Carolina Panthers

Wes Horton emerges with game-changer for Carolina Panthers

Panthers defensive end Wes Horton grabs a fumble by Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) as tight end Vernon Davis (85) closes in during the second half Monday.
Panthers defensive end Wes Horton grabs a fumble by Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) as tight end Vernon Davis (85) closes in during the second half Monday. AP

A defensive player cut loose by the Carolina Panthers this year turned in the game-changing play that almost single-handedly decided the “Monday Night Football” matchup at Washington.

Meet Panthers defensive end Wes Horton, who found a way to upstage to former Panthers cornerback Josh Norman, whom you might have read about once or twice during the past week.

While Norman had a relatively quiet performance against his former team – at least by his standards – Horton introduced himself to America with the biggest moment of his four-year career.

Horton’s strip-sack and recovery of a Kirk Cousins fumble on the first play of the second half set the Panthers up for a short touchdown and sent Carolina on its way to a 26-15 victory at FedEx Field.

The win kept the Panthers’ barely-beating playoff hopes alive – the 10-step scenario will test your math powers and make your head hurt – while damaging Washington’s own postseason hopes.

While not nearly as exciting as a playoff race, the final few games for Carolina (6-8) will give general manager Dave Gettleman time to evaluate the roster and decide who fits in the future plans.

There’s no guarantee that future will include Horton, who was among the team’s last cuts in August before re-joining the team in October. Horton, who will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, made a case for himself Monday.

“I’m not a big rah-rah guy. I just line up and try to do my job at the best of my abilities,” Horton said. “If the big sacks don’t come, I just try to do everything I can to chip away to make some kind of impact on the quarterback on the run game.”

Before Monday, he was best known as the son of Gemini, aka Michael Horton, one of the six original American Gladiators.

Horton has started the past two months after coaches decided Kony Ealy would be best served coming off the bench. Horton came into the game with a half-sack and zero fanfare.

The Observer ran feature-length stories on two Panthers defensive ends last week. Neither was named Wes Horton.

Oops.

Horton forced his way into the backfield – and the Observer’s sports pages – by bull-rushing tight end Vernon Davis into Cousins’ back, causing the ball to pop loose.

It bounced straight up to Horton, who was dragged down short of the goal line by Davis despite linebacker A.J. Klein’s best efforts to carry him to paydirt.

Somewhere Gemini was smiling.

Two plays later, quarterback Cam Newton hit fullback Mike Tolbert in the flat and Tolbert – who has been mostly MIA this season – stretched for the goal line to put the Panthers up 20-9 about a minute into the second half.

The way Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart was running – apparently no one told him about Carolina’s 0.0004 chance of making the playoffs – and the way Carolina’s defense was suffocating the NFL’s No. 3 offense, the 11-point lead was substantial.

As for Norman, the league’s highest-paid corner had a pretty uneventful game.

Newton did what a lot of quarterbacks did last season when Norman earned Pro Bowl honors for the Super Bowl-bound Panthers – threw the other way.

Newton challenged Norman a couple times, including a 30-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. during the first half that was the result of a defensive breakdown.

Norman let Ginn run past him down the seam for a wide-open score. ESPN color analyst Jon Gruden blamed safety Donte Whitner for not providing over-the-top help.

But Ginn, who went to high school and Ohio State with Whitner, had a different take.

“I was reading the D and I saw Donte drop down and I knew Josh was playing over the top,” Ginn said. “So I just took the post and Cam read it right and put it right on the money.”

Newton went at Norman again during the third quarter with a deep, but underthrown ball to Ginn. Norman went up and snagged it with two hands, but couldn’t hold on as he hit the ground.

Norman said Newton didn’t challenge him after his near-INT.

“I wanted him to. That’s what I was talking to him about out on the football field. That’s why we were jawing at each other a good bit there,” Norman said. “He threw that long ball to Teddy. I should have came down with it. It popped up from me.

“After that I didn’t see no more of him all night. I think (offensive coordinator Mike) Shula got in his ear. I wish he didn’t because I’m pretty sure he would’ve uncontained the beast.”

Newton completed slants to Ginn and Kelvin Benjamin against Norman during the first half, but that was about it.

Six days before Christmas, the self-proclaimed “Dark Knight” had a silent night.

And the Panthers’ had a surprising star emerge from one of the more quiet guys in their locker room.

Horton said the Norman storyline received too much attention.

“Definitely as players we were getting tired of hearing about it,” he said. “We were more focused on getting the win than (about) Josh Norman coming back and playing us.”

Norman, who signed a five-year, $75 million with Washington three days after the Panthers rescinded his franchise tag in April, took his time putting on his fur-trimmed overcoat before talking to reporters in the Washington locker room.

At the other end of the stadium, Horton – who is making $476,472 this season – didn’t want to make too much of what his big play (his only tackle of the night) might mean for his future.

“I’ve still got a lot of work to do before I can get my hands on some money,” he said.

Horton got his hands on the ball Monday. That was enough.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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