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Panthers players vote for season’s Top 10 plays

There were more than 2,000 plays in the Carolina Panthers’ 2013 regular season.

We are here today to talk about 10 of them.

A handful of plays make or break every NFL season. From 2009-12, every Panthers season shattered like glass.

But this season, the Panthers made the plays that made their year. They went 12-4, won the NFC South and earned a first-round playoff bye.

Instead of creating my own top 10 list of plays, I conducted a poll in the locker room. I asked 16 Panthers players to vote on what the most important plays of the 2013 season were, offering no other prompts or suggestions.

Some named as many as five plays. Some named a single one.

I gave one point to each play named unless a Panther only voted for one moment and clearly specified it as the No.1 play of the season. In that case, the play received three points.

To add another perspective, I also asked Panther fans on and on Twitter what they believed the single most important play of the season was.

Now, based purely on the players’ poll, let’s count the top plays down from No. 10 to No. 1.

No. 10: “L-u-u-u-k-e!”

The game: Carolina 34, Atlanta 10 in Charlotte on Nov. 3.

The situation: First quarter. No score. Atlanta had the ball and a second-and-9 at the Falcons’ 28.

The play: Luke Kuechly cuts in front of Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez and intercepts a pass, leading to the Panthers’ first touchdown and an eventual rout of the 2012 NFC South winners.

Important because: Kuechly had four interceptions and ended up tying for the team lead in that category this year, which is difficult to do for a linebacker. While he is often mentioned for his body of work – quarterback Cam Newton said Kuechly’s 24-tackle game against New Orleans was the “No. 1” thing that he remembers about this season – No. 59 also comes up with some gems like this one.

“It was still tight at the time, still early, and Luke just makes a great play to pick off that route to Gonzalez,” Panthers safety Mike Mitchell said. “We got a two-score lead not long after that and it turned into a rout, but it could have been much closer except for this play.”

No. 9: Kaepernick sacked – again

The game: Carolina 10, San Francisco 9 at San Francisco on Nov. 10.

The situation: The 49ers got the ball back with a first-and-10 at their own 20 with 1:02 left and no timeouts in the fourth quarter, needing a field goal to win.

The play: Panther defensive tackle Dwan Edwards sacks Colin Kaepernick for a 6-yard loss – the Panthers’ sixth and final sack of the quarterback who led the 49ers to the Super Bowl the season before – setting up a second-and-16 and keeping the clock running.

Important because? On the next play, Panther cornerback Drayton Florence intercepted Kaepernick and the game was over. The Panther defense on the day allowed only 46 net yards passing.

“That sack was huge,” Panthers quarterback Derek Anderson said. “It put them in a second-and-very-long situation, and winning that game set us apart. We were a team that had some clout then – a team that had some stuff.”

No. 8: The birth of ‘Riverboat Ron’

The game: Carolina 35, Minnesota 10 at Minneapolis on Oct. 13.

The situation: 0-0 in the first quarter.

The play: On fourth-and-1 from the Vikings 32, Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert bulls for 2 yards and a first down.

Important because? This play – and the one later in the same drive where the Panthers went for it again on fourth-and-1 and scored – was the birth of the “Riverboat Ron” mythology. Rivera had been publicly scorned (and had privately been rethinking his approach) after not going for a fourth-and-1 against Buffalo and ultimately losing the game.

“When Coach Rivera went for it on fourth down against Minnesota,” wide receiver Domenik Hixon said, “that really set the tone. It kind of let us know that all the chips were on the line.”

No. 7: Melvin White’s pick-6

The game: Carolina 21, Atlanta 20 at Atlanta on Dec. 29.

The situation: Atlanta led 10-0 and was dominating the game early in the second quarter, but had the ball second-and-12 at its own 2.

The play: Melvin White intercepts Matt Ryan and goes 8 yards for a touchdown.

Important because? The Panthers were getting whipped, and DeAngelo Williams had just fumbled the ball away after a 56-yard reception. A playoff bye hung in the balance.

“You’ve got to go with Melvin from last week for this,” Panther cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “It wasn’t looking good. We needed a play, and Melvin came up big. That changed the momentum completely.”

No. 6: Gano’s blast

The game: Carolina 10, San Francisco 9 at San Francisco on Nov.10.

The situation: Panthers down 9-7 with 10 minutes left and facing fourth-and-13 at the San Francisco 35.

The play: Graham Gano hits his most important field goal of the season, knocking it in from 53 yards for what prove to be the final points in the Panthers’ one-point win.

Important because? In this game, points were as rare as rubies. Gano had a fantastic season, making 24 of 27 kicks, but no field goal was more significant than this one. “That was just a big bomb Gano hit in San Francisco,” Newton said. “That was extremely big for us.” The San Francisco game turns out to be the only contest with two plays in the Panthers players’ top 10.

No. 5: Block that punt!

The game: Carolina 30, New York Jets 20 in Charlotte on Dec. 15.

The situation: The Panthers were clinging to a 16-13 lead against the Jets early in the fourth quarter.

The play: Obscure special-teams player Jason Williams breaks through the line to block the Jets’ punt, setting up the Panthers at the New York 14 for the touchdown that sealed the game.

Important because? The Jets game was a trap, sandwiched between two huge matchups with New Orleans. Carolina was in danger of losing until Williams’ play.

“That was a huge play,” fellow special-teamer Jordan Senn said. “The game hung in the balance until then.”

No. 4: Losing in Buffalo

The game: Buffalo 24, Carolina 23 at Buffalo on Sept. 15.

The situation: Down 23-17, Buffalo needs to go 80 yards for a game-winning touchdown with a rookie quarterback and has 1:38 to do it.

The play: At the Carolina 2 with 0:06 left, the Panthers botch a coverage and Buffalo scores on a 2-yard pass from EJ Manuel to Stevie Johnson.

Important because? This is the only negative play on the top-10 list, and several Panthers players mentioned it prominently as a learning experience for the defense. The Panthers’ defense was far from elite at the time, but would end the year as the No. 2 defense in the NFL.

“We learned from that mistake,” said Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson, who declared this play the most important of the season. “It made us hold ourselves to a higher standard. We didn’t want that to ever happen again.”

No. 3: Ginn does it again

The game: Carolina 24, New England 20 in Charlotte on Nov. 18.

The situation: The Panthers faced a second-and-15 from the New England 25, with 1:09 left. Carolina trailed 20-17 and needed points on a drive Newton had already extended twice with third-down scrambles.

The play: Newton throws a short sideline pass to Ginn on his left. Ginn makes a quick move to sprint by one Patriots defender and flies into the end zone. Newton is so excited he heaves the ball 15 rows into the stands, resulting in a $5,250 fine for the quarterback.

Important because? On “Monday Night Football,” this play gave Carolina its final points in a win that cemented the team’s national relevancy this season. Luke Kuechly’s “hug” of Rob Gronkowski on the final play of the game ultimately didn’t get enough votes from his teammates to make the top-10 list, but lots of them mentioned Ginn’s TD.

“The difference this year compared to past years was that we finished games – we finished drives at the end,” center Ryan Kalil said. “Ted Ginn’s TD against the Patriots was a great example of that.”

No. 2: Hixon’s TD vs. New Orleans

The game: Carolina 17, New Orleans 13 in Charlotte on Dec. 22.

The situation: Down 13-10, the Panthers had driven to the New Orleans 14. It was second-and-10, with 28 seconds left and Carolina had burned all its timeouts. A driving rainstorm had made the field soggy.

The play: Lined up on the left, little-used receiver Domenik Hixon ran a “7” route – so named because he followed the path of the number starting at the bottom. Hixon cut hard to the front corner of the end zone. Newton threw a low dart, which either Hixon would catch or no one would. Hixon dove and caught it for the winning TD.

Important because? If the Panthers lost that game, they would be playing this weekend on the road against Green Bay or Philadelphia. Tight end Greg Olsen would later call this the “catch of the year.”

No. 1: Fourth-and-10 in Miami

The game: Carolina 20, Miami 16 at Miami on Nov. 24.

The situation: With 2:33 left, the Panthers trailed, 16-13. They had already used two of their timeouts and faced fourth-and-10 at their 20 when Rivera decided to go for it.

The play: Wide receiver Steve Smith caught a perfect Newton pass between two defenders, pinballed through both of them and gained 19 yards. The Panthers eventually scored on the drive and won another game in the final seconds.

Important because? “That was the biggest play of the year,” Panthers offensive lineman Geoff Hangartner said. “It’s fourth-and-10 and we’re going for it from our own 20?! We don’t get that one it’s game over. And he bounces through two guys, gets the first down and we win that game.”

Said Newton: “Steve making that fourth-and-10 catch – that one still sticks out to me.”