They did it. The notion that Sunday's game was the Panthers "Super Bowl" is a touch overwrought, but it was the most important game in the tenures of Ron Rivera and Cam Newton. Entering Week 10 this was a team that looked immensely talented, but impossible to hang your hat on given its lack of signature wins. Numerous teams have beaten up on the Giants, Falcons and Buccaneers -- but the Panthers joined the Seahawks and Colts as one of only three teams to beat San Francisco.
It wasn't a pretty game, none of it was. Neither team was really able to get an offensive footing and it became clear the winner would be the team that better managed close situations and didn't make the small mistakes that can result in a loss. Rewind a year or two and this was always Carolina, the hapless nincompoops that found a way to lose no matter the circumstances and continued to lower the bar on fan expectations.
With two minutes left on the clock the ball was in the quarterback's hands needing a final drive to win the game, and he threw an interception. The camera pans left to reveal a dejected Colin Kaepernick, not Newton -- while the Panthers quarterback strides onto the field to kneel out the game. This wasn't Carolina's time to throw the game away, this team arrived. In five weeks the team grew up, turning a 180 as if they visited football's Zoltar. The growing pains haven't always been easy, but it's impossible to doubt this team anymore.
I became sold on the Carolina Panthers midway through the first half. In my game preview I said this wasn't a must win, but another "must complete." Mathematically the team could lose and still find its way into the playoffs, but it was important to show this team wasn't a one-and-done, for the future if nothing more.
Rivera had his team prepared, something the team has sorely lacked over the last two years. In the past the Panthers have trotted out in whatever city they rolled into, frantically flapping around like a team from "The Amazing Race" before finding their footing with 15 minutes left in the game and too late to turn it around. This was different and meaningful.
It would be irresponsible to not talk about the rather large elephant in the room -- injury. Yes, there's no doubt the Panthers greatly benefited from facing a 49ers team that didn't have Michael Crabtree, that lost Vernon Davis in the first quarter and then safety Eric Reid. It derailed that the team does on offense and took away Kaepernick's hot read. This became vitally important when it became clear he didn't have time to work through his progressions.
There's no need to have an inferiority complex because the Panthers exploited something another team was lacking. It's what the team did in Week one when they almost beat the Seahawks, and if you watched Sunday Night Football you saw the New Orleans Saints repeatedly attack the center of the field when Sean Lee was out. Good teams notice mismatches and leverage them to their advantage, there's no shame in accepting it was a part of the victory and being proud of the coaching staff for identifying that as a weakness.
Without Davis the team brought more pressure on linebacker and safety blitzes, unafraid to leave the center of the field open. Anquan Boldin requires time to have his routes develop, so it became a matter of simply getting to Kaepernick first -- which they did.
Still have a problem with this assessment?
Glass half full...
There's not a whole lot else to cover that I didn't in my 600 word intro, but here we go.
The defensive line gets a lot of credit, and rightfully so -- but this group of linebackers is woefully underrated. Entering Sunday's game I felt like it would hinge on the Vernon Davis-Thomas Davis matchup, but I had no clue A.J. Klein would be so instrumental. The entire linebacker group rose to the occasion and each made plays in their respective positions. Luke Kuechly continues to amaze, and it was nice to see him bounce back after a couple of rough starts. As a whole the group finished with 21 tackles, 2.0 sacks, four tackles for a loss and one forced fumble. That's a heck of a lot of production for a 4-3 unit not known for pass rushing.
Having Jonathan Stewart back in the lineup doesn't reinvent the wheel on offense, but it allows the team to give opponents different looks in the run game -- something they've lacked this season with just DeAngelo Williams. Counter one back and they'll throw another in, switch to that one and they'll change pace again. This is what will get the Panthers to the playoffs when paired with a dominant defense.
Be happy with this win, every fan of the team deserves it. Kaepernick will try to diminish it with "lack of execution" talk so I'll just drop this here.
Didn’t execute b/c Panthers D is good MT @Christian_Gin: Kaepernick on the loss: We didn't execute. Panthers defense didn't surprise us— Niners Nation (@NinersNation) November 11, 2013
Glass half empty...
If you're the eternal pessimist then this game probably pulled you back to the center a little. Does a one-point win over San Francisco counteract losses to Buffalo and Arizona? Perhaps, but the Panthers still caught some breaks.
Cam Newton was pretty terrible for much of the game. He didn't see the field well and struggled to move the ball down field. He was playing a good defense, that is a given -- but they also allowed Jake Locker to throw for 326 yards and two touchdowns against them.
If the Panthers want to be a real playoff team this year Newton needs to be more consistent, it's that simple.
In my projected win total this game was a loss, so I have the Panthers gaining ground on New Orleans even with the Saints dominant win. I don't see Drew Brees manhandling this 49ers defense next week, while I think the Panthers have a talented enough defensive front that they can pressure Tom Brady on Monday Night Football.
I've said for the last three weeks that this season comes down to the two game head-to-head with New Orleans, and that's where everything will happen.