Carolina Panthers safety Tre Boston’s prediction – which might have sounded blustery coming from a rookie in the NFL – turned out to be spot-on true.
On the bus ride from their hotel to the Georgia Dome before Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons, Boston told teammate Roman Harper that they both would return an interception for a touchdown in the win-or-go-home game.
Turns out Boston knew what he was talking about. His 84-yard interception for a score during the fourth quarter put the finishing touches on a 34-3 victory that gave the Panthers the NFL South title.
And, just like Boston said would happen, Harper already had done the same thing, intercepting a Matt Ryan pass and returning it 31 yards for a second-quarter touchdown.
“I woke up this morning and I told Roman I felt two ‘pick-sixes’ from both of us,” said Boston, a fourth-round draft pick out of North Carolina last spring.
“That’s a bold statement when you make a call like that. I felt like I was well-rested and we knew what they were doing. Man, to be able to do that, it was just so big.”
Harper, for his part, was impressed with the rookie’s bravado.
“I was sitting next to him, right next to him on the bus when he said it,” said Harper with a smile. “You’ve got to give it to him.”
Boston’s interception was the first of his young career.
“The front seven got to (Ryan) and he released it early,” said Boston. “I kind of saw his eyes and I just jumped it. I gave (Falcons receiver) Julio (Jones) a little one-two and took it the the crib with the help of my guys.”
The interceptions – the defense’s only two touchdowns of the season – were part of a dominant performance, calling to mind the 2013 unit that ranked second in the NFL in total defense.
Carolina limited Atlanta to 288 total yards (including 63 rushing), forced three turnovers and kept the opposition out of the end zone for the first time this season.
“The guys played out of their minds today,” said linebacker Luke Kuechly, who led the Panthers with eight tackles. “I’m sure it’s going to show on the film, from the secondary to the linebackers, to the D-line.”
The other turnover for the Panthers – a fumble by Falcons receiver Roddy White that was forced and recovered by linebacker Adarius Glanton, then picked up and returned 33 yards by linebacker Thomas Davis – also led to a touchdown late in the second quarter.
It only took quarterback Cam Newton’s 4-yard touchdown run on the next play to give the Panthers a 24-3 lead at halftime.
“Our mindset was to go out and get it done, to keep them out of the end zone,” said Davis, who had four tackles.
Davis had a chance to make it three interceptions returned for a touchdown when he took one back 50 yards for a score in the third quarter, but the play was called back because of an illegal contact penalty on him.
“I was pretty disappointed,” said Davis, who hasn’t scored in his 10 seasons in the league, despite having six interceptions. “I don’t know what I have to do to get in the end zone. I have to be smarter than that.”
Falcons coach Mike Smith said his team didn’t have much of a chance to win after turning the ball over so frequently – and with such fruitful results for the Panthers.
“When you turn the ball over and you get where your defense isn’t even out on the field when they’re out there scoring, that’s tough to overcome,” he said. “Statistically, when you throw ‘pick-sixes,’ you’re not going to like where you’re at.”
The Panthers offense was appreciative of the defense’s efforts.
“They set the tone out there,” said running back Jonathan Stewart. “They’re lights out.”
Said tight end Greg Olsen: “When you play offense and your defense does that, it makes life really easy. We’ve gotten used to that around here.”