It was bizarre and captivating, outlandish and infuriating.
It was the first tie in the Carolina Panthers’ history, as well as one of the most entertaining games I have seen the team play while covering them over their 20 seasons.
Carolina’s 37-37 overtime tie with Cincinnati Sunday ended when Bengals kicker Mike Nugent shanked a potential game-winning field-goal attempt from 36 yards wide right on the last play of the fifth quarter.
Then everyone on the sidelines started shuffling toward the center of the field, as unsure of what to do next as sixth graders at their first middle school dance. Tight end Greg Olsen called the postgame handshakes “odd” and “awkward.”
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But not everyone started shaking hands immediately. Some players thought the game would continue into a sixth quarter.
“I didn’t know you could tie in the NFL,” Carolina rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin said.
You can’t in the playoffs. But you can in the regular season – and the Panthers and Bengals did. The game had four lead changes and was tied six separate times – at 7, 17, 24, 31, 34 and 37. Neither team could stop the other, which has been a too-common problem for Carolina all season and an occasional problem for Cincinnati.
Carolina’s Cam Newton and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton both used the same phrase within 30 seconds of their separate news conferences.
“It’s a weird feeling,” they said.
Yes, it was weird. But there’s “good weird” and there’s “bad weird,” and the Panthers ended up on the “good weird” side in this one, whether they know it or not. Carolina was just about finished, having given up yet another long Bengals drive to set up what appeared to be the game-winning field goal.
On the sideline, the Panthers were reduced to hoping that Nugent would miss.
“I was sending a lot of bad voodoo that way,” Panthers center Ryan Kalil said. “Just kind of calling the universe to say, ‘Miss it. Miss it. Miss it.’ And then the universe answered.”
Nugent has made 82 percent of field goals from 30-39 yards in his 10-year NFL stint, but then he uncorked what he later said was “probably the worst ball I’ve ever hit.”
So the Panthers (3-2-1) survived on the road. And although they acted pretty disappointed in the locker room – coach Ron Rivera seemed to speak for most of them when he kept calling the tie a “blah” result – in reality this deadlock could be a key moment in the season.
By avoiding the loss, the Panthers still lead the NFC South in a week where Atlanta (2-4) lost and New Orleans (2-3) didn’t play. Rivera won’t give the team its reduced “Victory Monday” schedule he uses as a reward for winning, but a “Tie Monday” isn’t terrible.
And best of all, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton finally looked like Cam Newton Sunday. He was terrific, running for 107 yards, throwing for 284 more, accounting for three touchdowns and befuddling the Bengals most of the day. Newton had more rushing attempts in one day Sunday than he had the rest of the season combined.
Like most of the players following the game, Newton sort of wandered around in a daze.
“I don’t know how to act right now,” he said. It was a sentiment he shared with many.
I’ll tell you how to act, Panthers fans.
This could have been a lot worse. And your quarterback is back.