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Imperfect Panthers continue to find ways to win

The Carolina Panthers did muff a punt, fumble a snap on what was going to be a punt, commit eight penalties, throw an interception and fumble the ball three times. They lost two of the fumbles.

So they were not without flaws in the mist Saturday at Bank of America Stadium. But why would they be?

They made the playoffs despite a losing record. Now they make the NFC Divisional Round despite an often sloppy performance in their 27-16 victory against Arizona.

When the Panthers weren’t sloppy, they were often very good. As good as their defense was last season, this defense is better.

True, the Cardinals used a third-team quarterback and obscure running backs. But those same players amassed 397 yards last week in a 20-17 loss to San Francisco.

The Panthers held them to 78 yards. I picked up more yardage walking from the press box to the locker room.

They sacked Arizona quarterback Ryan Lindley four times and intercepted him twice.

Carolina, which trailed 14-13 at the half, was so dominant in the second half it gave up only two points, both on a last-minute safety the Panthers took deliberately.

What adjustments did they make at halftime?

There were no adjustments, says Josh Norman, who again played as if he is one of the league’s better cornerbacks and has the potential to become one of the best.

“We kept at it more, we hunted it more. We wanted it bad enough where you can smell it, you can taste it, you can feel it out there, the electricity from the stands, from the fans.”

Norman says it didn’t matter what the Cardinals did. The defense was not going to permit them to score.

There was one adjustment. Norman watches a warrior movie before every game. His go-to movie for big games is 300. He watched it before the win-or-go-home game last week against Atlanta.

“No, I watched Gladiator,” says Norman. “Maximus Decimus Meridius. It was on today.”

So dwell on Carolina’s regular-season record or Saturday mistakes if you must.

But this is pretty cool. The Panthers won their fifth straight game and next weekend they will be one of only eight NFL teams still playing meaningful football. And in Seattle or Green Bay they’ll again assume their customary and preferred role – underdogs.

You can see why. When the special teams weren’t making a mistake, the offense was. Cam Newton was off.

Yet you’ll recall that on Carolina’s first drive of the second half Newton scrambled for 10 yards on third and 9 and 13 on third and 12. You’ll also recall that at the time the Panthers trailed by a point and that Arizona had scored 14 of the first half’s final 17 points.

Those runs helped restore the momentum with which Carolina entered the playoffs. They weren’t pretty but they were gutsy, and they worked. On the Panthers’ next possession, they scored on a short pass to Fozzy Whittaker that he took for 39 yards.

Like it would be anybody but Fozzy Whittaker; why would you think that? The touchdown pushed the lead to 20-14 and Carolina would not trail again.

Jonathan Stewart rushed for 123 yards on 24 carries and a touchdown. Newton rushed for 35 and DeAngelo Williams picked Stewart up late with 16 yards on four carries.

The biggest surprise on offense was that Mike Tolbert, who scored on a third-quarter, 1-yard pass from Newton, didn’t do what he’s supposed to.

Tolbert is the team’s best dancer, better even than Whittaker. He started to dance and then, inexplicably after his biggest touchdown of the season, stopped.

“I was going to but I just didn’t feel it,” he says.

Perhaps he’ll get another chance to dance.

Tolbert points and laughs.

“I’m saving it,” he says.

What are the Panthers saving?

We’ll know soon enough.

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