For only the third time in franchise history, the Carolina Panthers are 6-2 at the halfway point of their season.
They rallied from a 14-point deficit in the third quarter – matching the second best comeback in team history – to beat the Arizona Cardinals 27-23 Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
Coupled with Tampa Bay’s loss to Dallas, the win gave the Panthers sole possession of first place in the NFC South, one game ahead of the Buccaneers.
Carolina has a bye next week, which should allow enough time for injured offensive line starters Jeff Otah and Ryan Kalil (ankle sprains) to heal and be ready to return to the lineup for a Nov. 9 game at Oakland.
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Only two teams in the league have a better record than Carolina – 6-0 Tennessee, which plays Indianapolis tonight, and the 6-1 New York Giants.
Being “6-2 compared to 5-3 at the break, it’s huge,” said quarterback Jake Delhomme, who threw two third-quarter touchdown passes to wide receiver Steve Smith.
“Hopefully we can look back on this game down the line and say this was a pivotal win for us. We’ve given ourselves a chance.”
The Panthers reached the NFC championship game the other two times they were 6-2, in 2003 and ’05, and made it to the Super Bowl in ’03.
Carolina’s chances appeared dim in the third quarter when Arizona led 17-3.
The Panthers’ offense was floundering and Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner was dissecting the defense with pinpoint passing reminiscent of his MVP days with the St. Louis Rams nearly a decade ago
Warner threw for 381 yards, the fifth-highest passing yardage total Carolina ever has allowed in a game.
“I tell you man, that guy Kurt Warner, he’s special,” said Panthers linebacker Jon Beason.
Warner’s ability to release the ball quickly short-circuited Carolina’s heavy blitzing and pass-rushing pressure from defensive end Julius Peppers and others.
“It was very frustrating because sometimes it (felt) like no matter how fast you beat somebody, you (were) never going to get there,” said Peppers.
The Panthers’ defense was caught off guard that Arizona’s top two tight ends were deactivated because of injuries, causing the Cardinals to use more offensive sets with four or even five wide receivers in a spread formation than expected. “We had to learn on the move because we didn’t get a lot of practice in (working aginst) four- and five-wideout sets,” said safety Chris Harris. “It was on-the-job training, I guess.”
While the defense adjusted, the Carolina offense struggled so much that players said there was a spirited locker room discussion at halftime.
“There were a lot of bleeps in there,” said Smith.
The game began to turn when Carolina got the ball for the first time in the second half with 10 minutes, 13 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Delhomme said he noticed the home crowd was quiet and that even the Panthers’ bench lacked energy.
“We needed to get the crowd back in the game,” he said.
The stadium came to life when the Panthers gained 58 yards on their first three plays of the second half – a 14-yard run by DeAngelo Williams, a 13-yard pass from Delhomme to Williams, then a 31-yard pass from Delhomme to tight end Jeff King.
Moments later, Williams was scooting into the end zone on a 15-yard touchdown run.
“That drive gave us some life,” said Delhomme. “It kind of woke us up.”
Two plays later, the comeback got more fuel.
Defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu forced a fumble by Cardinals’ running back Edgerrin James and linebacker Thomas Davis recovered at the Arizona 18.
Delhomme quickly threw a TD to Smith from there and the score was tied.
But Warner wasn’t finished. He drove the Cardinals 64 yards for a touchdown to retake the lead, 23-17. But Arizona failed to convert the extra point kick when the ball slipped out of the hands of holder Dirk Johnson before Neil Rackers could kick it.
Carolina defensive tackle Damione Lewis called the mishap the most important play of the game.
“That gave us the momentum and we didn’t let up after that,” he said.
Three plays later, the Panthers tied the score when Delhomme threw short to Smith, who got past two defensive backs near the left sideline and sprinted in for a 65-yard touchdown.
Cardinals coaches argued that Smith stepped at of bounds around the Carolina 48 and challenged the call, but television replays were inconclusive and the touchdown stood.
John Kasay’s extra point kick gave the Panthers a 24-23 lead and they never trailed again.
Kasay closed out the scoring with a 50-yard field goal, his 21st consecutive attempt dating back to last season. He also moved past Hall of Famer Jan Stenerud into eighth place on the NFL’s all-time field goals made list with 384.
The comeback from 14 points down matched the rally Carolina had to beat Chicago earlier this year. The Panthers’ record for largest deficit overcome in a victory was 17 points, against Jacksonville in 2003 and San Francisco in ’04.
Delhomme called the win “precious.”
Beason said it was exhausting.
“I’m on `E’ right now,” he said.
“I was trying to refrain from dropping a few tears because I really get emotional when guys go out there and fight for each other like that.”
Carolina’s practices last week were more physically taxing than usual, according to Smith, who said the coaches treated players like that had a 2-5 record instead of 5-2.
“They were leaning on us,” he said. “I hate to say it, but obviously, coach knows best, because this went from a grinding game to a shoot out, and we were able to withstand the offensive mistakes that we made, and it worked out.”
It was Carolina’s third comeback win of the year, which Muhammad said should have carryover value in the second half of the season.
“What it does is it builds confidence in the players,” he said. “It allows you to not fear those situations (when you’re behind) because where there’s fear, there’s doubt.
“Fear and doubt are brothers. So if you don’t fear those situations, then you won’t doubt yourselves when you’re in those situations. I think this team, right now, has confidence in these situations. We have an opportunity to continue to build on that.”
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