Punch-less Panthers lose kicker, and then lose to Bills

Published 11:05 pm Sunday, December 19, 2021

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Carolina’s punch-less offense was dealt another blow before even taking the field in a 31-14 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.

A little over an hour before kickoff, Panthers kicker Zane Gonzalez was on his knees at the 20-yard line after hurting his quadriceps during warmups. He required help returning to the locker room and was ruled out from playing.

“That’s not something we expected,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said.

With no one in position to attempt field goals, and receiver Brandon Zylstra taking over the kickoff duties, the Panthers (5-9) couldn’t produce enough explosive plays to keep pace in losing their fourth straight and ninth in 11 outings.

“I thought the guys battled but it wasn’t enough,” Rhule said. “If we were able to get some more points, the whole point was to hang around and make it a game in the fourth quarter.”

The Panthers instead played catch up from the opening quarter — without a place kicker. They passed up two field goal tries, went for 2 after both touchdowns and converted once, and were stopped on four of five fourth-down attempts.

It began in the first quarter. Rather than open the scoring with what would have been a 41-yard attempt, the Panthers were stopped on fourth-and-9 at Buffalo’s 24, where Cam Newton failed to connect with Willie Snead, who was open inside the 5.

Gonzalez has been Carolina’s most consistent scoring threat this season. The Panthers have shuffled between three quarterbacks, are on their second offensive coordinator, lost running back Christian McCaffery to a season-ending ankle injury and have had a revolving door of starters along the offensive line.

Gonzalez hit 20 of 22 field goal attempts this season, including 17 straight since missing a 54-yarder wide left in a 36-26 loss to Dallas on Oct. 3.

“It is tough. He’s had one heck of a year so far,” said the 28-year-old Zylstra, who hadn’t attempted a kickoff since high school. “He’s Mr. Automatic out there.”

Zylstra averaged 48.7 yards on three squib kicks, with Buffalo returning them for an average drive start around its own 33.

“I welcomed the challenge,” said Zylstra, who wasn’t sure what his field range would have been after making one of three attempts from 25 yards out during warmups.

Trailing 24-8, the Panthers also passed up potential points when Buffalo’s Jerry Hughes tipped Newton’s pass on fourth-and-5 from the Bills 10 to open the fourth quarter.

Newton represented most of the Panthers’ offense. He finished 18-of-38 passing for 156 yards with a touchdown with a meaningless interception in the final minutes. He also had a team-leading 71 yards rushing and a touchdown.

While Newton avoided what Rhule has previously referred to as “catastrophic plays,” the coach noted the Panthers were unable to challenge the Bills with downfield throws. Newton’s longest completion was a 23-yard touchdown to Ameer Abdullah in the fourth quarter.

“Certainly, right now our passing game down the field is not one of our strengths,” Rhule said.

Kicking wasn’t the Panthers’ only issue.

Though Carolina was penalized just five times for 55 yards, personal fouls against defensive linemen Phil Hoskins (face mask), Brian Burns (roughing the passer) and Bravvion Roy (unnecessary roughness during a sideline scuffle) each extended Buffalo scoring drives.

“It’s frustrating when a lot of things aren’t going your way and you know we are beating ourselves,” Burns said.