The Dolphins and Carolina set the stage for Sunday’s denouement — the Panthers scoring with 43 seconds left to win 20-16 — all the way back at the end of the first half.
Up 13-3 and starting a drive on the Panthers’ 11 with 2:01 left in the first half, the Dolphins went into halftime leading not by 17 (20-3) or 13 (16-3) but by those same 10 points at 16-6 after two important, controversial plays. One pushed the Dolphins into a chip shot field goal attempt and the other led to Carolina’s 46-yard field goal that ended the half.
Play No. 1 occurred on third and 4 from the Panthers’ 5-yard line. Dolphins wide receiver Rishard Matthews got open near the back of the end zone on a mini-post pattern. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill hit Matthews with the throw and Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly hit Matthews.
Matthews flew one way while the ball dropped. Everybody walked back toward their, respective huddles.
But after back judge Scott Helverson finished signaling incomplete, he dropped a penalty flag. Replays appeared to show that Kuechly led with his helmet and caught Matthews under his chin. The personal foul penalty would’ve given the Dolphins first and goal at the 3.
After a long discussion, officials picked up the flag.
Asked if he thought it was an illegal hit, Tannehill, who had been yelling at an official while pointing at the replay screen after the pickup, said, “From my point of view, it looked like it could’ve been, but they said it wasn’t.”
Matthews said he didn’t know where Keuchly caught him.
“I was more disappointed I didn’t make the catch, then once I looked on the screen at the replay, I realized what the flag was for,” Matthews said. “It was a play he made and it was a good football play, so…”
Even had the Dolphins come out with only a field goal anyway, they could’ve sucked more time off the clock. Instead, the Panthers got the ball with 1:01 left at their own 20 and down 16-3. Six plays and a false-start penalty got Carolina only to its 43 with eight seconds left.
For the next snap, the Dolphins pulled their defensive backs near the goal line to protect against a possible Hail Mary. It was a very conservative deployment by any standard.
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton saw the gap between line and secondary and threw short to Brandon LaFell. With tight end Greg Olson wheeling his arm as if to say “follow me,” LaFell ran up the right sideline and stepped out of bounds with one second left on the clock after a 29-yard gain to the Dolphins’ 28.
“Coach made the call, we have to go out to execute it,” Dolphins safety Reshad Jones said. “I guess they just called a good play at that time and they were able to go down and kick the field goal.”
A 46-yard field goal ensued and gave Carolina a boost after a half where the Panthers appeared mentally still in the afterglow of Monday’s win against New England.
“That was really the difference in the game,” Olsen said.
Newton agreed: “In a stingy game like this, where you lack momentum, you just look for some type of play or something that can get us going. We got some points right before the half that encouraged us during halftime to keep going.”
When the Dolphins got the ball near the end of the game, instead of being down 17-16 and needed just to get into field goal range, they needed a touchdown. That changed the entire approach to the final, failed drive.