For all intents and purposes, the Jets are out of the playoffs after a 30-20 loss at the Panthers in a game that never felt out of reach until the very end. The Jets (6-8) look likely to end a third straight season out of the playoffs.
The Panthers ran out to a 16-6 halftime lead behind a 72-yard screen pass from Cam Newton to DeAngelo Williams, but the Jets battled back.
The momentum swung to the Jets when Sheldon Richardson, arguably the league’s best defensive rookie, came into the backfield and scored a touchdown with 3:04 left in the third quarter to cut the Panthers’ lead to 16-13. It took two tries for Richardson to plow two yards for the touchdown, but the play showed Richardson’s versatility. Richardson’s first NFL touchdown capped off a nine-play, 86-yard drive by the Jets.
Newton sizzled in the first half, as he was 12-of-15 for 224 yards and a touchdown. But in the second half, he was limited to just 4-of-9 for 49 yards.
With Carolina holding a narrow 16-13 lead, the Panthers blocked a Ryan Quigley punt early in the fourth quarter to take over possession on the Jets’ 14-yard line. Four plays later, fullback Mike Tolbert plowed through an open hole on the goal line for a 1-yard touchdown and a 23-13 lead for the Panthers.
For much of the game, rookie quarterback Geno Smith was calm and poised, completing short passes and throwing the ball away when necessary. But with 8:17 left in the fourth quarter, Smith locked onto wide receiver Santonio Holmes and threw into double coverage. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who also had two sacks, returned the interception for a pick-six to put the Panthers up big.
It was Smith’s lone interception of the afternoon, but the fifth time this year one has been returned for a touchdown.
What we saw …
1. Cam’s golden screen
With 3:29 left before halftime, Newton faked to his left then spun around and fired a bullet of a screen pass to Williams. Williams followed tremendous downfield blocking to run untouched into the end zone for a 72-yard touchdown. A big part of the play was the fake to his left by Newton, which sent Ed Reed heading in the opposite direction of the screen pass. The Jets followed with a three-and-out and the Williams play carried into their next offensive series when they kicked a field goal to make it a 16-6 halftime lead.
2. Folk is Pro Bowl bound
With the seconds quickly ticking off the clock, the Jets hurried at the end of the first quarter to get a field goal off to take advantage of the wind at their back. Nick Folk connected on a 54-yard field goal, a season long. Folk padded his resume for the Pro Bowl with two field goals in the loss, making him 30-of-31 on field goal attempts this year. The rest of the special teams unit wasn’t as good, especially long snapper Tanner Purdum, who let Panthers linebacker Jason Williams rush past him unmolested to block a Quigley punt. The Panthers would score off the field position to go up 23-13.
3. Jets finally ground it
The Panthers came into the game with the league’s top run defense, but the Jets found some success on the ground. Spearheaded by a 35-yard second quarter run by Chris Ivory, the Jets topped the 100-yard barrier. Ivory had 11 carries for 66 yards and Bilal Powell had a good day as well with 37 yards on eight carries. Even Smith was able to move the ball on the ground with 44 rushing yards.
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.