SS Eric Weddle (Jeff Gross/Getty)
A nine-point fourth-quarter rally went for naught as the Carolina Panthers executed the two-minute offense to perfection and scored with no time left to upset the Chargers, 26-24. Philip Rivers was huge for the Chargers, but his heroics were undone by a San Diego secondary that seemed more interested in intercepting passes than stopping receivers.
The Carolina Panthers arrived in San Diego with a simple game plan. Head Coach John Fox wanted to run the ball, shorten the game and force the Chargers into some uncharacteristic mistakes. For the most part, the Panthers executed with precision.
The Panthers ran all over the Chargers’ vaunted defense, as first-round picks DeAngelo Williams (2006) and Jonathan Stewart (2008) combined for 28 carries for 139 yards (5.5 avg). This despite the fact the Panthers didn’t call a single run in the first 10 minutes of the second half.
Carolina’s efficient rushing attack allowed the Panthers to hold more than a four-minute advantage in time of possession. That kept San Diego’s explosive offensive on the sidelines and its gassed defense on its heels.
The Panthers took control of the game late in the third quarter when Chris Harris stripped the ball from Antonio Gates. Chris Gamble picked up the ball and sprinted 31 yards into the end zone for a 16-10 lead. Carolina tacked on a 49-yard field goal on its next drive, stretching the lead to 19-10.
The Chargers staged a late rally behind the strong play of Philip Rivers. On the Chargers’ first possession of the fourth quarter, Rivers went 5-of-5 for 74 yards and led the team on a six-play scoring drive, capping it off with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Gates down the left sideline.
San Diego’s defense forced a turnover on Carolina’s next possession and all appeared to be right in Chargers Land. Rookie first-round pick Antoine Cason laid the wood on D.J. Hackett, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Shaun Phillips. It was the only takeaway for the Chargers defense.
The Chargers capitalized on the turnover with another six-play scoring drive, this time finishing with a 5-yard strike to Vincent Jackson. Jackson, who was held without a catch for the first three quarters, finished with three grabs for 47 yards and the one score, which put the Chargers ahead, 24-19.
The Chargers appeared to have the Panthers right where they wanted them. San Diego’s pass rushers could pin their ears back and attack the quarterback while Jake Delhomme tried to quickly move his team downfield, sans Steve Smith. However, with Delhomme dropping back to throw on 11 consecutive plays on the game’s final drive, the Chargers failed to register a sack.
Delhomme capped off Carolina’s remarkable win with a 14-yard strike to Dante Rosario, who led the Panthers with seven catches for 96 yards. Delhomme lofted the winning score right over a Chargers’ linebacker, which would have been Stephen Cooper had he not been suspended.
The ending was fitting for a San Diego secondary that played selfish ball for most of the game. The Chargers’ defensive backs got burned on at least four occasions where a cornerback tried to jump a route, only to come up empty-handed.
The Chargers will look to rebound next week when they travel to Denver to take on the Broncos in a game that just became increasingly important. Remember, the Chargers went to Denver in Week 5 last season reeling from a 1-3 start and walked away with a 41-3 victory.
Norv Turner can only hope for an equally fortuitous result this time around.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.