Another week, another fourth quarter comeback bid for the Carolina Panthers defense to stave off.
First it was the New England Patriots and Tom Brady in Week 4, on the road. Carolina led 30-16 with just under 13 minutes left – just enough time for a patented Brady comeback. He led the New England offense down the field twice in that stretch and into the end zone, tying it up when he found Danny Amendola for a touchdown with three minutes to play. Luckily for Panthers fans, that gave the team’s offense enough time to manufacture its own game-winning drive, as Graham Gano kicked a field goal with no time left to win the game.
Sunday against Detroit, it was more of the same. Carolina led 27-10 with about nine minutes left, at which time Matthew Stafford and the Lions offense did their best Brady impression. He too led his team down the field twice in the fourth quarter, making it 27-24 with a little more than three minutes to play.
Again the Carolina offense delivered, as this time quarterback Cam Newton found Kelvin Benjamin for a 17-yard gain on third and 9 that enabled the team to run out the clock.
“You’ve got to expect it when you play guys like Brady and Stafford this week,” Luke Kuechly said after Sunday’s victory. “We played well in spots, but at the end of the game you’ve got to tighten up.”
So that’s two weeks, two comeback attempts ... and yet, two Panthers victories.
The questions is, why has the defense, capable of shutting down opposing offenses for three quarters and change, suddenly yielded scores in the game’s waning minutes?
“Probably the biggest thing was guys trying to do more than they needed to,” coach Ron Rivera said Monday. “We tried a little too much to keep it in front of us instead of being aggressive like we had been for three quarters.
“I thought we were just trying to keep it in front of us at that point, and it cost us.”
That’s a more sound resolution than pinning the blame on any particular player, especially since there was no single target. Against the Patriots, a handful of linebackers and defensive backs ceded yards, not just any one player. The Lions had a smaller group of targeted defenders, but still more than just one or two.
“We’ve just got to finish,” defensive tackle Kawann Short said Monday. “We’ve just got to finish stronger than the way we start out.”
But for all the yards and points the Panthers ceded to New England and Detroit in the fourth quarter, they still won. The offense, linebacker Luke Kuechly said Sunday, was able to make the plays to win the game. Now it’s time for the defense to take its turn.
And they’ve proven they can, limiting two potent offenses for three quarters each. The trick is holding that advantage instead of relinquishing it late.
“No letting up, man,” Short said. “When we get a team down like that, we’ve just got to go for the jugular vein.”