A safety that clinched the game. A somersault that never touched the ground. A San Diego quarterback who was rattled into five turnovers.
The Carolina Panthers’ 28-16 victory against the Chargers had all of that and more on a cold Sunday afternoon in Charlotte that made those home fans who decided to bundle up and show up happy that they did. File Sunday’s win in the “too little, too late” category for Carolina, but it was also fun while it lasted.
Carolina (5-8) remains three games behind Atlanta and Tampa Bay (both 8-5) in the NFC South race with just three games left to play. The Panthers aren’t officially eliminated from the playoffs yet, but only one thread is left to be snipped. But Sunday was a reminder that – even without middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who missed his third straight game because of a concussion – there is talent on the Panthers’ defense. That defense won this game, sacking Philip Rivers five times and forcing the 13-year veteran into a startling five turnovers.
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“Philip is getting a little older now,” Panthers safety Tre Boston said, “so he’s not able to move like he used to.”
Philip is getting a little older now, so he’s not able to move like he used to.
Panthers safety Tre Boston on San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers
He sure couldn’t, and the Panthers made sure Rivers was uncomfortable the entire day. Rivers lost star running back Melvin Gordon early in the game because of a hip injury – Gordon was unsuccessfully trying to recover one of Rivers’ fumbles – and spent much of the day trying to scramble away from Carolina defenders or throwing the ball up for grabs. He threw three interceptions, lost two fumbles on strip-sacks and also gave up a safety when he was sacked in the end zone by Carolina defensive end Mario Addison.
“We turned it over five times,” said Rivers, who once starred at N.C. State. “Or, I turned it over five times.”
Carolina’s offense wasn’t nearly as good, although Jonathan Stewart’s 20-yard run on a play in which he did a full somersault without getting tackled was a nice moment. Cam Newton completed only 10 of 27 passes – his fourth straight game under 50 percent.
Newton showed up in his postgame news conference without a tie (it wasn’t required) but with a green hat, scarf, glasses and long brown cardigan sweater. He looked like a cross between a cowboy and Larry Johnson playing “Grandmama” on an old commercial.
“Not to rain on the win, but we have to put up points,” Newton said.
He added: “Winning sweeps a lot of things, a lot of feelings up under the rug. … When you lose, all that debris that you try to sweep up is still up on top of the rug.”
The rug was piled high with debris a week ago after a nasty 40-7 loss to Seattle.
“Last week was embarrassing for us,” said Stewart, who ran for 66 yards and had a touchdown and a key fourth-down conversion. “We didn’t show up on any phase.”
This time Carolina played beautiful football for the first 20 minutes and then threatened to give all of a 23-0 second-quarter lead back. San Diego (5-8) got to within 26-16 and then had an apparent 100-yard interception return nullified on referee review in the fourth quarter. Rivers took the end-zone sack soon afterward – like Newton, he tends to hold on to the ball too long – and Carolina had escaped.
Carolina got to 28 points in an unusual way Sunday – two touchdowns, four field goals by Graham Gano and a safety.
What Sunday showed was that the Panthers have some pride left.
San Diego was just as desperate for a victory as Carolina was. The Panthers played better and, for the most part, harder (although Kelvin Benjamin’s lack of tackling effort on two would-be interceptions was a notable exception).
Now comes a Monday night game against Washington. By the time that game is played Carolina will likely be eliminated from the playoff race once and for all. But there’s a self-preservation aspect to the end of an NFL season like this one – lots of jobs are on the line. And give them this: The Panthers at least looked like they were playing for something Sunday.