WASHINGTON – After a game-sealing fourth quarter field goal sailed through the uprights, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was seen high-fiving his teammates as well as waving to some fans in the stands, flashing the million-watt smile we saw many times during the 2015 Panthers’ run to the Super Bowl.
Newton’s backfield mate, Jonathan Stewart, was exploding through lanes created by the offensive line all night to the tune of 132 yards, establishing the ground-and-pound tone that made the 2015 Carolina Panthers one of the few teams in NFL history to start 14-0 in a season.
Coming into the game as the third-ranked offense in the NFC, Washington’s offense couldn’t get untracked against a Carolina defense that smothered the run game and forced three turnovers, a hallmark of the success Carolina had last season.
As you might have figured out by now, this is the year 2016, and the season for the Panthers so far has been anything but the fun times Carolina had when they went all the way to the Santa Clara and the Super Bowl in the 2015 season. But for one night, they were able to show a national television audience exactly why they were the top dog in the conference last season, even with a 5-8 record serving as an anchor around their necks going into this evening.
“Being able to to come in and play well on Monday night, I think that’s the satisfaction,” said head coach Ron Rivera in the postgame press conference after the team’s 26-15 win. “That’s why we’re playing. That’s why our guys are playing hard, playing hard to win. It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is going out there and giving your best effort.”
“As I said earlier in the week, people asked me what are you playing for; We are playing to win,” Rivera added. “That’s what we are here to do.”
It was vintage Carolina, even if the yesteryear being reminisced about is only a year ago. Last year’s defense featured cornerback Josh Norman, who developed into one of the best cornerbacks in the game before shockingly being let go by the Panthers – and being picked up by the Washington – this offseason. Last season also saw consistency on the offensive line for the Panthers, something that’s been upset all of 2016 by injuries along the front line this campaign. Having that unit in tact, along with the defensive backs being more secure in their roles after Norman’s departure has been two key factors that have led to the Panthers’ second win in a row.
“We have an offensive line that has played together for what, four weeks now, I believe it is?,” said Rivera. “You have a group of young corners that have played together for five weeks now? So we have a little bit of continuity going now. There’s some things that we most certainly have to get better at but we did do things we needed and to and ran the ball very effective today.”
The offense that ran the ball well also was efficient through the air, with Newton throwing for 300 yards and two touchdowns. It figured that Washington might have an advantage going up against Carolina’s pass game, with Norman intimately knowing the Panthers’ offensive concepts after going up against it on a nearly daily basis in practice for four years before 2016. Facing his former team, as well as trying to help guide Washington into the playoffs definitely made this game even more emotional for the already demonstrative cornerback.
“Yeah, it was different,” answered Norman about playing against his former squad. “It was. I can’t say it wasn’t. Some of the guys did what I knew they were going to do. The routes they were running were similar to going back to what I saw in practice when I was with them. They did a couple of things to switch it up, which is cool. But at the same time, I don’t know, just going out there and just playing ball and trying to get a W, I think that was the biggest thing. We didn’t get that accomplished tonight.”
Washington’s (7-6-1) four-game win streak was snapped, and its loss dropped them out of the final playoff sport in the NFC, which is now occupied by Green Bay at 8-6. Another impressive streak was put on hold, as quarterback Kirk Cousins had thrown at least touchdown pass in 28 of his 29 starts in his career. While throwing for 315 yards, he didn’t throw a touchdown while tossing an interception to safety Kurt Coleman in the second quarter.
Carolina’s impressive play in the late stages of a season continues, as it now has a combined 21-6 record in the months of December and January dating back to 2011. It have only been a one-night special tonight, but the Panthers tonight showed glimpses of why last season was very special. With taking on playoff hopefuls Atlanta and Tampa Bay in the final two weeks, and a chance to play spoiler like the way they did tonight against another playoff aspirant, it’s more than possible the flashes of what made the Panthers so good last season will be on display twice more – even if they are playing out the string.