Cornerback Chris Culliver slammed into 6-foot-5 tight end Greg Olsen hard enough to dislodge the ball. It landed in Culliver’s hands, and he streaked 75 yards for a go-ahead touchdown to quell the raucous crowd of 74,418 at Bank of America Stadium.
But a questionable call — Culliver was cited for unnecessary roughness — negated the score and slammed the brakes on the momentum shift. Less than two minutes later, Cam Newton threw the third of his career-high five touchdowns, completing a 14-point swing.
Opinions will differ on what role the dramatic turnabout played in the Redskins’ 44-16 defeat, their most humbling loss of the season.
“It’s a different ballgame,” defensive tackle Chris Baker insisted in a humbled Redskins locker room afterward. “You’re up 21-14 [if Culliver’s touchdown had stood] instead of down 21-14. Then things just started happening; we started unraveling.”
Safety Dashon Goldson shared Baker’s view — and that of many disbelieving Redskins on the sideline — that Culliver had delivered a hard but legal hit. But Goldson, the team’s defensive captain, was quick to put the perceived injustice in the larger context.
“We missed some tackles on defense,” Goldson said. “Turnovers hurt us. And we couldn’t keep them out of the end zone.”
In truth, it was uglier than that. It was a multifaceted horror for the Redskins, who turned the ball over five times; rushed for just 14 yards; failed to protect quarterback Kirk Cousins, who threw one interception and twice let the ball squirt from his clutches on the five punishing sacks he absorbed; and lost running back Alfred Morris and Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams to rib and knee injuries, respectively.
The severity of their injuries wasn’t clear in the immediate aftermath, but neither finished the game.
Coming on the heels of the previous week’s 33-point rout of New Orleans, the drubbing by the Panthers amounted to a harsh reality check. Given a chance to claw back to .500, the Redskins fell to 4-6 instead. And they fell with a thud.
Coach Jay Gruden saw no point in discussing Culliver’s negated touchdown, noting that the penalty wasn’t reviewable under NFL rules.
The larger point, he added, was the poor way the Redskins responded.
“We talk about it all the time — the peaks and valleys in pro football, in the game, and in the course of a game and how you react,” Gruden said. “We didn’t react very well. We didn’t handle it very well as a staff and we didn’t handle it very well as a team.”
The Panthers, meanwhile, improved to 10-0, solidifying their status as the class of the NFC, feasting on the Redskins’ mistakes while making few of their own.
“We just define the meaning of team,” Carolina wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. said.
Newton (21 for 34 for 246 yards) threw for four of his scores in the first half, which ended with Carolina up 31-14. By game’s end, the Panthers had rolled up 368 yards of offense to the Redskins’ 186.
Cousins finished 22 for 30 for 207 yards, one interception and one touchdown. Andre Roberts supplied the other touchdown on a 99-yard kickoff return. And a late-game safety accounted for the other two points.
The Redskins didn’t want to fall behind or get the home crowd pumped up. Playing sloppy football from the start, they managed to do both less than five minutes into the game.
Cousins was intercepted on a high throw intended for DeSean Jackson. Three plays later, the Panthers turned it into a touchdown, with Newton firing a 12-yard strike to running back Jonathan Stewart.
Cousins replied quickly, connecting with Jackson on a 56-yard catch-and-run that tied it.
Inside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan dropped Newton for a 12-yard loss. But it proved a minor setback on a 13-play Panthers scoring drive, capped by a three-yard strike to fullback Mike Tolbert.
Again, the Redskins countered, with Roberts running back the subsequent kickoff to knot it at 14 as the first quarter expired. It took just 14 seconds, which was a pity, in a way, bringing back Washington’s defense before the players had caught their breath.
It was the last time the Redskins were competitive all afternoon.
Culliver’s negated touchdown followed. He was flagged for unnecessary roughness because his helmet slammed Olsen as the tight end ducked. Some Redskins yelled at officials from the sideline until Gruden reined them in.
Jackson said he had never seen a call like it, saying the hit was worthy of a tip of the hat more than a penalty.
“We play tackle football; it’s not two-hand touch,” Jackson said. “For an unnecessary roughness call, that’s a crazy call.”
As the Panthers rolled on, cornerback Bashaud Breeland had a chance to make a hero play but missed an end-zone interception. From the 2, Newton drilled a throw to Ginn that was initially ruled incomplete but declared a touchdown on review. With it, the Panthers went ahead 21-14. From then, the Redskins could do nothing right.
Matt Jones fumbled two plays later while trying to hurdle a defender. That, too, led to a Panthers touchdown — Newton’s franchise-record fourth in a single half.
A holding penalty on tight end Jordan Reed wiped out a 23-yard run by Cousins that would have taken the Redskins to the Carolina 3. Then came the first of two sack-fumbles. This one led to the first of Graham Gano’s three field goals, making it 31-14 at the break.
Whether Gruden delivered a passionate motivational speech or red-faced tirade at halftime didn’t matter. The misfiring Redskins fared worse in the second half, outscored 13-2 in the two quarters that remained.
After Williams limped off in the fourth quarter with an ailing knee, the offense’s prospects grew bleaker. And the feel-good rout of the previous week felt far, far away.
More on the Redskins:
Summary: Panthers 44, Redskins 16
D.C. Sports Bog: Best and worst from Washington-Carolina
Roundup: All the action from NFL Week 11