CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Sunday’s game between the Washington Football Team and Carolina Panthers was supposed to be about Ron Rivera and Cam Newton. A showdown between the coach and quarterback — now standing on opposite sidelines, facing off for the first time in the regular season.
Someone forgot to tell Taylor Heinicke.
Heinicke, a former Panthers backup, led Washington to a 27-21 victory over Carolina in arguably his best performance for the Burgundy and Gold. Heinicke threw for 206 yards and three touchdowns as Washington improved to 4-6 on the season.
Heinicke engineered a go-ahead 12-play, 58-yard drive that resulted in a 37-yarder from Joey Slye — a series made possible with an absolutely dazzling throw on fourth and 3 to move the Burgundy and Gold into field goal territory. The pinpoint clutch throw was one of many on the afternoon from Heinicke, who completed 72.4% of his passes.
Washington’s defense, too, did its job to contain Newton — especially on Carolina’s final two-minute drive. Down six with 1:50 left, Newton had the chance to lead the Panthers to a win, but defensive tackle Daron Payne sacked the quarterback on fourth and 3 to force a turnover on downs.
The stop helped Washington get past Carolina, which fell to 5-6.
This weekend marked a reunion for so many on the Washington Football Team. There was, of course, Rivera’s return to Charlotte. But there were more than 30 other coaches, executives and players with Washington who have Carolina ties — including offensive coordinator Scott Turner, executive Marty Hurney and Heinicke.
When Rivera walked out of the tunnel before the game, he was greeted with a warm reception from the fans in attendance. Rivera also chatted on the field with David Tepper, the Panthers owner who fired him in December 2019. The two men embraced as the conversation ended.
But on Sunday, Rivera wasn’t the former Panther the crowd was fired up to see. Newton — the former MVP who re-joined Carolina last week after more than a year away from the franchise, was met with a roar during the player introductions.
The cheers grew even louder when Newton threw his first touchdown pass. The 32-year-old found wideout D.J. Moore for a 10-yard score — a pass made possible by Newton stepping up in the pocket, feinting a scramble to draw in the safety to leave Moore open.
The Burgundy and Gold initially looked as if they were in for a long day, too. Antonio Gibson fumbled on the second drive of the game inside the 10-yard line — spoiling a promising drive for Washington. As a result, Rivera benched Gibson, who has lost three fumbles this year, for the rest of the first half.
But Washington was able to find a rhythm — in part because of strong defensive play and an offense that was consistently in sync.
Washington’s Terry McLaurin, in particular, was spectacular on Sunday — even more so than usual. The NFL’s leader in contested catches, McLaurin hauled in a 39-yard reception on third and 9 that helped pave the way for Washington to get on the board.
Heinickeconnected with Cam Sims on a 6-yard route for Washington’s first touchdown to tie the game at 7.
In general, Heinicke was decisive and spread the ball around. And against the second-best rated defenses in football, Heinicke and Co. were able to convert on third downs. The offense was put in manageable situations thanks to a steady run game and accurate throws from Heinicke.
Heinicke’s heroics continued in the second half. Washington took a 21-14 lead when Heinicke found wide receiver DeAndre Carter for a 4-yard touchdown in the third quarter — the third straight week in which the two connected for a score.
But Newton made it interesting. After Rivera made a controversial call to pass up a 56-yard field goal to punt, Newton and the Panthers marched 91 yards down the field — capped with a 27-yard touchdown throw to star running back Christian McCaffrey.
Still, Washington answered when needed. Beyond Slye’s 36-yarder, the team added another three points after forcing a turnover on downs.
• Matthew Paras can be reached at email@example.com.
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