The Carolina Panthers tried to erase six weeks of frustration in three giddy hours Sunday, beating Arizona 30-20 and reminding their fans that hope does actually exist.
Yes, it was the Panthers’ first victory of October and it came the day before Halloween. Yes, the Panthers are still only 2-5. Yes, they had some anxious moments in the second half.
Still, this was a reminder of what Carolina can be. This was a 2015 sort of game for the Panthers – Carolina blasted its way to a 24-0 second-quarter lead and then never allowed the Cardinals to get closer than 10 points.
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All those things that have gone wrong through a four-game losing streak? They all went right Sunday.
The Panthers’ pass rush roared to life with eight sacks in Bank of America Stadium. Jonathan Stewart ground out one hard yard after another and scored two touchdowns. Helped by an iffy call, Carolina also got a defensive touchdown – the first of linebacker Thomas Davis’ career – in the first four minutes. Before Cam Newton ever took a snap, he was ahead 7-0.
It was that kind of day. And it was about time for a Panthers team that simply has too much talent to ever have started 1-5 – and I don’t want to hear your excuses for how it happened. It never should have happened, and it’s still unlikely the Panthers can scramble all the way back into the playoffs, but there’s a better chance now than there was Sunday morning.
The Panthers totally took Arizona star running back David Johnson out of the game (10 rushes, 24 yards). Arizona lost its poise and, at one point after a slew of penalties, had to face a second-and-44. The Panthers played from ahead all day, just like they did nine months ago in the NFC title game against the Cardinals.
And lo and behold, just when Panthers fans were getting nervous with Arizona down by only 10 and with the ball, defensive end Kony Ealy actually made a play. Ealy arrived seven weeks late to the season, but he finally arrived with a gorgeous interception that he tipped to himself to seal the game.
“Huge,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera called all this.
“Huge,” echoed defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who had never had three sacks in a game until Sunday.
Maybe it was huge. Or maybe it was just a false alarm – a victory that will be undone a week from now by an unsuccessful trip to Los Angeles.
Notwithstanding Cam Newton’s angry news conference after the game – the quarterback was mad, and rightly so, by a non-call on a low hit he said could have torn up his knee – this was a joyous afternoon for those in Panthers blue.
“It gives us our confidence and swagger back,” defensive tackle Kawann Short said.
Well, not all the way back. The Panthers are 2-5, after all.
But it was interesting to see them happy again, for the first time since Sept. 18.
Stewart and Mike Tolbert dressed up as Power Rangers after the game and did interviews in costume. Players’ kids wandered around in the locker room. It looked the way the locker room on many Sunday afternoons in 2015 looked.
For one week at least, the Panthers remembered how it was done – and actually did it.