Panthers fall short again despite Teddy Bridgewater's heroics

Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule explained during the offseason his decision to replace franchise quarterback Cam Newton with former New Orleans Saints Teddy Bridgewater with a simple explanation.

“He fits what we want to do,’’ Rhule said.

That never was more apparent than in Sunday’s 27-24 loss against the Saints in which Bridgewater went toe-to-toe with future Hall of Famer Drew Brees in a showcase of efficient quarterbacks.

With Bridgewater, the Panthers (3-4) have been in every game. With him they should remain in most games moving forward.

And the good news is Carolina will get running back Christian McCaffrey back for Thursday night’s game against Atlanta or the following week against the Kansas City Chiefs. That could take this offense from solid to possibly elite.

Bridgewater has shown in McCaffrey’s absence that he can do more than manage a game. He can take the game to opponents with pin-point passing, solid decision making and great pocket awareness. Never was the absence of McCaffrey greater than this game in which the Panthers rushed for only 37 yards, putting all the pressure on Bridgewater to carry the load.

Sure, there will be games like he had last week against Chicago in which the offensive line makes his job almost impossible. But even in that loss Bridgewater held it together long enough to give the Panthers a chance.

Bridgwater was at his best in the second quarter as Carolina rallied from a 14-3 deficit to a 17-15 lead. He completed 8-of-8 pass attempts for 136 yards and two touchdowns. That was his second most completions without an incompletion in a quarter in his career, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Bridgewater finished 23 for 28 for 254 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He was guiding Carolina to a potential tying field goal or game-winning touchdown until an unavoidable sack with two minutes left.

That left Joey Slye trying to make NFL history with a 65-yard field goal.

It fell inches short.

But Bridgwater’s steadiness throughout gave the Panthers a chance, something they haven’t had the past two years with the injury-prone Newton.

Breakout performance: Wide receiver DJ Moore has shown signs of reclaiming his spot as Carolina’s No. 1 receiver, none bigger than the first half in which he had touchdown catches of 74 and seven yards. Moore entered the season as the team’s top receiver, but Robby Anderson took over that role quickly and entered Sunday’s game tied for fourth in the NFL in catches with 40 and second in receiving yards with 566. But Moore has scored in two of the last three games while Anderson hasn’t gotten into the end zone since Week 1.

Promising trend: Just call wide receiver Curtis Samuel “Mr. Third Down.’’ Before missing last week’s game with a knee injury he was tied for the NFL lead with 11 third-down catches for first downs. He had two clutch ones in the first half on Sunday, then another to start the second half to bring that total to 14.

Biggest hole in the game plan: Stopping running back Alvin Kamara, particularly on third down. With top receivers Michael Thomas and Emmauel Sanders out, stopping Kamara had to be a priority. Carolina couldn’t, particularly on third down where Kamara had big play after big play as the Saints converted their first eight third down plays. Kamara finished with 18 rushes for 83 yards and eight catches for 65 yards.