It was fourth and 10, and the Carolina Panthers were in deep trouble.
On their own 20-yard line, the Panthers were one play away from losing a game to Miami in which Carolina had trailed the entire second half. Only two minutes and 33 seconds remained.
And then here came another miracle for “Cardiac Cats 2.0.”
The Panthers converted that fourth-and-10 play – Cam Newton threw a strike to Steve Smith that Smith turned into a 19-yard gain after breaking two tackles. And then they made another, and another, and suddenly the Panthers were celebrating in the end zone after a touchdown pass, leading by what would ultimately be the final score of 20-16.
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“Last year’s team would have found a way to lose this game,” Panthers defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said afterward. “This year’s team found a way to win it.”
On an inconsistent afternoon when Panthers coach Ron Rivera got furious at halftime because he felt, in his words, that the Panthers had “disrespected” the Dolphins by not playing hard enough, Carolina (8-3) still had enough juice to escape with its seventh straight victory.
It was also the third fourth-quarter comeback win in a row for Carolina. The Panthers, once 2-14 in games decided by seven points or fewer under Rivera, have now won three straight nail-biters.
Panthers fans around the Carolinas have gotten the heck scared out of them the whole month of November. Yet the Panthers have ended up going undefeated in what ranks as one of the best months of the team’s history.
What has happened?
It is partly karma, partly confidence. While the old saying goes that it’s better to be lucky than good, right now the Panthers are both.
Their defense remains one of the best in the NFL. Newton has figured out that he can indeed lead a signature touchdown drive – two of them, in fact, in the past two weeks. And, sometimes, they downright get lucky.
For instance: Miami got the ball back with 43 seconds left, advanced to its own 40 and then somehow got Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace open – again! – on a long pass.
Let’s review. Wallace had already caught passes of 53 and 57 yards. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill had overthrown him on another deep ball that would have been a touchdown. And then Panthers safety Mike Mitchell still let Wallace get a step behind him, and here came the ball inside the Panthers’ 5 – and Wallace dropped it.
“My heart almost jumped out of my chest,” Edwards said, and he could have been speaking for every Panthers fan in existence. It was just like the Panthers’ Haruki Nakamura moment of 2012 – when Nakamura allowed a 59-yard pass over his head that led to a last-second game-winning field goal for Atlanta. But this time the receiver dropped it. Then Edwards sacked Tannehill on the last play, and it was done.
For Wallace’s drop to matter, of course, the Panthers had to make that fourth-and-10 play, as well as an earlier fourth-and-1, on which “Riverboat” Ron Rivera lived up to his new nickname by going for it from his 41 while down 10 points.
“This team does an incredible job of keeping its composure,” Panthers center Ryan Kalil said. “In past years, we’ve been all over the place.”
So many things had to happen for Carolina to win this game, and they all did. Smith made that catch. Linebacker Luke Kuechly was the beneficiary for the second straight week of some end-zone hanky-panky, as once again a flag was picked up in the end zone that was originally thrown on him. Carolina had to come back from a 16-3 second-quarter deficit. On a third-and-2 on the final drive, Mike Tolbert had to bull for the first down. The defense had to hold Miami without a single point in the second half.
But it all happened, and the Panthers did what good teams do, winning a game when they really didn’t have a good day. Newton had a lot to do with it as usual, despite taking a big hit on his first pass that made him bite his tongue and start spitting blood. He even had brushes with two Miami icons.
First, Newton did the knee-lifting dance LeBron James does after a big basket. This came following Newton’s third-quarter touchdown run that cut Miami’s lead to 16-13.
“I’m a big fans of those guys,” Newton said, speaking of the Miami Heat. “I know LeBron and I kind of owe him for doing my celebration when they came to Charlotte. So ... I was going to give a shout-out back to those guys.”
Then, after the game, Newton got to meet Don Shula, 83, the hall of fame coach who led the Dolphins for decades and also is the father of Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula. The Shula family and Newton took several pictures together.
“That’s quite a quarterback you got there,” Don Shula said later when I went up to say hello.
Yes, Newton is quite a quarterback, and this is turning into quite a Panthers team. Like the 2003 Super Bowl squad that made a living out of winning thrillers and became the original “Cardiac Cats,” this is a team that has turned belief into a tangible asset. You had to look no further than Sunday to see that, when the Panthers won a game they seemingly should have lost.
“I kind of felt like a couple of times that we were going through the motions like they were supposed to lay down,” said Rivera, more upset after a win than I’ve ever seen him before.
Yet when it mattered, the Panthers won again. That’s seven wins in a row, for a team that was once 1-3, back when the team uniforms should have been gray on gray.
But that was seven weeks ago, before the Panthers realized that if they just push hard enough, they may be able to lift an entire city onto their shoulders.