A few plays in each game make or break every NFL team.
Of the roughly 2,000 plays the Carolina Panthers have been a part of this season entering Saturday’s playoff game at Seattle, let’s talk about the 10 most significant – the “defining moment” plays of this season.
This isn’t a rough draft of the 2014 Panthers’ highlight film. For a team that is 8-8-1, you have to be honest and note some of the plays that caused defeats and changes.
The list does lean heavily on the past five games, because in all five of those “win-or-it’s-done” games the Panthers found themselves at just the right time. That’s why they are still playing this weekend, in the NFL’s final eight.
I enlisted nominations from 10 Panthers players for this list of the 10 defining plays, as well as some valuable input from Carolina head coach Ron Rivera.
Ultimately, though, I ordered the plays the way I thought best and added a couple the players did not mention. So blame me and not the panel for any omissions. Let’s start with the most important play of the season.
The following 10 Panther players – as well as Carolina coach Ron Rivera – helped me determine the 10 defining plays of the season: Cornerback Josh Norman, defensive lineman Mario Addison, center Ryan Kalil, long snapper J.J. Jansen, safety Thomas DeCoud, tight end Ed Dickson, fullback Mike Tolbert, safety Tre Boston, quarterback Derek Anderson and wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery. Thanks to all of them.
Norman also cast a bonus vote for a defining play that in a roundabout way could have ended the Panthers’ season.
The way Norman sees it, the Panthers knocking Cleveland rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel out of the game on Dec. 21 nearly ruined Carolina’s season.
Needing to beat Cleveland at home to make the playoffs, the Panthers’ Colin Jones and Luke Kuechly combined on a hit of Manziel early in the second quarter on a designed run by Manziel.
Manziel tried to get up, couldn’t and left the game with a hamstring injury. Brian Hoyer – a player Norman considers a far better quarterback – replaced Manziel and nearly led the Browns to a win.
“We were (unhappy) that he didn’t stay in,” Norman said of Manziel, who ended up 3-for-8 for 32 yards. “It was like, ‘Oh, now we’ve got a better quarterback.’”
Hoyer threw an 81-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter that put Cleveland ahead, 13-10. If the Browns had held on, Carolina would have finished 6-9-1 and New Orleans would have won the NFC South. Instead, Carolina got a late touchdown on Cam Newton’s 9-yard pass to Jonathan Stewart (see No. 3 on this list). But Norman said the outcome never would have been in doubt had Manziel not been knocked out of the game.
“If he (Manziel) had stayed in, it would been a nightmare,” Norman said. “His numbers would have been horrible. The best thing that happened to him was getting hurt. That was going to get ugly real quick.”