Panthers return to winning formula: Christian McCaffrey and defense

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers have been searching for what to call their identity since Cam Newton was sidelined with a left foot sprain in Week 2.

Here’s a hint: Christian McCaffrey.

The do-it-all running back reasserted himself in the MVP race Sunday with three touchdowns and 166 yards from scrimmage to lead the Panthers to their fifth win in their past six games, a 30-20 victory over the Tennessee Titans at Bank of America Stadium.

Not that McCaffrey can do everything. But for the Panthers (5-3) to make a run at the playoffs, they will have to do it behind the herculean effort of McCaffrey, an efficient Kyle Allen at quarterback and an aggressive defense.

That’s how they won four straight before last week’s 51-13 loss to the undefeated San Francisco 49ers. That’s what they did Sunday against the Titans (4-5).

Newton wasn’t on the sideline Sunday, and it doesn’t appear he will be a factor in the immediate future for the Panthers with his Lisfranc sprain continuing to be an issue.

In his absence, McCaffrey has become the unquestioned face of the Panthers. He caught a 7-yard touchdown pass and had touchdown runs of 1 and 58 yards. He finished with 146 yards rushing on 24 carries and three catches for 20 yards.

His 58-yarder was his third touchdown run of 50-plus yards this season. No other player in the NFL has more than one.

Allen played within himself, and the defense forced three turnovers and sacked quarterback Ryan Tannehill four times.

With a trip to Green Bay next and a tough second-half schedule, the Panthers had to win this one to show the loss to the 49ers didn’t define them.

QB breakdown: Early in the game, Allen looked as if he was suffering from a hangover from the San Francisco loss, in which he threw three interceptions and looked unsettled. He started 4-for-12 with an interception. He then completed 9 of 10 attempts for two touchdowns and moved into the efficient game manager mode that helped him win his first five starts.

Pivotal play I: The first of two fourth-down plays. This one came on a fourth-and-2 call from the Tennessee 7. The Panthers had failed to capitalize on several opportunities and had just a 3-0 lead in the second quarter. Tight end Greg Olsen lined up outside the right tackle. Wide receiver Jarius Wright came in motion and stopped beside Olsen, drawing the secondary in. Allen faked a handoff to McCaffrey, who drifted into the right flat for a wide-open touchdown catch.

Pivotal play II: This one showed just how big this game was to coach Ron Rivera. Tennessee had cut the lead to 17-7 to start the second half. The Panthers faced fourth-and-4 from their own 36. They went with a direct snap to up-man Colin Jones on a fake punt for the first down. An amazing 32-yard catch by DJ Moore to the 1 a few plays later led to another McCaffrey touchdown and a 24-7 lead.