The Panthers’ faint playoff hopes lived to see another week – thanks to three big plays during a crazy 23-second span that unfolded in breakneck speed.
The game-swinging stretch before halftime against New Orleans was fueled by one Panthers player you’d expect and two whose contributions were their biggest of this uneven Carolina season.
If your prop bets included rookie defensive tackle Vernon Butler blocking a field goal, linebacker Luke Kuechly returning it 88 yards and receiver Ted Ginn Jr. saving James Bradberry’s bacon, go collect on your winners this morning.
When the flags and the replay reviews were straightened out, the Panthers had turned a potentially one-score game into a 17-point halftime lead.
This being the 2016 Panthers, they had to survive a second-half Saints comeback and several injuries before holding on for a 23-20 victory Thursday night at Bank of America Stadium.
Kuechly was in the middle of everything the Panthers’ defense did and found a way to leave his imprint on special teams, too.
His heroics were overshadowed by a scary, emotional moment in the fourth quarter when Kuechly was carted off to be evaluated for a concussion.
He was crying and his chest was heaving after Saints running back Tim Hightower’s helmet caught Kuechly in the facemask, then the chest and knocked him on his back.
While Saints and Panthers players came up and patted Kuechly on his pads, the NBC cameras showed him crying.
It was a much different scene than the one Kuechly triggered late in the first half.
With the Panthers (4-6) leading 13-3 with 39 seconds left before halftime, New Orleans kicker Wil Lutz came on for a 38-yard field goal try that would have pulled the Saints (4-6) within a touchdown.
Butler, the first-round pick from Louisiana Tech, got a hand up to block Lutz’s attempt. Butler had shown potential early in the season before a high ankle sprain sidelined him for more than a month and stalled his development.
Butler, 6-foot-4 and 325 pounds and nicknamed “Big Vern,” had heretofore been known for his size, but he showed some ups and athleticism on the blocked field goal.
The ball caromed to Kuechly at the Carolina 12, and Charlotte’s foremost security system pitchman cradled the ball in his left arm and took off running in front of the Panthers’ sideline.
Kuechly turned the corner and picked up a big block from his buddy Thomas Davis, who sent a Saints player sailing. Then Kuechly picked up a block he didn’t – an illegal block in the back by rookie cornerback James Bradberry on Lutz, the kicker(!) who was 5 yards away from Kuechly and was not going to make the tackle.
The crowd booed lustily (it was not a Luuuuukkkkkke cheer) when the penalty was announced and Panthers coach Ron Rivera pleaded his case with an official, but those were mild compared to Kuechly’s reaction.
The NBC cameras caught a helmet-less Kuechly biting off his words as he walked back to the Panthers’ bench. He was not offering forgiveness to Bradberry at that moment, lip readers confirmed.
Officials first marked the ball at the Saints’ 25 after Bradberry’s penalty, then walked it back 15 yards to the 40.
Cam Newton and the offense had 23 seconds to get in field goal range. But that’s not what Mike Shula was thinking.
The oft-criticized offensive coordinator wanted to take a shot at the end zone, and lined up Ginn and tight end Greg Olsen next to each other in the slot.
Both took off on vertical routes, with Olsen cutting behind Ginn and taking Saints safety Vonn Bell with him. That left Ginn matched against linebacker Craig Robertson, who stayed with the speedy wideout nearly stride for stride.
Newton flung it as far as he could and it looked like Ginn might run into the goalpost stanchion or the padded wall beyond the end zone. It did not look like he could possibly come down inbounds with the ball.
Officials ruled it an incompletion.
But replays showed Ginn getting his left foot down and dragging his right foot in the end zone. The call was overturned, Ginn had his first touchdown of the season – after 10 during the Super Bowl season of 2015 – and Bradberry was off the hook.