Winning, it’s something the Carolina Panthers rediscovered at just the right time.
The Panthers continued their winning streak and secured a playoff spot yesterday by beating the Atlanta Falcons Sunday, 34-3. The Panthers were dominant from the opening kickoff. The offense moved the ball, and, although Carolina didn’t capitalize on every red-zone appearance, they put up points. The defense came to play as well. Laying big hits early, Carolina swarmed Matt Ryan all afternoon, and for the first time this season, the defense scored. Then they scored again. Reminiscent of the beat-down delivered in New Orleans four weeks ago, Carolina finished out a four-game win streak that landed them with a home playoff game. Although winning has come easy as of late, it was something that evaded the Panthers for ten weeks, leaving many of us to think this playoff berth was near impossible.
After winning the NFC South in 2013, Carolina started this season 2-0. Rivera’s Panthers, notorious for slow starts, looked as if they had truly learned how to win in 2013. The ball finally started to bounce the right way for Rivera’s Panthers. Cam led 4th quarter comeback drives, refs picked up flags at opportune moments, and Riverboat Ron gambled on 4th downs. Winning—what had been so evasive—became expected. Carolina was confident, and their fan-base excited. Analysts who suggested Carolina would take a step back in 2014 because of key personnel losses, but Carolina’s 2-0 start had fans convinced fans that the anthers were still strong.
Then came the losing. Then more losing. The Panthers went 1-8-1 over the next 10 games. Carolina was in a couple of those games, they even tied one, but several of the losses were just pure beat downs. The long stretch of losses seemed to beat the notion of winning out of the Panthers and their fan base. Not only had the Panthers forgot how to win, they looked like a team that couldn’t.
“It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn”
The saying proved coldly true in Minnesota, where the Vikings pillaged the Panthers, scoring 14 off two blocked punts. The game got out of hand quickly, and aside from a solid effort from Jonathan Stewart and Charles Johnson, the 31-13 loss was sobering. The offensive line looked inept, and the Panthers looked as if they were unprepared. It was so bad, there wasn’t really anywhere to look other than at the coaching staff.
The writing appeared to be on the wall. Fans began looking to the next season, and it appeared as if the coaching staff had too. Cutting Antoine Cason symbolized Carolina’s move toward evaluating for the future. Get the new guys reps and see who survives the off-season seemed the direction Carolina was headed.
After the demoralizing loss, Carolina then had to go on the road to face the Saints. New Orleans, who was still fighting for the division, had just beaten the Steelers. They looked to be turning their season around, while the Panthers were spiraling the drain. The Panthers, however, entered the Super Dome wounded animals, cornered after the beating inflicted by the Vikings.
The Panthers came out thrashing viciously, jumping out to an early lead. Cam played great. Mike Shula called an aggressive game, and Carolina’s defense played opportunistically. Bene Benwikere’s return stimulated a Panthers secondary, which Sean McDermott looked to retool with younger and faster guys. Tre Boston replaced Thomas DeCoud permanently, while Norman took the tough assignments. The Saints weren’t playing great, but it was a big win in the fashion Carolina needed.
Accident Threatened to Wreck Momentum
As light of dawn just arrived, Cam Newton was injured in a car accident that left Carolina without their offensive leader. Back-up quarterback, Derek Anderson, supported by a surging defense sought to preserve last hopes by fending off the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Their efforts were successful. The Panthers squeaked out a 19-17 home-win. It was a gritty game—the type of game Carolina needed to keep them humble.
The Saints and Falcons were winning as well, but this victory was essential if Carolina had any hope of playing a meaningful game upon Cam’s return. The team rallied and fended of the Bucs. Cam returned, and the stakes were high.
Money on the Table
Now on a streak, Carolina put all their money on the table as Johnny Manziel and the Cleveland Browns came to town. Cam Newton returned to the line-up, but his better than expected play alone wouldn’t along be enough to keep pace with a winning New Orleans. Carolina needed a little outside help, and ironically, it needed to come from the Atlanta Falcons. If the Falcons pulled of a road upset, it would turn over the division to the winner of the Week 17 Carolina at Atlanta game. Signs of New Orleans implosion showed again. Atlanta, much like Carolina, destroyed the Saints 30-14. Carolina had done their part, and with a little fortune, had a playoff play-in game ahead of them.
It hadn’t been glamorous, but the Carolina Panthers headed to Atlanta on a three game winning streak with a chance at winning the division and making the playoffs. It was simple and picture-perfect. Win, and they were in. Lose, and the Falcons were in.
Carolina played determined. The Panthers came out hot, and Cam played lights out. Leading Carolina on two consecutive drives, the first ending in a field-goal and the second with a touchdown pass to Ed Dickson, Carolina pulled out to an early lead. As the offense worked efficiently, the Panthers defense knocked the Falcons down at every chance, recording six total sacks. Clearly flustered by relentless attack, Matt Ryan threw two interceptions returned for touchdowns. In the end, Carolina was dominant on both sides of the ball, winning 34-3.
Getting Hot at the Right Time
The 7-8-1 Panthers are NFC South Champs. They are also hosting the Arizona Cardinals as the fourth seed, despite beliefs by some that the NFC South shouldn’t have a playoff bid period. Coach Rivera noted after the game, “record doesn’t matter,” at this point. Carolina is in, looks to be healthy, and is getting hot at just the right time.
Today, Carolina seemed to have it all figured out. The defensive line played with power. Guys like Star Loutoulelei and Tre Boston, who have battled injuries broke out. Star had two sacks and Boston a 84-yd INT return for touchdown. The offense was productive, despite two big drops from rookie Kelvin Benjamin. Carolina found their way into the end zone, whether it was at the hand of the offense or defense. Even Mike Shula seemed to have it figured out, calling a more unpredictable game than usual.
Today’s win makes Carolina 15-3 in December under Ron Rivera since 2011—tied only with Bill Bellicheck and Tom Brady, who are also 15-3 in the same span. They’re hot late, and tough to beat in December under Rivera.
Carolina clearly isn’t the same team as last year. Rookies like Bene Benwikere and Trai Turner have assumed important roles. Second year guys, like Kawaan Short and Star Lotulelei are producing. And the newer veterans, now Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly, have assumed leadership of the team. Perhaps, Carolina isn’t just hot, but instead learning how to win. If so, a hot team, one that has also learned to win, could do some damage—and beyond that of the just wild card game.
Follow the Professor, aka Tony Dunn, on Twitter @Cat_Chronicles