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In My Opinion

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The top 5 most dramatic Panthers wins in history are....

In terms of sheer drama, the Carolina Panthers’ 24-20, “not-over-until-the-last-bearhug” victory over New England is very hard to beat.

The Panthers are playing their 19th season, which means they’ve played more than 300 meaningful games when you include playoff appearances.

To put Monday night’s pulsating Carolina win in some historical perspective, I rank that game in the Top 5 in the category of “Most Dramatic Panthers Wins Ever” – but not No.1. After covering the Panthers for all 19 of those seasons, this is my personal top five in terms of dramatic impact.

Remember, this isn’t a ranking of “Most Significant Panthers Wins Ever.” In that case, the list would be dominated by Panthers playoff victories. And these aren’t the most significant Panthers games ever, either – No.1 on that list would be the Super Bowl loss.

This is more about the visceral thrill associated with the victory. You know – how much it made your heart speed up. How scared and thrilled you were.

A game’s outcome must be in doubt until the final few seconds to even be considered for this list. And this is just a personal preference and no disrespect to John Kasay or Graham Gano, but games decided by field goals are not as exciting as those decided by offensive or defensive plays. So no “field-goal games” make this list.

Counting down from No.5 to No.1, they are:

No.5: Chad Cota’s interception (1996).

In Carolina’s final regular-season game of 1996, the Panthers clinched a first-round playoff bye and the NFC West title.

Cota, a seventh-round draft choice in 1995, intercepted a Kordell Stewart pass in the end zone to preserve an 18-14 win over Pittsburgh in Charlotte. Of the final two minutes of that game, 90 seconds were spent with Pittsburgh’s offense inside the Carolina 10, trying to erase a four-point Panthers lead.

Cota’s interception was not only crucial, but also mysterious. The ball disappeared into a scrum of players before Cota finally emerged, holding it aloft. As Bill Rosinski, the Panthers’ play-by-play man at the time called it: “Stewart back to throw, fires in the end zone. What is it? What is it? INTERCEPTED! The Panthers have it! The Panthers have it!”

No.4: Jake Delhomme’s debut (2003).

This was the beginning of “The Legend of Jake Delhomme.” Down 17-0 against Jacksonville, Panthers coach John Fox benched Rodney Peete and brought in the fiery Cajun. Delhomme led the Panthers all the way back, throwing a 12-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl on fourth down to win the season opener of 2003 by a 24-23 score.

There were only 16 seconds left when Proehl made his fingertip catch, and that was the start of the Panthers’ magical Super Bowl season. It is interesting that Delhomme did in one game as a Panthers what it took Cam Newton 42 games to do – lead a signature, last-minute touchdown drive for a win.

In fact, Delhomme had so many of those that I had to leave out one of his biggest comebacks on this “best of 5” list – the last-second TD pass he threw at San Diego in 2008, which would be my No.6. Of course, his lows were awfully low, too. But that’s another story.

No.3: The Immaculate Perception, Robbed Gronkowski, The Man Hug, Gronkitis or Whatever Else You Want to Call It (2013).

In a taut second half Monday night, Newton led a tremendous 83-yard touchdown drive capped by a touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. to give Carolina a 24-20 lead with 59 seconds left. Then Tom Brady came storming back, giving every longtime Panthers fan a nightmarish vision of a certain Super Bowl played 10 years before.

With 0:03 left at the Panthers 18, Brady threw to the end zone. Panther linebacker Luke Kuechly hugged New England tight end Rob Gronkowski like they had just seen each other for the first time in 10 years at a family reunion.

Panther safety Robert Lester intercepted the underthrown ball. An official threw a flag to call pass interference on Kuechly. It looked like the Patriots would get one final play at Carolina’s 1. But after a huddle the officials waved it off, basically saying “Gronk” wouldn’t have caught the ball anyway. Pandemonium ensued.

No.2: The Draw (1999).

It was what Steve Beuerlein would later call the “crown jewel” of his pro career, beating the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on the last play of the game on a five-yard quarterback draw for a touchdown.

That ended an incredibly entertaining contest that included nine lead changes and a shootout between Beuerlein and the Packers’ Brett Favre.

That draw was the best call George Seifert ever made at Carolina. Beuerlein was slow. His body was a mess. The Panthers had rushed for eight yards all day.

But with Carolina down 31-27, Beuerlein got the team to fourth-and-goal from the Green Bay 5 with five seconds left. Carolina called its last timeout. The three Panthers quarterbacks – Beuerlein, Jeff Lewis and veteran Steve Bono – formed a small circle around Seifert.

“I remember looking at George Seifert on the sideline,” Beuerlein would recall years later. “I couldn’t tell if he was looking back at me – you never knew because he always wore those sunglasses. And then, out of the blue, he said, ‘What do you think about the quarterback draw?’ And Steve Bono almost fell down laughing.”

When Beuerlein’s teammates got the call, they laughed as well. But it worked. The Panthers won 33-31.

No.1: X Clown (2004).

The most dazzling play in Panthers history was made by the team’s most dazzling player and ended the best single game of Carolina’s existence.

On the first play of the second overtime period, Carolina faced a third-and-14 at its own 31 in the 2003 postseason vs. St. Louis and the “Greatest Show on Turf.” Delhomme hit Smith in stride at midfield on a play called “X Clown.” No.89 burned through the defense untouched to go 69 yards for a touchdown. He spread his arms wide as he sprinted into the end zone in St. Louis, throwing a cone of silence over the crowd.

“I threw the ball, but it was really all Steve,” Delhomme said later. “I just thought it would be a first down. He made the play. He made the catch. He made people miss. He made the touchdown. It was amazing.”

People forget how astonishing it was the game ever got to that point. In the fifth quarter, both teams had two possessions. On every possession, the ball got advanced inside the other team’s 40.

And yet no one scored, over and over, until Smith and Delhomme did their thing to end a remarkable game remarkably well.

Even right after the game, everyone had a sense of how incredible the game had been. Check out this quote: “It was fun. It was one you love being a part of.”

You know who said that? St. Louis running back Marshall Faulk.

Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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