After yet another heart-stopping Carolina Panthers victory Sunday – this one decided in the final 35 seconds on a touchdown run that quarterback Cam Newton began with a fumble – linebacker Luke Kuechly was asked to describe his team’s 22-19 victory over Tampa Bay.
“Stressful,” Kuechly said, heaving a huge sigh. “We always make it stressful.”
Yes, they do. And yet the Panthers (11-4) won again on Sunday, clinching one of the NFL’s 12 playoff spots for the fourth time in the past five seasons.
The Panthers originally picked up the nickname “Cardiac Cats” in the 2003 season, when Jake Delhomme was leading one fourth-quarter comeback after another. This 2017 team has now become “Cardiac Cats 2.0” – it is 8-1 in games decided by eight or fewer points.
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With the victory, Carolina secured at least the No. 5 seed in the NFC playoffs. That means a road game at New Orleans on the first weekend in January if things stay the same on the NFL’s final weekend. That’s the most likely scenario now for Carolina.
To get a first-round playoff home game instead, the Panthers would need New Orleans to lose at Tampa Bay (4-11) next Sunday, and Carolina would also have to win at Atlanta (9-6) on the same day.
Stressful. We always make it stressful.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly on the Carolina Panthers.
Newton’s TD saved the Panthers from far worse scenarios, however. The quarterback took some symbolic joy in the fact that he scored from 2 yards out on his son Chosen’s second birthday, and Newton’s TD celebration with the football reflected that. (Chosen would later make his press-conference debut alongside his father, playing happily with the microphone but ignoring his dad’s suggestion to “show them those muscles.”)
“I was kind of lighting a cupcake,” Newton said of his dramatization following the game-winning TD. “I wanted to put somebody in the Christmas spirit. I wanted to give away the touchdown (ball) to someone, and I wanted to add a notion of the cupcake.”
Down 4, three minutes to go
Tampa Bay itself was supposed to be a cupcake on Carolina’s schedule. The Buccaneers limped into the game 4-10 and with a slew of injuries.
But for most of the fourth quarter, the Panthers were in imminent danger of losing as Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston (367 passing yards) torched the Panthers secondary time and again for big plays.
Carolina trailed 19-15 with three minutes to go when it began its final drive, and the Panthers offense hadn’t scored a touchdown all afternoon. Only Damiere Byrd had found the end zone for the Panthers with a 103-yard kickoff return. And even after that TD, Graham Gano’s extra point was blocked.
On another critical fourth-quarter play, Tampa Bay had been called for offensive holding in the end zone, which would have netted the Panthers a safety and tightened the score to 19-17 – meaning the Panthers only would need a field goal on the last drive to win. But defensive tackle Star Lotulelei made what he later called a “stupid decision” to shove a Tampa Bay lineman after the play, negating the two points for Carolina.
It had been that sort of day.
‘It was a bad call’
So as the clock ticked down, the Panthers found themselves trailing by four and needing a touchdown. Newton had to throw to unlikely targets Brenton Bersin and Kaelin Clay on the drive. Then Carolina faced a fourth-and-1 from the Tampa Bay 3.
Newton handed off to Jonathan Stewart, who ran into a pile. As the stadium quieted, the officials ran out for a measurement. He had made it by a fingernail.
“We stopped them, man,” Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said later. “It was a bad call.”
The officials didn’t think so. On the next play, Newton took a shotgun snap but was thinking so hard about whether to jump or not that the ball grazed off his knuckles.
“Ball, ball!” Newton screamed, signaling the football was on the ground as the play began and startling his teammates.
Before anyone could react, however, Newton had picked up the ball himself and followed center Ryan Kalil’s block into the end zone.
‘We played kind of slow’
That gave Carolina a 22-19 lead, but Tampa Bay still had 35 seconds left to try to get into field-goal range. On the first play of that drive, however, Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short sacked Winston and caused a fumble that Julius Peppers recovered. It was Carolina’s sixth sack of the game, as well as Winston’s third lost fumble, and it allowed Carolina to win a game in which it was outgained by 137 yards.
“It wasn’t easy,” Panthers defensive end Mario Addison said. “In my opinion, we played kind of slow. If we want to continue to win, we’ve got to play better.”
That’s true. But on Sunday, the Panthers were happy to just be able to win at all. A home stadium full of fans went home happy – stressed out but ultimately satisfied by a team that keeps living – and thriving – on the edge.
That won’t work forever. But it worked again on Sunday.