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Carolina Panthers: soggy survivors

jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Every kid who has ever played football in the rain had fun doing it. So has every adult. You slip and slide, skid and smile. Your clothes are soaked, you go home soggy and you hope you’ll get a chance to do it again.

The Carolina Panthers had a chance to do it in front of a national audience on Monday Night Football. To fans unfamiliar with Charlotte, we looked like Seattle without the hills, without the flying fish at Pike Place Fish Market and without the legalized marijuana.

And, as the Panthers did in their first six games, they made this one theirs. In the off and on and occasionally monsoon like rain they made the game theirs. They led 17-6 at the end of the third quarter, and pushed that to 23-6 in the fourth.

How’d they take that lead? Twice on Carolina’s second drive Ron Rivera went for a first down on fourth down. He was Riverboat Ron again, the accent on the boat.

On fourth and 1 from the Indianapolis 3, Jonathan Stewart tried to hammer the ball through the middle. He had no room. He was stopped. But Stewart didn’t stop. He kept churning and scored to give the Panthers a 10-0 lead.

There was a lot of churning. But there also were some dazzling plays. Newton scrambled, tossed a short pass in the flat to Mike Tolbert, and Tolbert picked up 40 yards. You try tackling him on wet grass.

On third and 6 from their 37, Newton dropped back, was engulfed by the Indianapolis pass rush, spun free and took off. He hurdled cornerback Darius Butler, who is 5-10, and picked up 11 yards.

As is their custom, Carolina had to hang on to win. The Colts and Andrew Luck, their enormously talented but erratic quarterback, scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns and, as the clock wound down, a field goal.

So: Overtime.

This was tense. And it made you appreciate how difficult Carolina’s first six victories were.

And if this odd and entertaining game wasn’t enough, fans could look up at the protesters, a man and a woman, who hung from the upper deck in front of the press box. Fans often did. They’d seen football before. But the protest was new.

The protesters used rappelling gear. Nobody had ever done this at Bank of America Stadium. One suspects that fans no longer will be allowed to bring rappelling equipment into the stadium.

[UPDATE: 4 arrested after protesters rappel from BofA Stadium during Panthers game.]

The Colts won the coin toss and opened overtime with a 50-yard field goal.

The Panthers had to score. Newton hit Philly Brown for 23 yards. Nice catch by Brown. Newton hit Greg Olsen for 19 yards. His catch was nicer than Brown’s.

Between those catches, Ted Ginn Jr. broke free down the left side. As Newton backed up against the Colts’ rush he hit Ginn in stride at the Indianapolis 15, a pass of 41 yards. And Ginn, who seemed to run free all evening, put out his hands and – dropped the ball.

Ginn made a much more difficult catch for 12 yards. The drive stalled and Graham Gano kicked a 42-yard game tying field goal.

Then it was the Colts’ turn. On the second play from scrimmage Luck’s pass was tipped by safety Roman Harper and intercepted by Luke Kuechly at the Colts’ 39. Three plays gained 5 yards and Gano was good from 52 yards and a 29-26 victory.

The Panthers have established a pattern. When a play that wins the game has to be made, they make it.

With the victory they move to 7-0. They are one of four undefeated teams in the NFL and the only undefeated team in the NFC.

The game was more tense, occasionally unbearably so, than it had to be. But wasn’t it fun?

But the Panthers won again. And no Carolina fan will protest that.

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