ATLANTA -- Carolina Panthers wide receiver DJ Moore sat alone on the visitors bench for several minutes following Sunday’s 37-34 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons to reflect on his celebration penalty at the end of regulation that played what he called a "major" role in the loss.
“What would have happened if I hadn’t taken my helmet off?" Moore later said about what he was reflecting on.
What if, indeed.
Moore took his helmet off to celebrate after catching a 62-yard touchdown with 12 seconds left to knot the score at 34-34 in a game that seemed lost after Atlanta took the lead with 40 seconds to play.
That earned a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty which turned a 33-yard extra point to win the game into a 48-yarder that kicker Eddy Pineiro missed wide left.
It was the first time this season an unsportsmanlike penalty had been called in the final two minutes of a game and only the 15th unsportsmanlike penalty -- celebrations and others -- called in the league this season. It was yet another blow for a Carolina team fighting to remain relevant after firing head coach Matt Rhule three weeks ago and trading star running back Christian McCaffrey a week and a half ago.
“It was a natural reaction," Moore said as he leaned against a wall in the locker room. “Still, I know that I can’t do that."
Carolina (2-6) had another chance to win on a 33-yard field goal in overtime that Pineiro missed wide left, but Moore said it shouldn’t have come to that.
“The flags, man," Moore said. “The flags turned an easy kick into a 48-yarder. Some may see that as an easy kick, but when the pressure’s on it might be harder. I don’t play kicker so I really can’t talk about it."
Pineiro did. He felt like he let down a team that with a win would have forced a four-way tie for first place in the NFC South with Atlanta, the New Orleans Saints and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 3-5. And the Panthers would have been 3-0 in the division, giving them the outright lead if the season ended then.
“It hurts," Pineiro said. “I love this team and I know they’ve got my back ... and I know this is not going to define me as a kicker. Everybody misses kicks. Unfortunately, mine was today."
Backup quarterback Baker Mayfield, defensive tackle Derrick Brown and punter Johnny Hekker took having Pineiro’s back to another level. They stood behind the swarm of reporters drilling Pineiro on what went wrong on both kicks as a show of solidarity.
And there was no indication from Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks that he might move on from Pineiro.
“Do I want him to make those kicks?" Wilks said. “Yes. Do I want our guys to make the proper blocks and catches? Of course. So we can all get better, starting with me."
Defensive end Brian Burns, who has talked to reporters all season win or lose, chose not to talk until Monday.
Other Panthers players looked shell-shocked, but none more than Moore as he sat on the bench while Atlanta's players celebrated.
“Real tough," he said. “We were out there competing, going back and forth with them. You’ve just to go finish. I had that penalty on me at the end. That was kind of major."
Not since 2003, when New Orleans lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars, had a team lost in the final 30 seconds after throwing a touchdown of 60-plus yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. John Carney missed the extra point that day that would have tied it at 20-20.
And that was when teams kicked extra points from the 2½-yard line.
“DJ is smart enough to understand that’s something to learn from," Wilks said of Moore’s mistake.
But Wilks was quick to say the game didn’t come down to one play.
“Of course, it would have given us an opportunity to win," Wilks said. “But offensively, defensively, special teams, we could have had it way before the end. With me, I’m encouraging them and trying to build them up. ... There’s a lot of football left.
“We missed an opportunity today. But the season is not over. The opportunity for us to win the division is still there."