San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick led the Niners to a 23-10 win at Carolina.

Carolina Panthers’ dream season ends with 23-10 loss to 49ers

CHARLOTTE – The Carolina Panthers‘ dream season came to an abrupt end Sunday, as the San Francisco 49ers defeated the NFC’s second seed, 23-10, at Bank of America Stadium. Squandered opportunities by Carolina (could have led 28-6), set up the loss.

But I’ll bet if I had told Panthers fans back in August, would you be happy if the Cats could host a playoff game in January, the answer would have been a resounding, “Absolutely!”

The game was a defensive struggle, as expected. Carolina fell behind 6-0 following two field goals by the Niners Phil Dawson. But Cam Newton, who played exceedingly well in the first half, found his stride, and his receivers in the second quarter.  His best pass was a 31-yard touchdown throw to wide receiver Steve Smith, which gave the Panthers a 7-6 lead early in the quarter. Ten minutes later, Carolina’s Graham Gano hit a 24-yard field goal as Riverboat Ron Rivera, stung from earlier missing a fourth-and-one from the half-yard line opportunity, chose to get the easy three points, giving Carolina a 10-6 lead.

San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick led the Niners to a 23-10 win at Carolina.
San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick led the Niners to a 23-10 win at Carolina.

Just when you thought the Panthers might have had the Niners number, Colin Kaepernick became Superman (more on that later). He led the visitors on a 12-play, 80-yard drive that consumed 3:36. His one-yard touchdown toss to Vernon Davis in the back corner of the end zone and subsequent PAT gave the Niners a 13-10 halftime lead. It was the first touchdown scored by San Francisco in 18 drives against the Panthers this season.

And to make things worse for the home team, the Niners defense stuffed the Panthers on their opening drive of the second half – three-and-out – keeping all the momentum with the NFC’s No. 5 seed. Then, Kaepernick was at it again. He led the Niners down the field on an 8-play, 77-yard drive in 4:32, culminating with Kap’s 4-yard rush into the end zone. After not scoring a touchdown on 17 drives against Carolina this season, suddenly, the Niners had two in a row. And, to make things interesting, Kaepernick celebrated by copying Cam Newton’s nearly-patented Superman celebration pose, before kissing his bicep, which, of course, is Kap’s celebratory move.

In the second half, the Niners defense stifled Newton and the offensive line for Carolina was unable to hold off the mostly four-man rush. Newton was sacked time and time again, as he was unable to find open receivers. With 4:30 to play in the game, Carolina’s chances ended when Newton threw his first interception of the game to Dante Whitner. With the Niners leading 23-10, a touchdown was about the only hope the Cats had to come back in the game.

Following the game, Kaepernick said, “They did some unorthodox things early, then we got into our rhythm and started making plays.”

No need to cry about this one…the Panthers had their chances early, but the better team won today. The team with playoff experience won the game. The team that was able to make crucial stops on their own goal line (twice) early in the game, won it. The team that failed to intercept a pass thrown right in their breadbasket, nine yards away from their end zone, and a near-sure pick-six, lost.

Here’s what happened to the Panthers early in the game: First, on the half-yard line, a fourth down try for the touchdown failed as the Niners stuffed Newton on a sneak. The second was when cornerback Quentin Mikell dropped a potential nine-yard pick-six from Colin Kaepernick. Really, I could have run that in (if I had caught it). Then, probably because of the first failure to score from the half-yard line, facing a similar situation, Riverboat Ron went for the sure three points, as Gano made field goal. Think about it…21 potential points became just 3. If the field was 99 yards long, this would have been a different game, but, of course, it is not.

The Panthers had an excellent season, winning the NFC South and winning 12 regular-season games. They are in fine shape to post back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in 2014. This one will sting, but it shouldn’t take away from what was overall a much better season than almost everyone expected.

Two of the best young quarterbacks in the game meet before today's contest. San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick (left) and Carolina's Cam Newton.
Two of the best young quarterbacks in the game meet before today’s contest. San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick (left) and Carolina’s Cam Newton.

This year, the Panthers helped me get a few bucket list items marked off. As a member of the working press, I was treated as an equal during the entire season, from July through today. They gave me full media credentials and access to the players and coaching staff. I was on the sidelines during practice, at times close enough so that I believe I could have made a couple of plays (not really…). I attended games at Bank of America Stadium and was treated with respect by staff and media peers. And to have been able to cover this team from the opening of training camp (when I said I felt they would win 10 games) until today. It was quite a ride. I hope you, my readers, have enjoyed some of my insights this season.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton scampers past the Falcons on one of his runs Sunday. (PHOTO: Charlotte Observer)

Carolina Panthers Win NFC South; Clinch No. 2 Seed (at least)

ATLANTA – The Carolina Panthers proved it’s not how you start (1-3) but rather how you finish (11-1). The Panthers (12-4) fell behind the Atlanta Falcons 10-0 early in Sunday’s game, but ended up winning 21-20. The win gave the Panthers the NFC South Division championship, earned them a bye in the playoffs, and at least the NFC number two seed. Should Seattle lose and San Francisco win, the Cats would be the top seed in the NFC.

But let’s not worry about that. Just savor the NFC South title for two weeks…at least! This team now joins the 1996, 2003 and 2008 teams as division winners and earned the Panthers at least one home playoff game. Panthers quarterback said this team had been “0-for since he got here” on Fox TV after the game. But today, he can call himself champ!

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton scampers past the Falcons on one of his runs Sunday. (PHOTO: Charlotte Observer)
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton scampers past the Falcons on one of his runs Sunday. (PHOTO: Charlotte Observer)

The defense made life miserable for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, as the Panthers recorded a team-record nine sacks of Ryan, including four by Greg Hardy alone.

Hardy broke Charles Johnson’s single-game record of 3.5 sacks, set here last season, and tied Kevin Greene (15 in 1996) for the most prolific sack season in team history.

The Panthers finished with 60 sacks on the year, which tied the ’96 team for most in a season.

One thing Atlanta did that no other team accomplished against the Panthers this season was to score a touchdown on its opening drive. It was an 11-play, 80-yard drive capped by a 9 yard touchdown pass from Ryan to Matt Snelling. The Falcons added a 42-yard field goal by Matt Bryant to go ahead by 10 with 10 minutes remaining in the half. Then the Panthers got going.

White’s pick-six was followed by a 13-play 96-yard drive culminating with Newton throwing a 3-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn with just 19 seconds remaining in the half.

Atlanta responded with a 39-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to Roddy White with 9:50 remaining in the third quarter to take a 17-14 lead. But Newton was not done. He led the Panthers on a 10-play 76-yard drive that ended with a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen, putting the Cats back on top, 21-17.

In the fourth quarter, Atlanta added a 37-yard field goal by Bryant to get within a point of the Panthers at 21-20, but could do no more. On their final drive of the day, the Falcons were trying to get close enough to kick a potential game-winning field goal, and were driving down the field when disaster hit. A bad snap from center to quarterback led to a big loss and with the clock running down, Ryan tried to spike the ball, but the offense was called for illegal procedure, and, with a mandatory ten-second runoff on the clock that effectively ended their chances.

Offensively, Newton, playing on an ankle he twisted last week against New Orleans, was the game’s leading rusher with 12 carries for 72 yards and also threw for a pair of scores. He ended up 15-of-27 passing for 149 yards, two touchdowns and one interception (off a tip).

Olsen caught 6 passes for 42 yards and one touchdowns. Newton’s favorite receiver, Steve Smith, was not available for the game due to PCL (knee) injury. The bye next week gives him a good chance to recover and possibly play in the playoff game in Charlotte.

Trailing 10-0, perhaps the game’s biggest play was made by an unknown. Rookie cornerback Melvin White intercepted Matt Ryan and ran the ball into the end zone for a pick-six, bringing the Panthers back into the game.  The interception was officially recorded as an 8-yard touchdown, but it completely changed the momentum of the game. The Panthers went on to score another touchdown to lead 14-10 at the half.

Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez was the Falcon's only representative at the coin toss. It was the future Hall of Famer's last game in the league. (PHOTO: atlantafalcons.com)
Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez was the Falcon’s only representative at the coin toss. It was the future Hall of Famer’s last game in the league. (PHOTO: atlantafalcons.com)

Atlanta’s future Hall of Fame tight end, Tony Gonzalez, was honored before the game, as he was the lone player to represent the Falcons at the coin toss. He also was honored at halftime by team owner, Arthur Blank. The fans gave Gonzalez tremendous applause during the game. And, incidentally, Gonzales caught Ryan’s first and last pass of the game.

After gaining the bye into the playoffs, the Panthers will host a yet-to-be-named opponent in two weeks at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. It’ll be fun! Surprises always are…and if any of you thought this team, either as the season began, or as they started 1-3, would be hosting a playoff game…let me know. Personally, I had them down for 10 wins this season…but then again, I had them down for 9 last year and was way off. Much happier to be one short this season!

Touchdown, Panthers! Dominik Hixon caught Cam Newton's game-winning pass in the end zone to cap a 5 play, 65-yard drive with :23 left in the contest. (Photo: David T. Foster III, Charlotte Observer)

The Carolina Panthers incredible year now adds another chapter. A huge home game played in two kinds of weather…first in nice weather, then in a deluge. And Cam Newton finally showed everyone why he was the number one draft selection three years ago, leading his team on a 65-yard, no-timeout touchdown drive in the last-minute of the game. Final: Carolina Panthers 17, New Orleans Saints 13.

Carolina is back in the playoffs for the first time in five years. The Panthers (11-4) can claim the NFC South, a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game by beating the Falcons (4-10) next weekend in Atlanta. A loss by the Saints (10-5) against Tampa Bay (4-11) next week also would give the Panthers the division.

The Panthers won on a day when they were outgained by 143 yards, ran nearly half as many offensive plays (44) as the Saints (81) and were 0-for-9 on third downs.

In the biggest home game of the season…heck, the biggest GAME of the season…the Panthers made everyone uncomfortable. Well, not really, but for fans, they waited nearly 60 minutes to absolutely explode…The Panthers winning drive began with 55 seconds left…no timeouts remaining…on their own 35 yard line. Newton finally found the touch he was missing all game, and made the biggest play of the drive (and maybe of the season) when he found Ted Ginn Jr. on a deep in route for a 37-yard gain to the Saints’ 28. Coach Ron Rivera thought Ginn would be open if the line protected Newton, which it did.

Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen caught a critical pass from Cam Newton on the game-winning drive. (PHOTO: Jeff Siner, Charlotte Observer)
Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen caught a critical pass from Cam Newton on the game-winning drive. (PHOTO: Jeff Siner, Charlotte Observer)

A completion to tight end Greg Olsen moved the Panthers to the 14, setting up the winning play by Domenik Hixon, who was only in the game because Steve Smith had injured his knee in the first half.

With Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins blitzing, Hixon beat cornerback Corey White on a corner route and Newton found him. Hixon, who came to Charlotte from the Giants during the offseason, had caught three passes for 21 yards before Sunday.

Touchdown, Panthers! Dominik Hixon caught Cam Newton's game-winning pass in the end zone to cap a 5 play, 65-yard drive with :23 left in the contest. (Photo: David T. Foster III, Charlotte Observer)
Touchdown, Panthers! Domenik Hixon caught Cam Newton’s game-winning pass in the end zone to cap a 5 play, 65-yard drive with :23 left in the contest. (Photo: David T. Foster III, Charlotte Observer)

The Panthers won on a day when they were outgained by 143 yards, ran nearly half as many offensive plays (44) as the Saints (81) and were 0-for-9 on third downs.

Who else was uncomfortable? Every one of the 24 players tackled by linebacker Luke Kuechly. That’s right, 24 tackles by Keek, the most in a game since 1994, according to STATS, LLC. And he also had an interception…just so you know he’s a really good player. Probably the most instinctive linebacker in the league. And add to that linebacker Thomas Davis, who had another monster day.

Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) making one of his 24 tackles on the day. This one was on New Orleans Saints wide receiver Marques Colston. (PHOTO: Jeff Siner, Charlotte Observer)
Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) making one of his 24 tackles on the day. This one was on New Orleans Saints wide receiver Marques Colston. (PHOTO: Jeff Siner, Charlotte Observer)

And, just in case you were concerned that the special teams get no credit, second-year punter Brad Nortman punted eight times with an average of 50.8 yards and a net of 47. He hit a long of 60 and downed two punts inside the 20.

Not only did those two go inside the 20, they went inside the 5. His third-quarter punt was downed by Josh Thomas at the 2, and his early fourth-quarter punt from the Carolina 40 went 57 yards to the New Orleans 3.There can’t be many games in the NFL where the winning team gets zero third-down conversions and trailed in time of possession by more than 17 minutes.

But win they did, reversing the results they received two weeks ago in New Orleans. They did it by pressuring the Saints all day long. The defense pressured Saints quarterback Drew Brees, unlike two weeks ago, and it paid off. Offensively, Newton made enough plays to get the points necessary for the win. This despite a bad ankle and the loss of wide receiver Steve Smith, his favorite target, early in the game (knee) and despite playing on a waterlogged field that received over an inch of rain in the third quarter. They won because it was their time. The pieces are in place. Now they need to finish the regular-season off with a win, earn their first-round bye and get to host a home playoff game. Anything beyond that is an absolute bonus!

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING:

  • Panthers coach Ron Rivera: “It’s exciting. We’re in the playoffs and that’s one of the best things we’ve got going. But we still have a lot of business left at hand. We’re not going to be satisfied with just being in if we have an opportunity to get a good seed.”
  • Panthers punter Brad Nortman: “When the field gets so wet and damp it tends to catch better. It’s not going to take a strong bounce. Once the ball hits the ground it’s sort of up to God where it goes. I kicked it where I wanted to and it landed and it killed it. Luckily both of those died right there.”
  • Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, deflecting praise and giving everyone else credit for his incredible 24-tackle, one interception day: “It’s not me, it’s not Thomas (Davis). It’s the coaches, (defensive coordinator Sean) McDermott, (linebackers coach) Al (Holcomb), it’s the D-line that help us do that.”
  • Kuechly on what the defense did differently this week against the Saints compared to two weeks ago:“I think we got back to what we want to do – play sound, play smart, get after the quarterback and get up in Drew Brees’ face.”
  • Panthers quarterback Cam Newton: “We just kept fighting, kept pounding, kept getting after it. We knew we were one drive away, one play away. A couple guys at the end were saying, ‘Let’s not worry about what we’ve been playing for up to this point, let’s just play for this next play.’ ”
  • Panthers safety Mike Mitchell: “We’re a team and we all believe in one another, and that’s a beautiful thing.”
  • Panthers center Ryan Kalil: “We’ve had a few scars the last couple seasons, so there’s a lot to celebrate about and a lot to be proud of.”
  • Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn: “The NFC South is up for grabs. We go take care of business down in Atlanta and we get the first-round bye and it’s closer to our goal – and that is to get to the Super Bowl.”
  • Saints quarterback Drew Brees on the difference two weeks make: “Same team. Obviously you kind of put together some wrinkles anytime you are playing a divisional opponent the second time, especially with only a two-week lapse. But I don’t think there were any big surprises out there today. Just two really good football teams going at it for 60 minutes and it took all 60.”
  • Saints tight end Jimmy Graham: “Sometimes it’s really hard to march the ball down the field when it’s raining like that in the third quarter. That limits you, especially when you want to come out and take some shots (downfield). They would cover very well and more than anything they had a good pass rush. When a pass rush is like that, you have to chip and really focus and sometimes try to get the ball out quick.”
  • Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis: It hurts, but like I said before, three of the last four Super Bowl champions took the hard route. So if that’s what we’ve got to do to win it, that’s what we’ve got to do.”
Captain

Carolina Panthers playoff push continues with 30-20 win over Jets

Entering the fourth quarter, the Carolina Panthers knew they needed to make plays against the New York Jets (6-8). And this time it was a special-teamer – little-known Jason Williams – who blocked a punt early in the fourth quarter with Carolina clinging to a 16-13 lead and led to a Panthers touchdown. And everything turned around…just like that.

Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn set a team record with his fifth career interception returned for a touchdown.
Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn set a team record with his fifth career interception returned for a touchdown. (PHOTO: David T. Foster, Charlotte Observer)

Seven minutes later, Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn intercepted a pass and returned it 41 yards for a touchdown, giving the Cats an insurmountable 30-13 lead.  That play gave Munnerlyn his fifth career pick-six setting a team record . He previously shared the record with Mike Minter. Munnerlyn has seven career interceptions, so returning five for touchdowns is a remarkable feat.

The Jets did score once again, but could not come any closer. Final score, Panthers 30 Jets 20.

New York played tough on Sunday…like a team with nothing to lose. And that’s how they should be playing. See what talent you have and let ‘em go after it. Carolina, on the other hand, now owns a 10-4 record, are in the 5th playoff slot, but, with a win next Sunday against the New Orleans Saints (also 10-4) and a win the following Sunday at Atlanta, the Panthers would win the NFC South and get a bye going into the playoffs.

While the Panthers win wasn’t pretty – I would call it workmanlike – it was critical. The NFL’s No.1 scoring defense gave up 20 points to the very average Jets (6-8). The Panthers had to kick three field goals when drives bogged down, and “Riverboat” Ron finally misfired, going for a fourth-and-2 and missing it.

But style points mean nothing in the NFL these days. Only wins do. And the Panthers now have 10 of them, including nine out of their last ten games.

Big plays…the blocked punt, the returned interception, a 72-yard touchdown reception by DeAngelo Williams…this has become the hallmark of the 2013 Panthers team. Making big plays when they need to and taking care of business for the rest of the game.

Like last week, the Panthers began slowly, getting only two field goals in two red zone opportunities early. They left eight potential points out there. And they are aware of this problem. In all, the Panthers went a dismal 1-for-5 inside the Jets’ 20 – a stat that usually doesn’t equal victory.

“We want to get the ball in the red zone – and score touchdowns,” left tackle Jordan Gross said. “But luckily we were able to keep the lead all game and our defense held them when they needed to. “We scored two touchdowns in other phases. It was definitely a team win.”

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (left) and Jets quarterback Geno Smith exchange jerseys after the game. (PHOTO: David T. Foster, Charlotte Observer)
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (left) and Jets quarterback Geno Smith exchange jerseys after the game. (PHOTO: David T. Foster, Charlotte Observer)

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton put a slight scare into the crowd, going into the locker room with one play left in the first half. Scrambling on third down late in the first half, Newton was tackled by New York defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, who slammed him down on his left hip and landed on his lower body.

Newton jogged to the locker room, where they did not X-ray his foot. Coach Ron Rivera said he was never concerned about his quarterback. “Once I got in they told me they just wanted to make sure and that way they would be able to re-tape his ankle and get his shoe back on.”

Newton waited until the last-minute to emerge from the tunnel and jog back to the Carolina Panthers’ sideline to start the second half.

Head trainer Ryan Vermillion brought two extra pairs of cleats for Newton and placed them at the end of the bench while Newton warmed up.

He said after the game he’d be OK. “It’ll be all right. It was a shocker at first. As the game progressed it loosened up.”

“He stubbed his toe. They wanted to come in and make sure it was okay,” Rivera said. “We had a little bit of time, so they took him in early so they could take his shoe off, cut his tape off and take a look at it. But he is fine.”

PLAYOFF SCENARIOS:

It can be very simple: If the Panthers win out, Carolina will win the NFC South and receive a first-round bye. Or not. the 49ers, Panthers and Saints all sit at 10-4, but San Francisco lost to both New Orleans and Carolina this year. Arizona (9-5) is also in the mix for a wild card and would hold the tiebreaker with the Panthers if both teams finish with the same record. The next two weeks will be stressful for players, coaches, management, owners…and fans. But wildly entertaining if you just love football.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING:

  •  Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy said next week’s outcome would be different:  “I feel like we’re going to come out this week and win. That’s what we do. We’re going to show up. I have full confidence in my team,” Hardy said. “You know me, I’m going to work my behind off in practice and come out and dominate like I normally do. They should probably be ready for a battle.”
  • Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross on Coach Ron Rivera’s prediction that the next Saints game would be for the NFC title:  “Rivera told us that was going to happen. I didn’t know he was a fortune-teller.”
  • Gross said Rivera had told his downcast team on Monday – just a few hours after a prime-time, 31-13 pasting administered by the Saints on Dec. 8 – exactly what would happen in six days. “He said keep believing and keep working, because the Saints are going to lose one on the road and we’re going to play them in two weeks for the division title,” Gross said. “That guy believes, man. It’s pretty infectious.”
  • Panthers tight end Greg Olsen on what win number 10 meant:  “It’s kind of the rule of thumb every year is if we can get to 10 wins we have a pretty good chance at the playoffs. Between that and winning your division, those are the two things that give you the best chance of making it, and we’re in position now to accomplish both. We’re sitting in good position now, big home game for us and the fans are going to be fired up. We’re going to need them.”
  • Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on the win:  “It’s very big, We control our own destiny right now.”
  • Panthers wide receiver Brandon LaFell on the upcoming Saints game:  “I wish we could play tomorrow. We’ve got the Saints on our minds.”
  • Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn on the first Saints game and the one coming up:  “We just let Drew Brees dink and dunk us down the field and they made plays. I think it’s going to be a totally different game plan. I think we’re going to go out there. And we’re going to execute. And we’re going to win the game.”
  • Munnerlyn on defensive coordinator Sean McDermott’s late Saturday night film session at the team hotel:  “I think (McDermott) just saw something and he kept watching film. He said, ‘This is my life, man. I want to win this game so bad.’ He did a great job of seeing what they didn’t see, their weakness, and he attacked it.”
  • Munnerlyn reacting to the Jets’ receiver Santonio Holmes who, earlier in the week, had called the Panthers’ secondary the defense’s “weakest link.”:   “I’ve never been called out like that before. I have never been a part of nothing like that. If you think that, I never heard nobody say it. And he went out publicly and he said it. I’m the laid back guy in the group. I took it personal. I was fired up when I got to the stadium. I couldn’t wait to play. Maybe I need to get a little geeked before the game more.”
  • Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert on his fellow running back DeAngelo Williams – who broke free to score on a 72-yard touchdown catch and run – his longest reception of his career:  “I told him he looked slow. We’ll see how much cardio he does this week.”
  • Panthers safety Mike Mitchell:   “My coaches have engrained it in me so much I’m still not very happy about this game. We gave up 20 points, which is far too many.”
  • Jets linebacker Calvin Pace on the difficult season and hot they want to end it:  “Try to win these last two games and finish what we started. There’s still two opportunities to go out and play football, so it’s something to be thankful for.”
Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short tackles Jets quarterback Geno Smith during Sunday's game. (PHOTO: Jeff Siner, Charlotte Observer)
Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short tackles Jets quarterback Geno Smith during Sunday’s game. (PHOTO: Jeff Siner, Charlotte Observer)
  • Jets quarterback Geno Smith:   “There was plenty of positive today, but the way I am, I’m not even looking at that.”
Jimmy Graham and Luke Kuechly NO

Carolina Panthers win streak ends; Saints rip Cats 31-13

NEW ORLEANS  -  Advantage, New Orleans. Yes, the Carolina Panthers will get their shot at redemption on Dec. 22 in Charlotte, but for now, the Saints are one game up on the Cats in the NFC South race. After getting off to a 6-0 lead, the Panthers could do nothing right. They were ripped apart by Saints quarterback Drew Brees. The Panthers defensive backfield was exposed and Saints defensive coach Rob Ryan attacked the Panthers offensive in so many ways the visitors were unable to mount any kind of attack.

Panthers center Ryan Kalil said offensively, not being able to convert their two red zone opportunities into touchdowns made the Cats one-dimensional when they fell behind. That limited the way the Panthers could play…something they had not experienced in nine weeks.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees carved up the Carolina Panthers defense on Sunday, leading his team to a 31-13 win. (Photo: David Grunfeld, NOLA.com)
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees carved up the Carolina Panthers defense on Sunday, leading his team to a 31-13 win. (Photo: David Grunfeld, NOLA.com)

On the other side of the ball, Brees bounced back from a rough outing last week to carve up the Carolina Panthers’ secondary Sunday, passing for 313 yards and four touchdowns in the Saints’ 31-13 win before a raucous crowd of 73,000-plus at the Superdome.

The loss snapped a franchise-record, eight-game win streak for the Panthers (9-4), who dropped a game behind New Orleans (10-3) in the race for first place in the NFC South. The Panthers’ last loss had been a 22-6 defeat at Arizona on Oct. 6. Carolina fell a game short of matching Kansas City’s nine-game streak for the longest this season.

But the Panthers allowed Brees to get in a rhythm, failing to get any pressure on him during a second quarter when Brees threw three touchdowns to take control of the game. That’s when the game was really decided. The Saints scored touchdowns on consecutive drives of 80, 86 and 76 yards and the Panthers did nothing.

Brees completed 30 of 42 passes and became the fifth quarterback to surpass 50,000 career passing yards, joining Brett Favre, Dan Marino, John Elway and Peyton Manning.

The 31 points were the most allowed by the Panthers’ second-ranked defense since a 44-38 win at New Orleans in Week 17 last season. But that game came against a Saints’ defense that gave up more yards than any team in NFL history.

Rivera said the defensive backs allowed the Saints’ receivers too many clean releases off the line of scrimmage.

Marques Colston caught nine passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns, while tight end Jimmy Graham added six catches for 58 yards and two scores.

Carolina had no plays of 20 yards or more, compared to six for the Saints. New Orleans improved to 7-0 at home, and is 8-1 in ‘Sunday Night Football’ games.

So…what really happened? Personally, I was not surprised the Saints won. I was surprised at the lack of fight the Panthers put up offensively. Brees is going to attack any defense…you know that. But Sunday night, in front of a national television audience, the Panthers weaknesses were totally exposed.

Brandon LaFell dropped a first-down pass when Carolina was still in the game. Cam Newton started well but lost his way, repeatedly holding the ball and allowing the New Orleans rush to take him down. Defensively, the front four for Carolina was inept. Were the Saints linemen holding a bit? It happens. But this unit plus the linebackers, is proud. They are the ones who put pressure on the other guys. Not Sunday night. Brees had time to find open receivers all night…and yes, they were open all night. Brees threw 41 passes before he was sacked. That’s because the Cats began to blitz in the third quarter. Why they didn’t do that in the first half is a mystery. The lesson here – do not give Drew Brees time to throw. Especially if your defensive backfield, the so-called “Legion of Whom,” is what it is.

Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano with one of his two first quarter field goals. Unfortunately, they resulted because the Panthers were not able to turn the red zone opportunities into touchdowns. (Photo: David T. Foster III, Charlotte Observer)
Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano with one of his two first quarter field goals. Unfortunately, they resulted because the Panthers were not able to turn the red zone opportunities into touchdowns. (Photo: David T. Foster III, Charlotte Observer)

The Panthers made mistakes, committed poorly timed penalties and came undone. The Panthers racked up four defensive penalties in the second quarter, three of which were credited to the secondary – holding on cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, pass interference on cornerback Drayton Florence and pass interference on safety Mike Mitchell. That’s one way to give up 31 points in a quarter.

Two weeks ago Mitchell called the New Orleans quarterback “soft,” and Brees responded with vintage play against the Panthers that exposed Mitchell and the entire Carolina secondary.

Next week the Panthers get the New York Jets at home. The Jets have won one road game all season, against Atlanta in early October. But for a bad team they’ve beaten good teams. They beat New England in October and they beat New Orleans in November. Is it the biggest game of the year? Coach Rivera says your next game is always the biggest of the year, so, yes…it is. Time to get well…time to work on the mistakes from the Saints game…time to change a few schemes to also prepare for the following week’s game against the Saints.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING:

Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross:  “We’re 9-4. The sky isn’t falling. We’d just gotten used to winning, eight weeks in a row now. We wanted to win. We prepared well. We just didn’t play well. But we know we’ve got them at home in two weeks. That being said, we can’t look past the Jets (next week) because they’re going to be tough.”

Gross on what he learned from the game:  “Some tough love and getting hit in the mouth might not be the worst thing in the world for us now moving forward. These games are going to get bigger and bigger, and this is a bit of a reality check for us.”

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton runs to escape from New Orleans Saints defensive lineman Tyrunn Walker during the Cats' 31-13 loss at the Superdome. (Photo: David T. Foster III, Charlotte Observer)
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton runs to escape from New Orleans Saints defensive lineman Tyrunn Walker during the Cats’ 31-13 loss at the Superdome. (Photo: David T. Foster III, Charlotte Observer)

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton:  “We played a great team today, a playoff caliber team, and it’s a great measuring stick of who we are and where we want to go.”

Newton on the team’s failure to score touchdowns after getting into the red zone twice in the first quarter:  “Field goals aren’t going to cut it. We know that as an offense.”

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera:  “The attitude changed coming in at halftime, figuring what we tried to do earlier didn’t work.  So we tried to do something different, tried to get after them and create some situations.”

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera had little to smile about during Sunday's loss to New Orleans. (Photo: David T. Foster III, Charlotte Observer)
Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera had little to smile about during Sunday’s loss to New Orleans. (Photo: David T. Foster III, Charlotte Observer)

Rivera talked about the defensive backfield and what happened: “There were some issues that did come up that we’ve got to be better with, whether it’s coverage or putting them in position to have better success.”

Rivera on his feelings after the loss:  “I’m surprised and I’m disappointed. Not good enough.”

Panthers center Ryan Kalil on the problems the Cats had offensively on their first two series, settling for two field goals after being in the red zone:  “We just didn’t finish when we got in the red zone, didn’t stop them on defense, We got behind and became one-dimensional. You get behind and start trying to play catch-up, and that’s not where we’re at our best.”

Panthers defensive tackle Greg Hardy, who has been a beast during the 8-game win streak:  “I feel like I let these guys down.  I didn’t get to the quarterback today. I didn’t have any tackles.”

Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn reflected on the game:  “We just didn’t execute well. We had some good defenses called, we just didn’t execute and get off the field. It wasn’t coverage breakdowns, it’s just that everybody’s got to hold themselves accountable and be in the right spots.”
Panthers safety Mike Mitchell, who was schooled by Brees: “They did a good job. We just didn’t play well enough to win. I don’t think they did anything to surprise us or shock us. It was really more we just didn’t execute our game plan.”
Cam TD

Carolina Panthers win franchise-record eighth-straight game

CHARLOTTE – The Carolina Panthers didn’t have to sweat out a last-second win this time. Using a bruising defense to stifle any chances the Tampa Bay Buccaneers thought they had, the Panthers (9-3) won their franchise-record eighth game in a row, 27-6. Now, however, the next two-out-of-three games against the New Orleans Saints loom, and everyone is ready.

Cam Newton, who sat out the last series, is ready. “It was great to be a part of this type of win,” Newton said. “But we all know that all roads are leading to New Orleans.” The Saints play tonight in Seattle in one of the biggest games of the season, and will host Carolina on Sunday night.

The Panthers defense dominated the Bucs, sacking quarterback Mike Glennon five times and forced him into two turnovers. Just how dominating was the Panthers’ defense? How about holding the Bucs to just one third-down conversion in ten attempts.

And the offensive line did a great job protecting Newton, not allowing a sack for the first time since November, 2012. The Bucs entered the game with 24 sacks in 11 games.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) jokes around with receivers Brandon LaFell (11) and Ted Ginn, Jr. (19) on the sideline.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) jokes around with receivers Brandon LaFell (11) and Ted Ginn, Jr. (19) on the sideline.

After two very tight games, the Panthers came out and took care of business. Carolina had more than a 2-to-1 edge in total yardage, racking up 426 yards while holding Tampa Bay to 206. Newton was 18-of-23 for 263 yards, throwing two touchdowns and two interceptions. Additionally, he led the team in rushing with 68 yards on five carries. It was the third consecutive game Newton has led the team in rushing. Tight end Greg Olsen was his favorite target via the air, catching 5 passes for 85 yards. Ted Ginn, Jr. and Brandon LaFell caught a touchdown pass each. Carolina swept the season series with the Bucs by a combined score of 58-19.

Once again, “Riverboat” Ron (Rivera) gambled on fourth-and-goal from the Tampa Bay 1 late in the first half. He got it on a Cam Newton dive in which Newton broke the plane of the goal line a half-second before fumbling. The Panthers never looked back.

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera jokes with an official during a timeout.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera jokes with an official during a timeout.

Rivera called the win “cautiously efficient,” which was correct. The Panthers weren’t perfect, but they played well enough to never be in serious danger. In many ways, for Panthers fans used to sweating it out until deep in the fourth quarter, Sunday was a relief.

The next three weeks are huge for the Panthers, who are defying the beginning-of-the-season odds. Very few people expected the Panthers to be 9-3 going into the two New Orleans games. And, should Seattle beat the Saints tonight, the Panthers and Saints would be tied for the NFC South lead. Can’t get much bigger than that!

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING:

Panthers right tackle Jordan Gross: “It’s awesome. I’ve been a part of a few winning seasons and some good teams, but winning eight in a row is tough. Especially now. As the wins pile up, you become the team other teams want to beat to put a notch in their belt. … It was a good win going into a huge game.”

Panthers center Ryan Kalil: “I’ve always felt we had a pretty talented group here. The difference has been the maturity. It’s been sort of a culmination of the last two seasons, of finally saying, ‘Enough is enough.’”

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on the win streak: “People want to keep pointing at me. But the truth of the matter is, our defense is playing lights out.”

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera on the dominating defense: “We disguised coverages very well so it put a little bit of doubt in the quarterback’s mind. He didn’t have the opportunity to release the ball quickly because I’m not sure that he was sure what our coverages were.”

Rivera on not only this win but the season as well: “It’s very satisfying because of where we came from. As I’ve said before, it’s been a hard four years for a lot of guys in that locker room. It’s been a hard two years for myself and a lot of other people as well. It is very satisfying to be on a nice little roll, but again there is a lot of work to do.”

Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen caught five passes Sunday.
Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen caught five passes Sunday.

Panthers tight end Greg Olsen: “We’ve said it all along we’re not going to have any one individual that’s up in the top of the league lead in anything.”

Panthers wide receiver Brandon LaFell: “It’s a great feeling but we’ve got a lot of unfinished business. We’re going to enjoy this win and keep rolling.”

Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy: “They beat us physically, mentally, every facet of the game. They just dominated us.”

Tampa Bay Bucs embattled head coach Greg Schiano on his rookie quarterback: “He (Glennon) maybe looked more like a rookie than he’s looked.”

Tampa Bay running back Bobby Rainey: “When we don’t beat ourselves, we’re a great team. We didn’t do that today and the results showed.
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Carolina Panthers win 7th in a row; beat Miami 20-16

MIAMI – “Seven! Seven wins in a row for the Carolina Panthers! MWA! HA! HA!” (Count Von Count on the Panthers). The Panthers (8-3) are on a roll and have tied their franchise regular-season win streak (with the 1996 team) at seven games following another close win – this time at Miami (5-6). Quarterback Cam Newton led the black-clad visitors down the field on an 80-yard drive as time was running out, and the Panthers came away with a 20-16 victory. It was his second signature drive in seven days after having none in his first 41 games.

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was not pleased with the team's effort in the first half of the game at Miami.
Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was not pleased with the team’s effort in the first half of the game at Miami.

The Panthers went into halftime trailing 16-6, and it could have been worse. Head coach Ron Rivera was furious at halftime because he felt, in his words, that the Panthers had “disrespected” the Dolphins by not playing hard enough. When the team came back onto the field at Sun Life Stadium, it was a different bunch of guys. Focused, physical and determined. Yet it took another gamble by “Riverboat Ron” to put the Cats in position to win the game.

Facing a fourth-and-10 at their own 20 with 2:33 left on the clock, the Panthers trailed Miami 16-13. Rivera, who said he prefers “Calculated Risk-Taker” to “Riverboat Ron,” played the odds.

According to an advanced NFL statistics website’s win-probability calculator, the Panthers had a 14 percent chance of winning before the fourth-down snap. Had Carolina punted, and using the average Brad Nortman punt from Sunday, the Dolphins would have gotten the ball back with an 88 percent chance to win, and the Panthers would be left with one timeout and the 2-minute warning.

“We got to do it,” Rivera said of his decision. “We only had one timeout left. You know this (Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill) is a very elusive quarterback. He showed it.”

A 19-yard completion to Smith got the Panthers a first down, and a 9-yard pass to tight end Greg Olsen got them near midfield at the 2-minute warning.

Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen caught Cam Newton's one-yard touchdown pass to give the Panthers a 20-16 win in Miami.
Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen caught Cam Newton’s one-yard touchdown pass to give the Panthers a 20-16 win in Miami.

Driving down the field while working the clock down, Newton found tight end Greg Olsen open on a 1-yard touchdown pass with 43 seconds left.  The touchdown gave the Panthers their first lead of the game, as well as the victory in front of a crowd of 60,156 and a lot of empty orange seats at Sun Life Stadium.

The game did not really feature the back-and-forth scoring as in last week against New England…yet it did come down to the opponent trying to score a last-second touchdown via the pass to take the victory from the Panthers. This time, there would be no controversial ending. Instead, second-year Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw a Hail Mary pass to the one-yard line, hoping receiver Mike Wallace would come up with the miracle catch. He almost did. Wallace was a thorn in the side of the Panthers defensive backs, who collectively had a horrible day. On the game’s final play, Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell somehow let Wallace get behind him near the goal line, but this time Wallace was unable to make the catch and the game ended.

GAME NOTES:

  • On the first series of the game, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who does not wear a mouth guard because he tends to get cotton-mouth, was hit by Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake after releasing the ball, and the force caused him to bite his tongue. “I bit my tongue and it was numb for a minute, but it didn’t have any effect on me as far as game play. I wanted to make sure my tongue was still intact,” Newton said. “I had to feel around for it for a minute and I felt it so I was good.”
  • Tannehill completed 28 of 42 passes for 310 yards – the first time the Panthers allowed a 300-yard passer since Seattle’s Russell Wilson threw for 320 in Week 1.
  • A third of Tannehill’s yardage came on two completions to Wallace, the $60 million free agent acquisition who had not been the deep threat Miami envisioned through the first 10 games. But Wallace found his way against Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, beating his twice for receptions of 53 and 57 yards.
  • The 53-yarder was the first touchdown allowed by the Panthers in the first quarter in 15 games, dating to a loss at Kansas City last December.
  • The game was the third fourth-quarter comeback win in a row for the Panthers, who now will get ready to play a revitalized Tampa Bay squad Sunday in Charlotte.
  • Week 14 game at New Orleans has been moved to an 8:30 p.m. start on Dec. 8 at the Superdome. The game was originally scheduled to kick off at 1 p.m.
  • The Panthers (8-3) remain a game behind the Saints (9-2) in the NFC South by virtue of their win at Miami on Sunday. The Saints beat Atlanta on Thursday night. Carolina and New Orleans will play twice in a 15-day span in December, in games that likely will determine the division winner.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING:

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera on Cam Newton:  “He’s been playing with a lot of confidence the last six, seven, eight weeks. I know this much, it gives everybody else confidence. I think that’s the biggest thing, not just for him, but for us as a team.”

Rivera on Miami:  “They’re a much better football team than we gave them credit for. I kind of felt like a couple of times that we were going through the motions like they’re supposed to lay down. This is the NFL and at any point in time anybody can beat anybody. It doesn’t matter what the record is. This was not an easy victory. This was a hard victory. This victory tested us.”

Rivera on the play of Newton following the big hit where he came up spitting blood:  “It took him a little bit to get refocused. Sometimes that does that, it spooks the quarterback a little bit. And I think our offensive line was spooked a little bit too. And they got a little concerned after that and they didn’t play well.”

Wide receiver Steve Smith said he thought the Panthers were lazy before halftime.  “We underestimated that team, They’re a good team, they’ve got a good defense. We had to improve and improve quickly, because it was getting ugly.”

Wideout Smith, as usual, had something more to say:  “We would’ve been getting dog-cussed and (there’d be) talk about how bad we are and we’re pretenders. I think we’ll still hear a little bit of flak from people and fans, naysayers – ‘This team’s not for real. We’ll see next week.’ Because obviously this week has passed and we survived.”

Smith, on the Panthers, a team that lost seven times by seven points of fewer last season: “Unfortunately, we had experience with two-minute drives a lot last year in our losses, so we’ve had a lot of practice. As they say, practice makes perfect.”

Carolina Panthers wideout Steve Smith makes a reception on 4th down late in the game as Miami Dolphins defenders Brent Grimes (21) and Chris Clemons (30) try to take him down.
Carolina Panthers wideout Steve Smith makes a reception on 4th down late in the game as Miami Dolphins defenders Brent Grimes (21) and Chris Clemons (30) try to take him down.

Smith on what he told Cam Newton regarding passes over the middle: “I always tell Cam, hit me in the chest and I’ll deal with the consequences.(Clemons) eyed me, so I knew he was coming. The hardest job is catching the ball. I’m going to get hit.”

Wideout and punt returner Ted Ginn, Jr. on the difference between the Panthers play in each half:  “We all came out, we’re looking at (the Dolphins) and it ain’t no real hoorah. We went out and played to their level. We came in and our leaders stepped up and talked. Coach came in and spoke. We went out and tried to play a complete half, and that’s what we did.”

Panthers defensive tackle Dwan Edwards on the difference between this year’s team and last year’s:  “Last year’s team would have found a way to lose this game. This year’s team found a way to win it.”

Panthers center Ryan Kalil, he of the infamous Super Bowl guarantee ad that ran LAST season:  “This team does an incredible job of keeping its composure. In past years, we’ve been all over the place.”

Carolina Panthers wideout Ted Ginn, Jr. (19) breaks free of New England Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington (25) to score the winning touchdown. Photo: Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer

Carolina Panthers win thrilling, controversial game, 24-20

CHARLOTTE – The Monday Night Football stage was not too large for the Carolina Panthers who won a thrilling – and controversial – game against the New England Patriots 24-20. In the Panthers biggest game since a 2008 playoff loss, 74,000 fans, most of whom wore black to match the Panthers uniforms, rocked Bank of America Stadium from before kickoff until the final play.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton celebrates throwing the winning touchdown pass in Monday night's game against New England
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton celebrates throwing the winning touchdown pass in Monday night’s game against New England. Photo: Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer

Panthers (7-3) quarterback Cam Newton drove the team 83 yards on 13 plays for the go-ahead touchdown, yet the Pats (7-3) still had a chance to win the game. Patriots (7-3) quarterback Tom Brady led his team to the Carolina 18 with 3 seconds left and threw a pass into the end zone as time expired. His target, tight end Rob Gronkowski was in the back of the end zone with Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly draped all over him. The pass fell short and was intercepted by rookie safety Robert Lester, however, an official at the back of the end zone threw a flag for pass interference.

Moving quickly, the officials gathered and waved off the flag, ruling Gronkowski could not have caught an underthrown ball.

Ever since that call, all the talk shows have been commenting about this. Had the call been upheld, the Patriots would have had the ball at the Panthers one-yard line and would have had another shot at a game-winning touchdown with no time on the clock.

If you haven’t seen the play, watch it here.

The call culminated a gutsy effort by the Panthers, who have now won six in a row, matching a six-game streak in 2005 for the second-longest in franchise history. The 1996 team won seven-in-a-row.

Newton completed 19 of 28 for 209 yards and three touchdowns, with a passer rating of 125.4. He also was the game’s leading rusher with 62 yards on seven carries.

Carolina scored on drives of 90, 57, 81 and 83 yards, and Cam Newton was every bit the match of Tom Brady on Monday night in Charlotte.

Newton’s 14-yard scramble had a Ray Rice (Baltimore Ravens running back) feel to it. It was borderline unbelievable, certainly the play of the game. During the pre-game portion of ESPN’s telecast, analyst Jon Gruden said Newton would make a play that would show you his athleticism. I had to smile as the play began to unfold. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Newton covered 75.8 yards and dodged six defenders. The best move, when he had two defenders in front of him, coming at him, was a step-back-Jack backward jump that helped free him. He also was helped by a first-class block up field by fullback Mike Tolbert.

Carolina Panthers wideout Steve Smith (89) catches a pass from Cam Newton as New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib applies pressure. Photo: Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer
Carolina Panthers wideout Steve Smith (89) catches a pass from Cam Newton as New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib applies pressure. Photo: Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer

He led the Panthers on a 90-yard, nine-play drive to begin the scoring, with wideout Steve Smith making a huge 42-yard catch – a season-long – beating Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, and starting a long night for the former Tampa Bay corner. Smith and Talib got into two skirmishes on the drive, with Talib getting flagged for 15 yards on one.

Leading 7-0 after the first quarter, the Panthers have now gone 14 consecutive games without allowing a first-quarter touchdown.

Carolina Panthers wideout Ted Ginn, Jr. (19) breaks free of New England Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington (25) to score the winning touchdown. Photo: Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer
Carolina Panthers wideout Ted Ginn, Jr. (19) breaks free of New England Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington (25) to score the winning touchdown. Photo: Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer

The win keeps the Panthers just one game back of New Orleans (8-2) in the NFC South, and still, if the playoffs began today, the Cats would be the 5 seed. The Panthers and Saints will meet two times in a three-week period in December, which should solidify things.

The Panthers face a short week, and a two-hour flight to South Florida for Sunday’s game at feisty Miami, before returning to Charlotte to face Tampa Bay.

                                                                               WHAT THEY’RE SAYING:                        

Referee Clete Blakeman, speaking to pool reporters after the game, said he believes the crew got the call right. Blakeman’s statement, in part, was this: “It was determined at that point in time that when the primary contact occurred on the tight end that the ball, in essence, was coming in underthrown and in essence it was immediate at that point intercepted at the front end of the end zone. So there was a determination that, in essence, uncatchability that the ball was intercepted at or about the same time the primary contact against the receiver occurred.”

In the 2013 NFL Digest of Rules, under Article 2 of pass-interference penalties, one of the acts that defines interference is: “a) Contact by a player who is not playing the ball that restricts the opponent’s opportunity to make the catch.” In many analysts’ opinions, Kuechly made contact with Gronkowski while not playing the ball, and it restricted Gronkowski’s opportunity to make the catch. In my opinion, yes, that happened, but since the ball was intercepted, to me, the point is moot.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton: Realistically, we’re just 7-3. We’re not No. 1, and that’s the ultimate goal. … We can’t just be satisfied with the performance. It’s not time for us to pat ourselves on the back.”

Newton on not only a huge win for this season, but a huge win for the franchise. It was symbolically important: “It was pretty cool.”

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera: “It was a gutsy effort. It wasn’t our best defensive effort. But it most certainly was one of our best offensive efforts.”

“It feels very good to win football games like we did this week and last week.”

Carolina Panthers win 5th straight – What they’re saying

For those of you who enjoy physical, defensive football, your new favorite team is the Carolina Panthers. Going into Sunday’s game in San Francisco (6-3), facing a formidable challenge, the Panthers (6-3) defense was suffocating. They held the 49ers to 9 points and gave up just four yards in the fourth quarter. Oh, and the Carolina offense was good enough to score just enough points, as Graham Gano made up for his first missed try of the season by nailing a 53-yard field goal with 10:05 remaining in the game, to help the Panthers win 10-9.

The game was a throwback, which was perfect, considering this is the last season the Niners will play in Candlestick Park before moving to their new luxury stadium in Santa Clara. The old-timers would have loved this knock-down, drag-out fight…and that’s what it was. The Niners could do very little on offense. They managed three field goals before the Panthers could get on the board just before the end of the first half.

Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams (34) scored the game's only touchdown at San Francisco.
Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams (34) scored the game’s only touchdown at San Francisco.

Trailing 9-0 late in the second quarter, Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams scored the game’s only touchdown on a vintage cutback run, bouncing off one tackler for a 27-yard touchdown. In a game where yards and points were at a premium, Williams not only scored the lone touchdown of the game, but that play was the only one that went over 20 yards from the line of scrimmage for either team.

The game represents the biggest win in head coach Ron Rivera’s three years. Earlier this season, the coach was concerned about the Panthers being relevant…now, he wants them to stay relevant.

The Panthers offense was sloppy in the first half of the game, losing two turnovers and dropping an interception, but it was the defense that starred on Sunday. Facing a very potent 49ers quarterback (Colin Kaepernick) and one of the league’s top running backs (Frank Gore), the defense did not allow a touchdown to be scored, forcing the Niners to settle for three field goals.

Carolina Panthers punt returner/wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. looks to gain more yardage on this punt from would-be tackler Andy Lee (4)
Carolina Panthers punt returner/wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. returned to play against his former team on Sunday. On this punt, he looks to gain more yardage on this punt from would-be tackler Andy Lee (4)

Ted Ginn, Jr., whom the Panthers picked up from the 49ers this season, wanted to make his presence known. He did that. Ginn caught two passes for 19 yards, and returned three punts for 65 yards. His statement catch was a third down conversion in the fourth quarter – an 11-yard pass from Cam Newton at the San Francisco 49 for a first down. He dragged his back foot while his motion sent him slowly out of bounds. He stood there at the San Francisco sideline, staring at 49ers safety Bubba Ventrone.

His punt returns included a second-quarter return of 19 yards to the Carolina 43, but the drive stalled. In the fourth quarter, his 25-yard return went to the San Francisco 44. Seven plays later, Carolina had its first lead of the game, on a 53-yard field goal by Gano.

Defensively, the key was to stop the 49ers on third down and not let them extend drives. Job well done, Panthers. They held the Niners, who entered the game with a conversion percentage of 40.2, to 15.4 percent on third downs. Not allowing Kaepernick to use his legs to extend plays certainly was a key. The six sacks by the Panthers defense (second-most in a game this season) had to affect Kaepernick’s decision-making. The sensational quarterback was less than that Sunday, as the Panthers held him to just 91 yards passing and grabbed a timely interception to ice the game.

Feel good about this one, Panthers, but know you have another tough game coming up Monday night. In prime-time, under the lights…New England (7-2 and coming off a bye) visits Bank of America Stadium in a game that has been sold out for weeks. The Panthers look to avenge some bad losses to the Pats, including a 38-6 loss in 2001 that ended a 1-15 season and, of course, the 32-29 loss in the 2003 Super Bowl.

(All photos courtesy Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer)

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING:

Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson, who had 1.5 of the unit’s six sacks on Colin Kaepernick: “Everybody was on the same page. When everybody is on the same page, buying into the scheme, you’re going to end up being successful. It’s all about being a team and playing as one. We’ve always got each others’ backs, so I’m always trying to pick them up on that side of the ball when things don’t go right, and that’s what they do for me when I need it. That’s a good thing, because if we’re not looking out for each other, no one is.”

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera on how he has changed his coaching style:“My first two years I did everything by The Book. Punt the ball, kick field goals, stuff like that — bypassing opportunities to go for it on fourth down. I looked at certain situations, certain circumstances, and the one that got me was Buffalo. One of the things we could’ve done is go for it on fourth down, and we didn’t. I’ve thought about that ever since, and part of my maturing as a coach is understanding certain situations and circumstances and going with it.”

“One of the biggest things I know (defensive coordinator) Sean (McDermott) and them emphasized was getting them in third-and-long or as long as possible and putting a lot of pressure on them. We felt pretty good about the pass rush. It worked to what we wanted to do. I understand Vernon Davis went out and that was one of those things that helped us in that situation. You lose a weapon, especially of his caliber, it’s tough.”

“This was big. We’re going to enjoy it. It’s going to make the flight home a lot easier. We look forward to getting back to work next week.”

Carolina Panthers cornerback Drayton Florence (29) intercepted this Colin Kaepernick pass late in the fourth quarter to ice the victory for the visitors.
Carolina Panthers cornerback Drayton Florence (29) intercepted this Colin Kaepernick pass late in the fourth quarter to ice the victory for the visitors.

Panthers cornerback Drayton Florence, who sealed the outcome with an interception at the San Francisco 42 with 23 seconds left to play: “We know that now we’re going to get everybody’s best. When you win [five] in a row, that opens people’s eyes. They see the film. They see how we play. We have the second-ranked rush defense and scoring defense. That’s big. We’re not under the radar anymore.”

“Defending NFC champions, 5 1/2 hour flight, one of the best running backs (in Frank Gore), the best running quarterback in the league, one of the best defenses in the league, and we come in, 10-9 ballgame, a slugfest. We’ve just got to keep preparing every week. We’re going to get everybody’s best shot from here on out.”

Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell: “We heard all the naysayers say we hadn’t played anybody and blah, blah, blah. Well, we played somebody today on the road in their place, and beat them. So they shouldn’t have too much to say. We’re relevant. We’re here.”

“We had a great game plan, and really we just played Panther defense. We had a good idea what they were going to be about and we just took those things away. Our coaches did a great job preparing us. We were locked in on everything they were doing.”

Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano hit this 53-yard field goal during the fourth quarter that led to a 10-9 Panthers win.
Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano hit this 53-yard field goal during the fourth quarter that led to a 10-9 Panthers win.

Panthers kicker Graham Gano, who kicked a few extra balls following his first miss of the season: “I was so angry up until the ball left my foot on the 53-yarder. I always want another opportunity after a miss.”

Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams on how tough the game was: “We knew it was going to be one of those dogfights because they had a really good defense. I knew we had a really good defense. Coming into this game, we said the first team to get to 14 was going to win. Fortunately for us, it only took 10.”

Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith: “I can say with confidence, if you’re a fan of football, you look at Candlestick, you look at the history, very few games that are relevant and mean something, you never come out with a blow out.”

San Francisco head coach John Harbaugh: “Moving the ball wasn’t coming easy for us. I thought there were plays to be made, and (Kaepernick) made some really good ones. And we put all put our fingerprints on that. It’s not a good feeling when you don’t prevail, especially when you had multiple chances to get it done.”

Carolina Panthers safety Mike Mitchell (21) and defensive end Charles Johnson (95) combine to make this sack on San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. This was one of six sacks recorded by the Panthers defense.
Carolina Panthers safety Mike Mitchell (21) and defensive end Charles Johnson (95) combine to make this sack on San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. This was one of six sacks recorded by the Panthers defense.

San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick: “They didn’t surprise us at all. We didn’t execute.”

Carolina Panthers beat Falcons – What they’re saying

CHARLOTTE – The Carolina Panthers (5-3) did not play their best game of the season, but, as the old saying goes, “Good teams find ways to win games when they play poorly”. The Panthers did exactly that. They found a way to dominate the Atlanta Falcons (2-6), winning 34-10 at Bank of America Stadium.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton did not have a great game, but his team won 34-10 over Atlanta

Quarterback Cam Newton was 23-of-37 for 249 yards and did have one touchdown pass, but he also threw two interceptions and was very consistent in his passing…mostly high or overthrown…but the Panthers still found a way to win. The defense put enough pressure on Atlanta’s front four to force Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan into throwing 3 interceptions, including one pick-six by Drayton Florence.

Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart
Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart returned to action after missing nearly a year due to injuries. He ran for a team-high 43 yards Sunday.

Jonathan Stewart returned to the Panthers backfield for the first time since last November and led the home team with 43 yards. His backfield partner, DeAngelo Williams was just a yard shy of that total.

When he found his receivers, Newton picked up chunks of yardage. Brandon LaFell led the receiving corps with 6 receptions for 74 yards. Tight end Greg Olsen caught 4 passes for 66 yards and scored the game’s first touchdown. That reception was Carolina coach Ron Rivera’s first of two fourth-and-one calls of the game and he was rewarded by having Newton find Olsen wide open on a play-action call for a 14 yard touchdown to open the scoring.

Coach Rivera’s second opportunity, in the last two minutes of the game, was an easier call. He let Graham Gano come on for an easy 20-yard field goal to ice the game.

Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis with an interception
Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis made the first of three interceptions yesterday for the home team.

As the league is coming to understand, the Panthers defense is a force to be reckoned with. When you pick off a good quarterback like Matt Ryan three times in a game (linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly and cornerback Drayton Florence) including Florence’s 38-yard pick six (on a nice shoe top grab), obviously your front four is putting pressure on the quarterback. And that’s how this team has been built. Big boys up front, agile linebackers and adequate safeties and cornerbacks. Pressure up front has been a trademark of this year’s team.

Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez is tackled by Carolina Panthers safety Quintin Mikell (27) and safety Mike Mitchell (21)
Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez is tackled by Carolina Panthers safety Quintin Mikell (27) and safety Mike Mitchell (21) in Sunday’s 34-10 Panthers win.

Atlanta’s future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez was a real force in the first half, catching 5 Matt Ryan passes for 77 yards. It seemed like every time Ryan went back to pass, Gonzalez was open. The Panthers defense addressed that situation at halftime, jamming him at the line and holding him to just one reception for four yards in the second half. Clearly, without Gonzalez as a target, Ryan and Atlanta’s offense was limited.

The Panthers travel to San Francisco next Sunday for a 4:05 p.m. Eastern start against the very dangerous 49ers, playing in Candlestick Park for one last season before moving to their new stadium in Santa Clara, CA.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING:

Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross: “We’ve done enough to get ourselves back on track. But we’ve got some tough games coming up. Winning this game, I said we’ll feel like we’re a pretty good team. But the rest of our schedule really just gets harder and we’ll see what we’re made of.”

“I thought Cam, even though his stats maybe aren’t as good as the last couple weeks, I was as proud of him today as I’ve been any game,” Gross said. “It wasn’t real pretty. He was getting banged around in the pocket. The run game was kind of slow starting and there wasn’t just long play after long play. We kind of had to hang in there and take our punches.

“He just kept his composure and was never rushed or stressed out or seeming to feel the pressure, and by the end of the day we were all smiling.”

Panthers strong safety Quinten Mikell on Gonzalez: “Tony is hard to stop. That’s why he’s a Hall of Famer. But we just turned it up a little bit the second half and played our technique a little bit better. We were aware where he was at all times. Obviously, we know that Matt Ryan, that’s his go-to guy, especially in crucial situations.”

Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart on returning to action after a year’s layoff due to injuries: “I’m pretty sure if you’re not nervous your first carry, you’re kind of not human. I definitely had some nerves today and got worked out.”

Panthers tight end Greg Olsen: “To beat a team by that margin and not play your ‘A game,’ that’s the sign of a good team.”

Atlanta head coach Mike Smith: “We’re all held responsible and we’re all accountable for the 2-6 record.”

Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez: “I love going up against guys like that (Luke Kuechly) because they bring out the best in me and hopefully I can bring out the best in them.”