Christian McCaffrey brings scoring burst back to Panthers' offense

Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule said earlier in the week that touchdowns were the biggest difference between his team and the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

The Chiefs scored them at a high rate, he noted, and the Panthers settled for too many field goals.

That all changed on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium with the return of star running back Christian McCaffrey and some aggressive playcalling. The Panthers, at least temporarily, ended their red zone woes by scoring touchdowns on four drives inside the 20.

That wasn't enough to upset the NFL's second-highest-scoring team, which held on for a 33-31 victory, but it gave Carolina hope for what it can be with a few more pieces.

McCaffrey is a big reason. After missing the last six games with a high ankle sprain, he returned to lead the team in rushing (18 carries, 69 yards, TD) and receiving (10 catches, 82 yards, TD). There was no rust on McCaffrey, who last year became the third player in NFL history to top 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season.

He also showed how dynamic he is as a playmaker with an acrobatic catch for a 24-yard pickup as Carolina pulled within 26-24 with about 10 minutes remaining.

McCaffrey wasn't the only one making big plays. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was a human highlight machine on a fourth-and-14 scramble on which he went airborne for the final 5 yards, resulting in a first down and setting the stage for McCaffrey's amazing catch.

Curtis Samuel pulled off a spectacular catch earlier on that drive.

But for all the big-time playmakers the Panthers have on offense, and with the imagination of offensive coordinator Joe Brady calling plays from the sideline for the first time, Carolina doesn't have enough playmakers defensively to do much more than consistently scare elite teams.

The Panthers had nobody defensively who could stay with wide receiver Tyreek Hill (9 catches, 113 yards, 2 TDs) and tight end Travis Kelce (10 catches, 159 yards).

That ultimately was their downfall on a day when McCaffrey tried to fire up his teammates with a pregame pep talk in which he shouted, "Make this count! Don't take one snap for granted! Play for each other and have fun, baby!"

Rhule was right. The Panthers (3-6) look like a version of the Chiefs (8-1). Just before Andy Reid's team improved defensively enough to win a Super Bowl, as well as games like this.

Pivotal play: I'm going to mention two here. The Panthers faced third-and-3 in the third quarter from the Chiefs' 35. They went with a handoff to McCaffrey up the middle. He was stuffed. This is mentioned because until then, the key plays all were about being aggressive, and this one was not. Most notable on aggressiveness was a fake punt in the first half on fourth-and-7 from the 45. Punter Joseph Charlton found wide receiver Brandon Zylstra wide open for a 28-yard pickup that set up a 14-yard touchdown by Samuel.

Promising trend: The Panthers entered Sunday's game ranked 26th in the NFL in red zone TD scoring at 53.8%. They scored on all four trips inside the 20 on Sunday.

Biggest hole in the game plan: Covering Kelce. The fact that rookie outside linebacker/safety Jeremy Chinn missed the game with a knee injury was a factor. He has the athletic ability to stay with the perennial Pro Bowler. Outside linebacker Shaq Thompson and Jermaine Carter were no match as Kelce had 10 catches for 159 yards.