The Carolina Panthers were an extra point away from first place in the NFC South just three weeks after firing their head coach.
Instead, a D.J. Moore unsportsmanlike penalty in the aftermath of his miracle 62-yard, game-tying TD catch with seconds remaining moved the potential winning extra point back 15 yards. Eddy Pineiro missed, and the Panthers would go on to fall in overtime to the Falcons, 37-34, proving they are still a club with massive growing pains in front of them despite playing spirited football for interim head coach Steve Wilks.
"We didn't find a way to finish," Wilks said in his postgame news conference. "We had too many opportunities to win this football game, and we didn't find a way to get it done. And that falls on me. We've got to make sure we're smart enough. Something to learn from. Celebration penalty, big play like that, we've got to keep our poise. It was a great job with D.J. coming up with the big play in the end zone. Great pass by P.J. (Walker). But as a team we've got to make sure that we're smart and just ready. Take it to the next level, next step."
The Panthers delivered a shocking victory over Tampa Bay in Week 7 and continued that momentum by hanging tough all day against Atlanta, answering the Falcons' every score in a game that saw six lead changes.
Running back D’Onta Foreman continued to prove capable of a workhorse role in the aftermath of the Christian McCaffrey trade. He carried the ball 26 times for 118 yards and three scores. Moore continued his re-emergence with Walker under center, leading the team with six receptions for 152 yards and the game-tying score that preceded the game's most consequential penalty.
The play took place with 23 seconds remaining and began on the Panthers' 38-yard line. Down six, Walker rolled out left and unleashed the ball 67.6 yards through the air -- the longest completion by air distance since Next Gen Stats began in 2016 -- and found Moore for the score with an inch of room against two defenders.
Afterwards, Moore took off his helmet and earned the flag that suddenly made Pineiro's extra point a 48-yarder. Pinerio missed, and the 34-34 game went to an extra frame.
It was a hero-to-zero mistake committed in a matter of seconds. To his credit, Moore owned the costly error.
"It was a natural reaction," Moore said. "But you still have to know you can't do that."
Carolina actually did end up giving Pineiro an opportunity to convert an extra point-like kick for the win in overtime. C.J. Henderson intercepted Falcons QB Marcus Mariota on the first possession of OT and returned it to Atlanta's 20-yard line.
The Panthers opted to hand the ball off on three straight plays, content to try a 32-yarder, which Pineiro steered wide left. The offense would not see the ball again -- the Falcons converted a 41-yard kick seven plays later off the foot of Younghoe Koo.
And so it was a culmination of mistakes and regretful decisions that prevented Carolina from riding a two-game win streak into the driver's seat for the division.
Moore's penalty will highlight the loss, but Pineiro would go on to miss an easier kick, and the Panthers could have aimed for the jugular deep in Atlanta territory in overtime.
That is the makeup of a 2-6 team. It is who the Panthers are at the midway point of the season, but Wilks remains hopeful that the mistakes made to close out October turn into lessons learned and applied as the calendar flips to November.
"This is the National Football League," Wilks said. "I told the guys we'll see our true character and who we are as a team in how we come in and work tomorrow. It was tough, but we've got to get ready for Cincinnati. How we come in tomorrow, make the corrections we need to make, build on the things that we did well and get ready to go on the road and play a real good football team."
Moore and Co. will get their first chance to rectify today's costly errors in Week 9 against the 4-3 Bengals.