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June 28, 2022
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Plays That Defined 2021: Carolina Panthers at Buffalo Bills

Welcome to Plays That Defined 2021! This ain’t your usual game recap. Here’s what to do. Pretend you’ve just written a novel and it’s time to select the cover art. You want a single picture that tells the reader what it’s all about, right? That’s the deal here. Vote for the play that best tells the “story” of this game. Which GIF is the best “cover art” for…

There was a joke in the comments of an earlier article in this series (courtesy of mtonovitz) that indicated the New York Jets game was over by the coin flip. Not to be outdone by the Jets, the Panthers wanted their game decided during the pre-game warmups. Kicker Zane Gonzalez was injured with zero reasonable time to find a replacement. This impacted Carolina’s game plan, to Buffalo’s benefit. On the stat sheet the Bills were mostly inefficient but managed to steadily score. The kicker-less Panthers did not.

Cam Newton’s incomplete pass (Q1, 8:32)

The loss of Gonzalez was felt early in the game. Driving down to the 24-yard-line of Buffalo, Carolina was in field goal range but without the tools to try. This 4th & 9 attempt would have been ripped apart under most circumstances. Especially so with the teams tied at zero. With no kicker though, the conversion attempt was a necessity. Carolina would attempt five conversions on fourth down, finding success only once.

Stefon Diggs’s touchdown (Q2, 9:47)

Buffalo scored four touchdowns, so why this one exactly? Several reasons. This put the Bills up by two scores, a situation that held for large portions of the day. It rarely looked like a runaway victory, but “pretty comfortable” sums it up nice. Also, this drive started at the Buffalo 43. The aforementioned fourth-down attempts and the soon-to-be-mentioned inability to kickoff deep led to five of Buffalo’s 11 real drives starting from their own 40 yard line or better. It goes to six of 12 if you’re counting every drive.

Brandon Zylstra’s kickoff (Q2, 1:48)

After the Panthers’ first touchdown of the game, they were finally able to unleash the awesome kicking power of [checks notes] Brandon Zylstra, wide receiver. Zylstra overall did fine, with this 49-yard kick representing his median. He only had three on the day, the other two reaching distances of 47 and 50 yards. For returns, the 13-yarder by Isaiah McKenzie was also the median. The other two were for eight and 28 yards. While the Panthers largely avoided disaster, the NFL is often a game of inches. Buffalo wouldn’t start with worse position than the 26 following a kickoff. Couple that with the inability to kick field goals and the Bills had an unusual but major advantage. Imagine if this was cleanly fielded.

Cam Newton’s scramble (Q3, 10:22)

The box score suggests a good day on the ground for the Panthers overall. Digging deeper that’s not exactly true. Chuba Hubbard averaged 5.0 yards per carry, but with only eight attempts and a long of 21, he was pretty close to a non-factor. Hubbard’s carry total was nearly doubled by Cam Newton, who averaged 4.73 yards per carry. While that’s above the league average, it’s well below the average passing rate. Head coach Sean McDermott and the Bills were ready for Newton.

A.J. Klein’s interception (Q4, 1:05)

Our final play is a nod to the defense. With Gonzalez out and Carolina needing to roll the dice more often than most teams would, that did represent a bit of chaos for which the defense needed to adjust. Allowing only two touchdowns when there were far more “four-down territory” drives than normal strongly suggests they were prepared. This stop occurred on third down, with A.J. Klein putting the final nail in the feline coffin. In case you were wondering, this was not a 4-3 sort of day. This was Klein’s fifth snap of the game on defense.

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Which play best defines (illustrates) the victory over the Panthers?

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Cam Newton incomplete

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Stefon Diggs TD

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Brandon Zylstra kickoff

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Cam Newton scramble

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A.K. Klein interception

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