times in the last eight games, the Panthers have had the ball with a chance to tie or go ahead at the end of the game. It’s the time that makes good quarterbacks legendary.

All six times, the Panthers came up short.

There have been interceptions — down seven to the Bears with 1:28 left, down eight to the Falcons with 57 seconds left.

There were stalled drives that led to long missed field goals — down three to New Orleans, Teddy Bridgewater took a sack with 1:55 left, leading to a 65-yard attempt. A 67-yarder as time expired was off the mark, resulting in a two-point loss to Kansas City. Down one with 5 seconds left against Minnesota, a 54-yarder was no good.

And there have been turnovers on downs. A fourth-down completion to Curtis Samuel was short of the sticks against Denver on Sunday, with 1:56 left and the Panthers down five.

“We have to find a way to get it done at the end of the game,” coach Matt Rhule said. “That’s our job.”

It’s primarily the job of Bridgewater, in his first season as the Panthers’ starting quarterback. While the blame for all the late-game failures can’t be placed at his feet, the only player on an NFL roster who has “fourth-quarter comebacks” and “game-winning drives” as part of a stat line is the quarterback.

For Bridgewater’s Panthers career, zeroes still sit in both columns.

It’s clear he could have been better. On those potential game-tying or game-winning drives, Bridgewater has a passer rating of 56.40, compared to 98.94 at all other times in the game. His completion rate is lower (67%, compared to 71%), and he’s nearly five times more likely to throw an interception.

Rhule has been critical of Bridgewater’s late-game decisions at times. After the missed field goal against the Saints, the coach said, “We just can’t take a sack there.” On Sunday, he questioned Bridgewater’s play call just before the two-minute warning and said the quarterback needed to throw it to the first-down marker on fourth down instead of throwing short and hoping for a run.

On Monday, after watching tape, he doubled down. “With the clicker in my hand, I’d still like to see it thrown to the (first down) sticks,” he said.

The Panthers will miss the playoffs this year, and one goal in the final three games will be to determine which pieces the team can build around. Prior to the season, Rhule said Bridgewater was a building block — a quarterback of the future, not a bridge to it.

After the Denver game, despite his quibbles with some of Bridgewater’s decisions, Rhule said he “absolutely” still felt that way.

“I have confidence in Teddy,” he said. “The three drives (in the fourth quarter) where he scored 17 points on his arm, pretty much, were pretty good. If we give up one less deep ball (on defense) in the fourth quarter, if everyone does their job on defense, if we cover a punt, it doesn’t get to this point. We could have gotten run out of the building like we did against Tampa Bay.”

Rhule pointed to the offensive line giving up a sack on the first play of the drive and drops by wide receivers, saying it wasn’t all on Bridgewater.

“A lot of it goes on the quarterback. That’s just the job,” Rhule said. “A lot of it goes on (offensive coordinator) Joe Brady. A lot of it goes on Matt Rhule.”

“I don’t worry about guys not performing,” Rhule added. “At the end of the day, we have strong competitive character, which is a huge building block. … I’m going to continue to build, build, build around him and build with him.”

At some point, however, perhaps in the season’s final three games, the Panthers will need to face down a game-winning drive and execute it successfully.

“Of course you’re frustrated in the heat of the moment,” Bridgewater said. “You want to do well in those situations, and it’s going to continue to bother you until you actually excel in that situation.”

“Teddy is going to be measured by the end of the game,” Rhule said. “He needs to take it down there and win.”