LANDOVER, Md. — The Carolina Panthers football team made sure to honor their franchise’s greatest coach, as well as his toughness in his biggest off-field fight, upon their first matchup against him as an opponent. As it turned out, the Panthers also put their erstwhile skipper’s plans of celebrating a division title on hold for at least one more week.
Curtis Samuel had 158 total yards and set up two Panthers touchdowns while their defense and special teams forced four turnovers as Carolina defeated the Washington Football Team 20-13, ruining Washington’s chance to clinch a playoff spot and the NFC East crown with a win at FedExField late Sunday afternoon. Teddy Bridgewater threw for 197 yards and a score as the Panthers opened up a 20-0 lead and staved off a late Washington comeback attempt after it once again benched quarterback Dwayne Haskins.
Taylor Heinicke, who was taking classes to finish up his degree at Old Dominion as recently as last month before being signed by Washington to add quarterback depth, came in to relieve a struggling Haskins and threw a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter — along with another touchdown that was nullified because of a penalty on a drive that resulted in a turnover on downs — before Carolina recovered an onside kick to seal the win.
Rivera, who led Carolina to a 76-63-1 record and an appearance in Super Bowl 50 during his tenure from 2011 until Week 13 of last season, took over the helm at Washington this past offseason, a time in which he also underwent treatment for squamous cell carcinoma. Before the game, members of the Panthers warmed up on the field wearing gray sweatshirts with the words “RIVERA STRONG” across the chest. The warm gestures eventually was tabled as the game started in the DC twilight, and Carolina’s struggling offense buoyed by Washington mistakes all game to win its first game since Nov. 22.
Both teams were scoreless each of their first three possessions, a stalemate featuring a turnover of downs by Carolina in Washington territory on a sack by Daron Payne and a Haskins fumble as Washington drove to the Panthers’ 30-yard line. It was shaping up as a game in which a defensive and/or special teams score, if it came, could very well decide the winner.
Enter Steven Sims Jr. The Washington’s wide receiver muffed a Joseph Charlton punt just outside of the 10-yard line, and Brandon Zylstra recovered the loose ball in the end zone for a Carolina 6-0 lead with 1:42 remaining in the first quarter.
After another Washington punt to end the first quarter, the Panthers put together their most impressive drive of the game, 10-play, 74-yard march that culminated in a 1-yard touchdown run on fourth down by Mike Davis to increase Carolina’s lead to 13.
Haskins, who did start today despite making headlines for all the wrong reasons after pictures surfaced this week of him appearing in a strip club while not wearing a mask, turned over the ball for the second time in the game when he threw an interception near midfield to Tahir Whitehead on a pass intended for Logan Thomas. Six plays later, Bridgewater threw a 14-yard touchdown to Robby Anderson for a 20-0 Panthers lead.
Washington did score before the half, Haskins’ only drive in leading his team to points, as Dustin Hopkins knocked through a 48-yard field goal just before intermission.
Despite the deficit, Washington’s play on defense kept the team in the game in the second half, coming up big when Chase Young forced, and then, recovered a fumble by Bridgewater to thwart a long Carolina drive to start the third quarter. The turnover resulted in another Hopkins field goal to cut Carolina’s lead to 14.
Alex Smith was ruled out once again with a calf strain for Washington, and Haskins’ ineffective play once again made Rivera turn to his bench in the fourth quarter, and Heinicke responded by going 12-for-19 for 137 yards. On Washington’s penultimate drive, Heinicke threw a fourth-down touchdown pass to Thomas that was called back on a holding penalty by guard Wes Schweitzer. Heinicke threw an incomplete pass on the fourth down redo, but then threw a touchdown to J.D. McKissic from 29 yards out with 1:50 remaining to give Washington hope at 20-13 just after the two-minute warning.
Washington remains a game ahead in the NFC East after the New York Giants’ defeat in Baltimore, but Dallas’ win against Philadelphia means that the winner between Dallas and the Giants on Sunday afternoon would win the NFC East if Washington were to lose in Philadelphia. To increase the drama of the game in Lincoln Financial Field involving Washington and the Eagles, the game was moved by the league to Sunday night. Washington could clinch the NFC East before Sunday night, but only if the Dallas-New York Giants game ends in a tie.
*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from Sunday’s game, with all photos taken by DC-area photographers Yusuf Abdullah and Rodney Pierce. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are 43 pictures in total. Along with hoping that you enjoy the pictures, we are encouraging those of you who are serious about educating oneself and making a tangible difference in the fight against social injustice — but struggling to find a starting point — to click this link, an anti-racism resource guide for white people.