As he turned to address the media at his locker after Sunday’s latest nerve-racker, cornerback Josh Norman spoke for Panthers fans everywhere who have lived, died and lived again with this team twice in a seven-day span.
“It’s never easy,” Norman said under his breath. “It’s never freaking easy.”
Carolina’s 37-29 victory played out much like last Monday night’s nailbiter against Indianapolis, minus the protesting rappellers: Build a big lead against one of the game’s best quarterbacks, then hang on for dear life in the fourth quarter.
Andrew Luck erased a 17-point lead before falling in overtime. Aaron Rodgers tossed two fourth-quarter touchdown passes but couldn’t quite pull the Packers from their 23-point hole.
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“The Walk” might be good box-office theater, but the Panthers’ high-wire act is causing angina throughout the Carolinas.
“I don’t even care right now. We won,” free safety Kurt Coleman said. “That’s a really good team that we played.”
The Panthers’ secondary limited the damage done by Rodgers during the first three quarters but let him off the mat in the fourth. Rodgers completed 11 of 21 passes for 162 yards in the final quarter and converted a pair of fourth downs.
It was a scrambling throw to James Jones on fourth-and-14 with five minutes left that had Norman in a snit afterward. Norman, the league’s best cover corner during the first half of the season, was in good position in front of Jones.
But the 6-1 Jones snatched the ball away from Norman for a 36-yard gain, and two plays later Rodgers found tight end Richard Rodgers for a 3-yard touchdown. Mason Crosby’s extra point pulled the Packers (6-2) within 8 with just under four minutes remaining
Green Bay was in prime position for another score when rookie cornerback Damarious Randall intercepted Cam Newton on the ensuing play, setting the Packers up at the Carolina 22.
The Packers then had a second-and-goal at the 9 when strong safety Roman Harper came up big on consecutive plays.
Harper, the only remaining defensive back who started last year at Green Bay, had good coverage on slot receiver Randall Cobb to force an incompletion. When Rodgers scrambled on third-and-goal, Harper was the only man standing between Rodgers and the end zone.
Harper wrapped up Rodgers at the 4, forcing a fourth-and-goal with two minutes left.
On that decisive play, defensive tackle Kawann Short shot past center Corey Linsley and forced Rodgers to retreat. A backpedaling Rodgers flung the ball toward the end zone – right into the arms of linebacker Thomas Davis, whose interception sealed it.
“Coach (Eric Washington) always tells us in the defensive line room, ‘If you’ve got the one-on-one (matchup) you must win,’” Short said. “That’s what I did. Just come off the ball and execute.”
The victory put the Panthers (8-0) two games up on the rest of the NFC, and they own the tiebreaker with Green Bay. With Atlanta (6-3) losing to San Francisco, the Panthers have a huge, 2 1/2-game lead in the South.
But the buzzword in the Panthers’ locker room was “finishing,” a theme that Panthers coach Ron Rivera brought up in his post-game comments.
“The ebbs and flows are getting to all of us. I know it’s getting to me. But the key is we kept fighting as well,” Rivera said. “You’re talking about a first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback who just doesn’t quit. ... We have a lot to learn from this, and we most certainly will learn from this.”
Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said the near collapse against the Colts was the result of a lackluster late pass rush, coupled with errors in the secondary.
Harper said that was the case again Sunday.
“We’ve got to choke teams out,” Harper said. “It doesn’t matter who these quarterbacks are.”
There are still a couple of potential Hall of Fame quarterbacks left on the Panthers’ schedule in the persons of Drew Brees and Eli Manning, plus a matchup next week with Tennessee rookie Marcus Mariota, who hung 371 passing yards and four touchdowns on the Saints on Sunday.
The usually affable Norman talked in serious tones of beginning the preparations for the Titans on Monday, and never cracked a smile during his seven-minute session with reporters.
He also fired a shot at those who would dare to doubt the Panthers, one of only three unbeaten teams left in the league.
“I guess we don’t play nobody. Whoever says we don’t, just take a look at our stat sheets and our record. That goes to show you what we think about you and what we think about the team,” he said. “You don’t have to like us. We don’t care. But you’re going to respect us when you play us because we’re going to hit you in the mouth every single time.”
Coleman says the defense has some areas to address, but he characterized them as minor. He also didn’t intend to worry about them until Monday.
“This team is resilient. We know how to win, even when we let teams back in,” Coleman said. “I know none of us are complacent with where we are. I know I’ve got to clean up some things. But 8-0.”