Plays to Love, Plays to Hate (aka "P2L, P2H") looks at the most significant plays in swinging momentum and impacting the eventual outcome of the game. There is always plenty to hate about NFL officiating, so we will only focus on the plays on the field, not the refs.
Three Plays to Love
The Situation: The Cardinals faced third down nearing midfield on the game’s opening drive.
The Play: Carson Palmer dropped back to pass as Star Lotulelei beat his man on a bull rush. Star got to Palmer for the sack, wrapping up Palmer’s arms before bringing him down. But before going down, Palmer attempted to flick a weak pass to David Johnson in the flat and the ball fell to the ground. The ball bounced a few times when Thomas Davis alertly scooped it up and rumbled for a 46-yard touchdown. It appeared Palmer’s arm may have been going forward for a pass attempt, thus making the play an incomplete pass and not a fumble, but the play was called a fumble and a TD for a 7-0 Panthers lead.
2nd Quarter 14:45 – Panthers 14, Cardinals 0. Panthers ball 1st-and-10 on CAR 35
The Situation: The Panthers led 14-0 and had the ball early in the second quarter, looking to expand on their lead.
The Play: Cam Newton started under center with Jonathan Stewart lined up deep behind him. Newton took the snap and dropped back to pass as Calais Campbell immediately burst through the line with a sack in his sights. But J-Stew alertly stepped up and gave a perfect chip block on Campbell, slowing him down just enough to give Cam time to hit Kelvin Benjamin on a deep route over the middle. Benjamin caught the ball and sprinted for a 50-yard gain, setting up a J-Stew TD and a 21-0 Panthers lead.
4th Quarter 3:19 – Panthers 30, Cardinals 20. Cardinals ball 1st-and-10 on CAR 40
The Situation: Following a crucial Jonathan Stewart fumble late in the fourth quarter (more on this below), Arizona took possession looking to stay alive.
The Play: On the first play following the Stewart fumble, Carson Palmer threw to the left flat. Kony Ealy got his hands up at the line of scrimmage and tipped the pass up to himself and came down with the interception. It was an incredibly heady and athletic play by Ealy, and his interception virtually sealed the win for the Panthers.
Three Plays to Hate
2nd Quarter 1:21 – Panthers 24, Cardinals 0. Cardinals ball 1st-and-10 on CAR 49
The Situation: Trailing 24-0, the Cardinals were trying to get points on the board before the end of the half.
The Play: Carson Palmer dropped to pass as corner back Leonard Johnson came off the edge on a blitz. Johnson dropped Palmer for a sack and a 10-yard loss, but in the process Johnson ripped off Palmer’s helmet and was rightfully flagged for a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty. Instead of 2nd-and-20 from the Arizona 41, it was now 1st-and-10 from the Carolina 34. The penalty helped extend a Cardinals drive that ended with a touchdown (see the next "Play to Hate" below), cutting Carolina’s lead to 24-7 at the half.
2nd Quarter :26 – Panthers 24, Cardinals 0. Cardinals ball 2nd-and-3 on CAR 5
The Situation: With the help of Leonard Johnson’s penalty, the Cardinals had the ball at the Carolina five yard line in the closing seconds of the first half.
The Play: David Johnson lined up wide left with J.J. Nelson in the slot. Daryl Worley was covering Johnson and Kurt Coleman was lined up in front of Nelson. The Cardinals receivers ran a crossing route, and both Worley and Coleman followed Johnson, leaving Nelson absolutely uncovered in the corner of the end zone. I’m not sure who was at fault (Worley or Coleman so I’m pinning this on both of them), but the ugly blown coverage led to as easy of a touchdown you will see in the NFL, cutting the Panthers lead to 24-7 at the half.
4th Quarter 3:28 – Panthers 30, Cardinals 20. Panthers ball 1st-and-10 on CAR 37
The Situation: Carolina led by 10 late and was looking to run the ball and keep the clock moving.
The Play: Jonathan Stewart, who had been stellar both running and blocking all game, shockingly fumbled the ball and Arizona recovered, giving the Cardinals one final unexpected shot at a comeback. J-Stew was getting gang tackled and tried to fight for an additional yard instead of just going down to avoid a fumble. When defenses are trailing late in the game, they always try to stand up the running back and strip the ball. J-Stew made it too easy for them in this case, and his attempt to grind out one more yard nearly cost the Panthers late. But fortunately for the Panthers, Kony Ealy intercepted the Cardinals next pass as highlighted above.
Closing It Out & Summing It Up
Hallelujah! After six totally craptastic games, the "real" Carolina Panthers finally showed up for this one.
Carolina’s front seven has been frustratingly impotent this year, but against Arizona they were flat out dominant. Star Lotulelei had a career-high three sacks in addition to forcing the fumble Thomas Davis returned for a score. In all, the Panthers defense recorded eight sacks, just one shy of the franchise record.
Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott conjured up a beautiful game plan. Carson Palmer was getting pressured or hit on nearly every pass with rushers coming from the D-line, linebackers, and corners.
Carolina’s front four kept collapsing the line of scrimmage, limiting David Johnson to 10 carries for 24 yards. Johnson came in averaging 97 rushing yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry, but he had nowhere to run against Carolina.
Here’s to hoping the "real" Panthers show up for each of the team’s remaining nine games. The team we saw against Arizona could beat any team in the league on any given Sunday.
At 2-5 the road to the playoffs will be hard, but this week the Panthers got the car out of the ditch and back on the highway.
"P2L, P2H" Season Leaders
Plays to Love Year-to-Date:
4 "PTL" – Cam Newton
3 "PTL" – Kelvin Benjamin, Kurt Coleman, Thomas Davis
2 "PTL" – Andy Lee, Star Lotulelei
1 "PTL" – Bene Benwikere, Cameron Artis-Payne, Charles Johnson, Corey Brown, Devin Funchess, Greg Olsen, Jonathan Stewart, Kony Ealy, Kyle Love, Lavar Edwards, Shaq Thompson, Robert McClain, Vernon Butler
Plays to Hate Year-to-Date:
3 "PTH" – Kurt Coleman
2 "PTH" – Bene Benwikere, Cam Newton, Daryl Worley, Derek Anderson
1 "PTH" – Colin Jones, Graham Gano , James Bradberry, Jonathan Stewart, Kelvin Benjamin , Kony Ealy, Leonard Johnson, Luke Kuechly, Michael Oher, Ryan Kalil, Ted Ginn, Zack Sanchez