Offense deserts Panthers in loss to Patriots

Despite the return of Christian McCaffrey, Carolina lost for the fifth time in six games

New England Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson runs for a touchdown after an interception against the Carolina Panthers during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

CHARLOTTE — The Carolina Panthers got back their starting quarterback and All-Pro running back, but it didn’t help Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

The Panthers managed just two first-half field goals and lost for the fifth time in six games, falling to the New England Patriots, 24-6.

The Panthers saw starting quarterback Sam Darnold return to the huddle after being knocked out of last week’s win at Atlanta with a head injury. Carolina also got back running back Christian McCaffrey, who has missed the last six games with injury. The Panthers won their first three games of the season with a healthy McCaffrey, then hit their recent losing skid after he went down in Week 3.

McCaffrey rushed 15 times for 52 yards and caught four passes for 54 and showed glimpses of his speed and versatility, but he was clearly still working his way back into game shape.

“I thought it was a good first game back,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said. “Christian’s always going to generate offense. … It’s good to have him back.”

The Patriots controlled the game with a rotation of three running backs that combined for more than 150 yards on the ground, led by Rhamondre Stevenson’s 62 and a second-quarter touchdown on the ground by Damien Harris that gave New England the lead to stay.

After trailing 14-6 at halftime, the Panthers continued a yearlong trend of struggling coming out of halftime. Darnold threw interceptions on three straight plays, including a pick that was returned 88 yards for a score by J.C. Jackson and another interception to linebacker Jamie Collins that set up a field goal. He capped the meltdown with an interception in the end zone after driving the team downfield. Darnold finished 16 of 33 for 172 yards and struggled with protection and decision-making under pressure, also a season-long trend.

“The game comes down to turnovers,” Rhule said. “We just can’t continue to throw the ball up. We’ve got to protect the football.”

Rhule was clearly unhappy with Darnold’s performance but held off on commenting on the future of the starting job, saying he had to review the film.

“I wanted to give him a chance to play his way out of it,” he said of leaving Darnold in.

“The decision-making, things we’ve talked about and talked about and talked about,” he said. “Here we are, Game 9 of the season, and it still hasn’t happened. … We can’t be that team, and unfortunately we were that team in the second half today. We can’t have the quarterback throwing the ball in the air.”

Rookie quarterback Mac Jones managed the Patriots offense, finishing 12 of 18 for 139 yards.

“The Patriots did exactly what they needed to do to win,” Rhule said.

The Panthers also had a rough day on the injury front. Two starting linemen — center Matt Paradis and tackle Cam Erving — left with injuries and didn’t return. Rhule said Paradis’ injury “looked serious on the field.” Pass rusher Brian Burns also left the game with a leg injury.