A twist here, a turn there and the Panthers and Giants could be in opposite seats heading into Sunday’s Week 2 game at MetLife Stadium.
But as it stands, Carolina is 0-1 for the third time in four seasons after driving for a go-ahead score only to leave too much time on the clock for the Browns to set up a 58-yard field goal by rookie Cade York in Cleveland’s 26-24 win last Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
It wasn’t so much about the finish as the start for the Panthers. The Carolina offense sputtered in the first half, running just 11 plays on its first three drives — all resulting in punts. Then Baker Mayfield, making his first start with Carolina, sailed a pass high for a Browns interception on the next drive.
That led to a Cleveland touchdown, and — after another Panthers punt — the Browns took a 14-0 lead on their next possession.
“The ball is king around here. I have to make sure I take care of it,” said Mayfield, who also fumbled the ball four times in his Carolina debut but didn’t lose any.
The Panthers didn’t find their rhythm until the fourth quarter when, trailing 20-7, they completed an 11-play, 75-yard drive with a 7-yard touchdown scramble by Mayfield.
After the Browns kicked a field goal to extend their lead to 23-14, Carolina scored on its next two possessions — an opening play 75-yard touchdown pass from Mayfield to Robbie Anderson and then a field goal with 61 seconds left to take a one-point lead.
But Cleveland, led by former NC State quarterback Jacoby Brissett while Deshaun Watson served the first game of an 11-game suspension, had two questionable officiating decisions go its way and drove into range for their big-legged rookie kicker.
“I felt really good about our chances to stop them,” coach Matt Rhule said of the Panthers settling for a field goal on the penultimate scoring drive of the game. “On that last drive, we didn’t get it done.”
The script was similar for the Giants on Sunday but ended with better results. Former Duke quarterback Daniel Jones led New York down the field and connected with Chris Myarick for a touchdown and then, down one point, connected on a two-point conversion attempt to Saquon Barkley to put the Giants ahead 21-20 over Tennessee.
The Titans, like the Browns, had a chance to win it with a field goal in the final seconds, but Randy Bullock’s kick missed wide left from 47 yards.
Now both teams will reset for Sunday’s matchup in New York.
The Panthers are hoping the team that showed up in the fourth quarter is the one who starts the game Sunday.
“Who we were in the fourth quarter is who we want to be,” Mayfield said. “We just have to do it for 60 minutes.”
Carolina will also need to stop the run. The Browns, led by 141 yards from Nick Chubb, had 217 yards and averaged 5.6 yards per carry in the opener, and things won’t get easier with Barkley in the backfield for the Giants.
The 2018 second overall pick averaged 9.1 yards per carry against the Titans, totaling 164 yards on 18 carries with a touchdown.
Jones is also a threat to run — the Giants quarterback has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in his career.
The Panthers, meanwhile, will need to better utilize their top offensive weapon.
Christian McCaffrey carried the ball just 10 times Sunday, totaling 33 yards and a touchdown on the ground, and added four receptions for 24 yards. The Panthers’ other most explosive player, DJ Moore, got just four touches, running once for seven yards and making four catches for 43 yards.
“They have to touch the football, no doubt,” Rhule said.
The key, according to Rhule, will be getting off to a better start and having sustained drives early in the game.
“I thought what we saw in the fourth quarter was kind of starting to click for Baker, starting to click for everybody else,” Rhule added.
And despite the Week 1 disappointment, the Panthers know there is plenty of season to go.
“I’m a fighter, I’ve fought my whole life,” Mayfield said.” There’s 16 games (left), and just like our whole team showed in that second half, we’re going to fight.”