Quarterback Cam Newton said his Panthers could have packed it up and gone home on Sunday when they trailed by two scores with eight minutes to play in Seattle, where the home team rarely loses.
Instead, the Panthers rallied, scoring on two touchdown drives of 80 yards each for the franchise’s biggest win in at least two seasons.
Aided by smart decisions from Newton, good hands from receivers and hard running from Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers stayed ahead of the chains and out of bad situations against the Seahawks.
The Panthers ran 17 plays in those two drives and faced third down just once.
“I just think it’s staying out of the long-yardage situations,” Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “I think the efficiency on that drive of making first downs on first or second downs (helped).
“Whether or not it’s throwing it on every down or running it, the key was the effectiveness and efficiency on early downs.”
Down 23-14, the Panthers got the ball back at their 20-yard line with 8 minutes, 8 secondsto play. Newton looked for rookie receiver Devin Funchess, who had already dropped two passes. Newton fired a dart toward Funchess, who had a step on cornerback Richard Sherman. It would have been a 20-yard gain, but Funchess dropped another pass, tipped it up and nearly had it intercepted.
Tight end Greg Olsen, who had the second-biggest statistical day of his career, made up for it on the next play with a 12-yard pickup, and from there the offense got moving. Only once for the rest of the game would the Panthers run a play that failed to gain yards.
Newton showed he either trusted his teammates or had a short memory in his targets. Earlier tight end Ed Dickson had dropped a first-down pass, but Newton found Dickson for a 5-yard gain. And on the next play he looked to Funchess, who made a catch for 8 yards and a first down at the Seattle 33.
“He’s got a quality about himself,” Shula said of Newton. “It actually carries over from off the field. Obviously it involves a little more trust on the field, but he’s always kind of been that way with the guys around him of giving guys opportunities and chances and believing in them.”
Before Stewart punched the ball into the end zone from 1 yard, the Panthers got there because of a catch and run by Olsen. From the Seattle 33, Olsen lined up to the right of the line and got a free release as the Seahawks rushed four linemen.
Ten yards into his route, Olsen, who probably had the option to continue down the seam, broke it off inside and caught a perfectly placed pass from Newton over Sherman and ran to the 1.
That play would come in handy later in the game.
Carolina got the ball back with 2:20 remaining in the game, one timeout and the 2-minute warning. Rather than pressing and trying to make a play with 80 yards in front of them and little time left, Newton found Stewart for a short pass to the left side, and the running back picked up 8 yards and got out of bounds.
The quick decision by Newton and the heads-up play by Stewart allowed the Panthers to get one more play in before the warning, and that turned into an 18-yard gain for receiver Ted Ginn Jr.
The Panthers had the ball near midfield and a slight advantage over Seattle’s defense. With the Panthers going no-huddle, Seattle didn’t have an opportunity to disguise much of their coverages. That helped Newton pre-snap, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said, and the quarterback was quick with his decisions.
“I think what’s happened is he was getting a real good tip as to where he needed to go early,” Rivera said. “A lot of times in that situation, the disguise factor, as far as defenses go, goes out the window and they’ll show their hand a lot sooner.
“That’s the beauty about being in a hurry-up style of offense in the 2-minute drill. A patient quarterback, a guy that’s reading what he’s getting from the defense early, can make quick decisions.”
Catches by Dickson, Funchess and a one-handed grab by receiver Jerricho Cotchery got the Panthers to the Seahawks’ 26 with 37 seconds to play, when Shula radioed in the same play that worked earlier.
Olsen again ran up the seam, but he didn’t break off his route when he saw a breakdown in coverage that he could exploit.
Sherman was playing a version of cover-2 defense, which meant he would be responsible for any shorter routes, with safety Earl Thomas covering any deep receivers. But Thomas and safety Kam Chancellor didn’t get that communication and were playing cover-3, which would have made Sherman responsible for Olsen running up the seam.
Newton didn’t tip the defense as he looked to his left, kept looking left, took one hitch, turned his head right and fired toward the end zone. Olsen continued up the field and was wide open for the game-winning touchdown grab.
“When you get a late touchdown like this in a hostile environment,” Newton said, “it just puts everything into perspective on why you play so hard, why you play through injuries, when you look in the huddle and see 10 guys looking back at you, and you can’t let those guys down.
“When Greg caught that ball, there was so much that was bottled up inside of me, and everybody else was thinking the same thing. It’s a game of resiliency and never giving up.”