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Panthers go away from Christian McCaffrey with game on line

The Carolina Panthers lined up Sunday afternoon on the Raiders’ 46-yard line for a fourth-and-1 play, trailing 34-30 with 1:22 left in the fourth quarter and the NFL’s most productive running back in their backfield.

But instead of handing the ball off to All-Pro Christian McCaffrey, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater gave it to fullback Alex Armah, who was stopped for no gain.

“It had worked before, so we thought it would work again,” Carolina coach Matt Rhule said moments after his first NFL game. “When you write up who to blame for that, I think the only person you can blame is the head coach.”

The Panthers puzzlingly went away from their best player with the game on the line, allowing Raiders defensive lineman Clelin Ferrell and linebacker Raekwon McMillan to make the most crucial play of their team’s 34-30 victory: a tackle at the line of scrimmage and a turnover on downs.

“I’m not second-guessing anyone,” Rhule said. “That’s something I have to think about walking away from this.”

McCaffrey had 23 carries for 96 yards and two touchdowns to that point and was seemingly finding his footing late in the game after totaling 10 touches in the first half.

He didn’t second-guess the play call, though, and said it was “a play we were all on board with.”

“Stuff like that happens all the time,” said McCaffrey, who also finished with three receptions for 38 yards. “It’s tough to put (the outcome) on one play, but we’ve just got to go back to the drawing board, figure out all the mistakes we made and correct them.”

McCaffrey accounted for 2,392 yards from scrimmage in 2019, becoming the third player in league history to exceed 1,000 yards as both a runner and a receiver during the same season. The Raiders paid him plenty of mind throughout their week of practice and on Sunday, and held him to 27 rushing yards in the first half.

The Panthers featured him more in the third quarter, though, and were better off for it, surging ahead with consecutive touchdown drives. He touched the ball 11 times alone on the first of those two drives, one that consumed 17 plays and 7:57 that he capped with a 3-yard TD run.

“It’s not about who gets the ball. It’s about moving the ball forward,” McCaffrey said. “Stuff is going to happen in the game. You’ve just got to stay patient.”

Carolina figured to be following a similar formula on its potential game-winning drive, handing the ball to McCaffrey on its first four plays to gain 24 yards and enter Las Vegas territory.

Armah got the next carry.

“It was the call. Alex is a heck of a fullback and is very capable of getting that,” McCaffrey said. “It’s a play we’ve scored on before. It’s a play we’ve run before and had success. It is what it is. Maybe they make an adjustment. Maybe they don’t. All I know is it doesn’t matter. It happened. And we’ve got to move on.”

Added Bridgewater: “It was a situation where we trust every guy on this team to touch the ball to make a play. (Las Vegas) did a good job of stopping the run right there. It was a call that everyone had confidence in. (Las Vegas), those guys get paid to make football plays, too.”

That they do.

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.