If you were left disappointed by watching the Carolina Panthers – now only the the fourth team in the Super Bowl era to start a season with 14 consecutive victories – having to hold on to a win by their fingernails on Sunday against the now 6-8 New York Giants on Sunday, you’re not alone.
The purported impregnability that comes with a perfect record has almost been immediately accompanied in tow by questions about the Panthers’ championship pedigree, with enough people wondering whether, for starters, the supposed lack of receiving talent or the competition they’ve faced in the NFC South (or lack thereof) could prevent them from being the favorite to win the Lombardi Trophy.
After 40 minutes on Sunday in East Rutherford again the Giants, the Panthers were putting those questions to bed for good. Twenty minutes later, those questions screamed out loudly from the same bed, like the little Regan from The Exorcist.
Carolina’s 35-7 runaway of a performance by the dying embers of the third quarter turned into a 38-35 fight for survival, as Graham Gano’s field goal as time expired saved the Panthers, now two wins away from pulling off a perfect regular season, from achieving another bit of history: joining the 1980 New Orleans Saints as the only other team to blow a lead of at least 28 points to lose a regular-season NFL game.
Instead of a jovial atmosphere in the locker room, players and coaches couldn’t help but feel that they let themselves down.
“Very disappointed in ourselves,” said Panthers head coach Ron Rivera after the game. “We had an opportunity to close a team out and we didn’t do it. Why? Because we didn’t keep our focus and maintain our composure out there.”
Rivera continued: “Bottom line is you’ve got to stay focused when you play this football game. If you don’t, that’s what’s going to happen.”
Part of that lack of focus Rivera hit on stemmed from the mano a mano matchup with his standout cornerback, Josh Norman, and the Giants’ all-everything wide receiver, Odell Beckham Jr., and the 12-round boxing match that ensued throughout the entire game when they locked horns on the outside. After Beckham beat Norman but dropped a sure touchdown on the game’s fourth play, the trash talk between he and Norman really got started.
It was followed by jousting. Followed by punching. Followed by penalty flags. Followed by more cheap hits, with a spear from Beckham to the jaw of Norman being the most egregious. More penalty flags then flew. In total, Beckham and Norman combined for five personal foul penalties, and another Carolina cornerback, Cortland Finnegan, also was flagged for an unnecessary roughness call.
The cauldron that was MetLife Stadium had bubbled over, and a Carolina team that has kept their heads about them all season long had lost its cool.
It almost cost them the game.
“We started to get scrappy for no reason,” Rivera said after immediately pointing out that his team losing its composure bothered him the most about the game. “There was no reason to do that. Just turn away and walk away. That’d have been a lot easier. It would have been a lot easier for us, that’s for doggone sure.”
During the middle of the game, it was easy for Carolina, and it was also easy to see why quarterback Cam Newton will be named the Most Valuable Player of the league. Newton set up Carolina’s first touchdown with a 47-yard run up the middle to the Giants’ three-yard line midway the first quarter, then found wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. in the back corner of the end zone for a three-yard touchdown strike three plays later to start the scoring.
When Ginn Jr. caught his second touchdown pass of the game from Newton with 5:32 left in the third quarter, that made it the fifth scoring toss for Newton, the third time this season he has thrown a quintet of touchdowns in a game this season. On the last drive, when everything was unraveling around him and the Giants had just tied the score on a Beckham fourth-down touchdown catch just after the two-minute warning, Newton, starting with an assuring nod of the head on the sidelines after Big Blue tied the score, led the Panthers on a last-minute game winning drive. Along with going 3-for-4 on passes for 37 yards (excluding a spike to intentionally stop the clock), Newton also ran for two first downs on the drive which ended with Gano’s field goal at the death.
Newton was the hero – again. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for 300 yards, run for 100 yards and throw five touchdowns all in the same game. Carolina had won a thriller. Personally, we were lucky just to witness that amount of greatness in person.
But Cam’s first words in the postgame press conference told the real story for Carolina.
“It shouldn’t have been a thriller – I can tell you that.”
What are the Panthers? We know they’re good. But how good? There are so many questions still, even for a team that hasn’t had to answer any questions after a loss all season.
Is the perception of the team not having elite-level playmakers on the outside actually reality?
Would we be saying the same thing if, instead of Newton, Tom Brady was surrounded by the group of players that Cam has on his team now? (My guess is probably not.)
Was Carolina’s defense, which ranked in the top 10 in the league in 11 different statistical categories coming into the game, including total defense (third), exposed by an offense led by a Super Bowl-winning quarterback in Eli Manning? Would that continue if they ran into guys in the playoffs like Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks and Carson Palmer of the Arizona Cardinals?
Speaking of Arizona, could they actually be the best team in the conference? After all, while the Panthers struggled on the road against a team from the not-so-beastly NFC East, the Cardinals demolished another NFC East team, the Philadelphia Eagles, on the road on Sunday night to make more believers out of Bruce Arians’ club.
To be fair, Carolina has already beaten Green Bay and Seattle this season, with the Seahawks’ win coming at the home of the 12th Man in Seattle. Oh, and then there’s this: of the three other teams to start a season 14-0 (1972 Miami Dolphins, 2007 New England Patriots, 2009 Indianapolis Colts), each of them ended up reached the Super Bowl later that season.
If history has anything to say about it, then Carolina will be Santa Clara bound in February. If only we didn’t have more questions to answer about them first.
[Cover photo (Cam Newton) courtesy of Michael Reaves/Getty Images]