Luke Kuechly thrived. Cam Newton danced. Josh Norman seethed. And Carolina won big again, feasting on Dallas, 33-14, in the Panthers’ first-ever Thanksgiving Day game before 90,909 in AT&T Stadium.
How easy was Carolina’s ascendance to 11-0? If you missed the game’s first minute because you had to get a second piece of pecan pie, you also missed the game’s first touchdown.
Dallas quarterback Tony Romo was considered the biggest threat to Carolina’s unbeaten record, and he did throw two first-half passes that went for touchdowns Thursday. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, both of those passes were interceptions returned for touchdowns by Carolina.
Kurt Coleman started the onslaught with a 36-yard pick-six only 59 seconds into the game, giving Carolina a 7-0 lead that was never relinquished. Then Kuechly scored the first touchdown of his NFL career in the second quarter and had another interception on the very next offensive play. It became clear very quickly that Dallas – a team that Norman claimed had shown “disrespect through the roof” to the Panthers with pregame chatter from Dez Bryant – had nothing for Carolina.
By halftime, it was 23-3, Carolina, and Newton hadn’t even dented the end zone yet by run or pass. Finally, he did, on a four-yard run.
Then came the show. Newton danced again, but this time instead of a new-school “dab” he went with the old-school, Chubby Checker “Twist.” The quarterback explained later he has “diverse dance ability” and this time decided to use some of the ones he breaks out when he wants to get his grandmother up to dance with him.
“Her name is Hattie by the way,” Newton said to the cameras. “Hey, Hattie.”
Norman, meanwhile, was in a “dark place” the entire game, he said. The cornerback shut down Dallas’s Bryant completely. He never had an interception, but he also batted down anything that was going to be a big play on his side.
“Give thanks for thievery!” Norman proclaimed later in the locker room. “Best secondary in the league, bar none!”
It seemed that way on Thursday, as the Panthers intercepted Romo three times in three quarters before knocking him out of the game on a sack. Kuechly’s picks were a highlight, and Newton said later that Kuechly was “a little firecracker” with a “dark side.”
Said Newton, laughing, of Kuechly: “A person who plays like that is not just a nice guy. He has the smile, the charisma, the lawyer look, but a demolition mentality. ... In my eyes, though, he’ll always be Captain America.”
By the tone of those quotes, you can tell the Panthers are feeling good about themselves. They are about to get four days off, they are 11-0 and they have never played as well as a franchise for this kind of extended period. They nullified not only Romo but also former Panther Greg Hardy on Thursday. Hardy was a total non-factor and never made a tackle or a sack.
So is an undefeated season really possible for Carolina?
It’s not too early to talk about it anymore, although I believe it remains unlikely. The Panthers have jumped every obstacle in their path, though, including this “three-games-in-12-days” grouping. They completed the third straight undefeated month of the season, as they won’t play again now until facing New Orleans on the road Dec. 6th. They have won 15 straight regular-season games.
As for Dallas, the Cowboys were no road block and really not much of a speed bump.
“When you’re a 3-7 team,” Coleman said, noting Dallas’s record before Thursday, “you’re used to losing.” So, the safety continued, when the Panthers started to impose their will on Dallas, the Cowboys started falling apart.
“I would like to think I am a good enough player not to just give touchdowns to the defense,” Romo said.
He often is – Romo was 4-0 against Carolina before Thursday. But Romo wasn’t on Thanksgiving Day. The Panthers ate him up, gobbling up an 11th straight victory in a season that just keeps getting better.