The Carolina Panthers’ defensive backs this season latched on to the “thievery” motto as a way to commemorate their penchant for forcing turnovers.
Sometime over the weekend they made it official when someone fashioned a cardboard sign reading, “Thieve Ave.” and hung it over the secondary’s row of lockers.
Strong safety Roman Harper loved the idea, but hated the execution. The veteran thought the sign should have been either Thieves Ave. or Thief Ave.
“It’s terrible. It’s terrible spelling,” Harper said. “So we’re going to get this corrected. You guys come back tomorrow and we’re going to have this thing right. ... I went to Alabama. I have a decent education. I know how to spell Thieves Ave. All right? Let’s go.”
The Panthers were the kings of thieves during the regular season, leading the league in interceptions (24), takeaways (39) and turnover margin (plus-20). Their 15 fumble recoveries were tied with Washington for the NFL lead.
But Carolina (15-1) failed to come up with any takeaways in a 27-23 victory at Seattle in Week 6, the only game all season the Panthers did not force a turnover.
And though it didn’t cost them in the first meeting, Carolina’s defensive backs are mindful that winning the turnover battle could be the difference between advancing and going home Sunday when they meet the Seahawks (11-6) in a divisional-round matchup in Charlotte.
It won’t be easy.
Seattle lost just 16 turnovers during the regular season – the third-fewest in the league. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw eight interceptions; only New England’s Tom Brady (seven), Kansas City’s Alex Smith (seven) and Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor (six) threw fewer among starting quarterbacks.
“Takeaways are going to be huge on both sides. That’s the same type of formula that’s won for us all year long,” Harper said Monday. “That’s protecting the ball and getting takeaways, putting our offense back on the field in scoring position.”
The Panthers’ offense was efficient at cashing in on turnovers, converting the 39 turnovers into an NFL-high 148 points. Conversely, Carolina gave up only 32 points – the second-fewest in the league – following its 19 giveaways.
But protecting the ball has been part of the Seahawks’ formula for success.
Wilson tossed 24 touchdowns and only one interception over the Seahawks’ final seven games, a stretch in which Seattle went 6-1 to secure a playoff berth.
Wilson had one interception in the Seahawks’ 10-9 wildcard victory over Minnesota. He had another near-interception on a fourth-down play that a Vikings defender dropped.
But Panthers free safety Kurt Coleman said Wilson has been playing “phenomenal football” of late.
Coleman was in position to intercept Wilson on a trick play in Week 6, but instead ended up giving up a touchdown. Wilson took a lateral from running back Marshawn Lynch and lofted a pass into the end zone for Ricardo Lockette, who went up over Coleman to pull it in for a 40-yard score.
“The wide receiver made a great play. I was right there in position. But those are the opportunities when you are there, you’ve got to make the plays in that spot,” Coleman said.
“Throughout the year we’ve been able to make those plays. That’s just one of those games where that could have been a pivotal thing where they’re in scoring position and we get the turnover. We give the offense an opportunity and the game may not have been as close as it was.”
The Panthers had two turnovers in the win at Seattle – interceptions by Cam Newton, one of which came after a defender hit his arm while he was releasing the ball. But Newton led four 80-yard touchdown drives, including the game-winner in the final two minutes, to outduel Wilson for the first time in five career meetings.
Newton’s defensive teammates would like to give him shorter fields Sunday.
“We’ve got to be able to turn the ball over,” Coleman said. “Turnovers are so crucial, especially in the playoffs.”
A turnover loomed large in the Seahawks’ win at Minneapolis. Kam Chancellor’s strip of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson’s led to what proved to be the game-winning field goal by Steven Hauschka.
Coleman, a former Ohio State player, said when the Buckeyes faced Michigan they stressed how every play was magnified, none more so than a momentum-changing turnover.
Coleman said the playoffs are the same way.
“It’s just amplified. It’s multiplied and that’s just the way this game is,” he said. “Every yard is more earned. Every turnover is even more crucial. That’s how you have to look at it.”