This Carolina Panthers franchise was built upon players that were down and out, unwanted, and beat the odds to make a difference on the field.
The undrafted Jake Delhomme. The undersized Steve Smith and Sam Mills. The thrice-ACL-repaired Thomas Davis. The list goes on.
Now add "fake smile," unclutch Cam Newton and injury-riddled, free agent wide receiver Domenik Hixon to that list.
With less than a minute to go in the game, and the Panthers down by only 3 points, these two hooked up on a 14-yard touchdown that would give Carolina the lead for good and a 17-13 victory. Newton overcame a day with accuracy issues, dropped balls from wide receivers, a bit of a limp, and quite possibly his worst game ever so far to drive the Panthers down the field and earn the win with time winding down.
In the first quarter, Steve Smith suffered a leg injury that would sideline him for the rest of the game. With Hixon in his place, he would make an incredible touchdown catch on a wet ball that was down and away from his body. This play would make "Smitty" proud.
And oh, it would be remiss to ignore the whole reason why they even had the opportunity to win the game: the Panthers defense. The "Double Trouble" of the linebacking crew, Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly combined for 38(!) tackles and did not budge when the Saints prolific offense tried to move the ball. They, along with the rest of the defense, would go on to limit the Saints to a mere 13 points and amassed two turnovers, an interception by Davis and another by Kuechly.
This win clinched a playoff spot for the Panthers, their first since 2008. A win next week against the Atlanta Falcons would give them the division title and number 2 seed in the NFC Playoffs. How about that?!
The Turning Point: The Panthers offense played miserably for the whole game. A long 43 yard touchdown run by DeAngelo Williams was the lone highlight littered amongst multiple "3 and out" drives. While the touchdown would hold for most of the game to give the Panthers the lead, a Jimmy Graham touchdown with 6 minutes left in the game deflated the team and stole all momentum.
On the ensuing drive, Newton and the offense was stifled to yet another "3 and out." Rather than going for it on 4th down, head coach "Riverboat" Ron Rivera played it safe and decided to punt it away with 2 minutes left. The defense would reward him for his faith in them, stopping the Saints yet again and forcing them to punt with 1 minute left. All that was needed was a mere 3 points and the Panthers would tie the game and force overtime.
But hold everything. This is "Riverboat" Ron we are talking about.
Despite only needing a field goal to tie the game, the Panthers played to win. A 37 yard pass to Ginn, a 14 yard pass to Olsen, and just like that, Carolina was in field goal range. But with the game and the playoffs on the line, Newton fired a strike to Hixon in the end zone to the team up for good, 17-13.
The Good: Aside from "The Drive," the clear top story of this game was the play of the Panthers defense. With the rain, playing Drew Brees/Jimmy Graham and being on the field for nearly 39 minutes of gametime, this defense had a whole lot to handle today. And not only did they do so, but they did so in a dominating fashion. Bank of America Stadium was rocking for the majority of the game, and it was all because of the fireworks show put on by the defense. Kuechly had 24 tackles and an interception. Davis had 14 tackles and an interception. Greg Hardy feasted on rookie left tackle Terron Armstead and muscled his way to 3 sacks. Captain Munnerlyn added another sack. This defense perhaps played its best football all season.
Two players also of note: DeAngelo Williams and his 43 yard touchdown run would be the lift the Panthers needed to give them their first lead of the game. Punter Brad Nortman pinned the Saints deep in their territory all game.
The Bad: Nothing was more maddening that the Panthers offense today. Though Newton was accurate on deep balls to Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell (dropped), and Greg Olsen (dropped), he had his fair share of misses on passes to wide open receivers. It could also be a result of the playcalling, field conditions, the Saints defense, the rain, or his limp, but Newton also was completely nullified on the ground. Newton would redeem himself on the final drive, but there are clearly some things to be worked on offensively.
Also shocking was lack of Mike Tolbert’s touches in today’s game. When the Panthers needed tough yards and sure hands in the rain, Tolbert was nowhere to be found.
Panthers Offensive MVP: I was going to say running back DeAngelo Williams, by default, but the offensive game was all about Cam Newton. Casual observers and fantasy football managers will see a stat line of 181 yards passing and 6 yards rushing and guffaw. But those that watched the game saw a young quarterback finally get his signature win after quarterbacking his offense for the go-ahead touchdown with only 1 minute to go in the game.
Panthers Defensive MVP: Pick one, pick any. But I’ll select Thomas Davis. Sure, Kuechly had the eye popping stats, the 20+ tackles and interception. But Davis had the most impressive of tackles and interception on the day. He was constantly sniffing out screen passes and had a few tackles for loss. His interception came when he showed blitz, ran back, and leaped high to snare the ball. We cannot say it enough, but after coming off 3 ACL surgeries, it is so impressive that he plays at this high a level. He is Pro-Bowl worthy for sure.
Panthers Who Struggled: Mike Tolbert (though not his fault)
Notable injuries: Steve Smith had a leg injury. He tried to come back into the game, but went back to the locker room after one play. Defensive tackle Colin Cole also had a leg injury and did not return.
Tweet of the game:
Loyalty. pic.twitter.com/2xIzkBge32— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) December 22, 2013
With a playoff spot already wrapped up, and playing against a struggling team, this next game appears to be a snoozer. But upon closer inspection, this game has the #2 seed, a bye week, and the division title on the line when the Carolina Panthers travel to play the Falcons in Atlanta. Oh, if you are not fired up about this game, do not forget that the Falcons are a division rival and this game means a lot to Cam Newton (from Atlanta), Charles Johnson (played at Georgia), and Greg Hardy (has not forgiven Matt Ryan yet for telling him to "get the f*ck off our field after the Falcons last second win last year).