Give the Carolina Panthers this: They never quit, and on Monday night they whipped a team that had far better reasons to be playing hard and well.
Carolina’s 26-15 road win over Washington won’t salvage a season or a playoff berth, but it did showcase the “What Might Have Been” aspect of 2016 for the second straight week for the Panthers.
The Panthers (6-8) had more energy, never trailed and looked a whole lot different in prime time than they did 15 days ago in their last nationally televised game, at Seattle. Carolina lost that one 40-7, and its players and coaches looked uniformly awful.
Washington (7-6-1) was playing for its playoff life, but on this night Carolina had the better quarterback (Cam Newton, with 300 yards passing and no turnovers), the better running back (Jonathan Stewart, 132 rushing yards), the better poise (Washington tight end Jordan Reed was ejected for punching Carolina’s Kurt Coleman) and, most significantly, the better defense.
Carolina was keyed mostly by that defense that now leads the NFL in sacks and largely stifled Washington’s dangerous offense despite playing without middle linebacker Luke Kuechly for the fourth straight game. Washington came in ranked in the top five in almost every major offensive category and only scored one touchdown, and that is very impressive.
For all the pregame hype about former Carolina cornerback Josh Norman, now playing for Washington, he really didn’t have a major role. Norman had a near-interception on a deep ball, got beaten on a couple of short slant routes and wasn’t much of a factor.
It was the Panthers’ defense making the highlight plays. It got Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins to turn the ball over twice, leading to 10 points. The most startling one of those was a strip-sack-fumble recovery by defensive end Wes Horton, who on the first play from scrimmage in the second half knocked Cousins’ own blocker into him and recovered the resulting fumble at the Washington 1.
Newton threw his second TD pass at that point, a one-yarder to fullback Mike Tolbert, and Carolina led 20-9. The teams then traded field goals after that to make it 23-12. And even after Gano yanked a 38-yard field goal attempt wide with 5 minutes, 41 seconds left, Washington still trailed by two scores and could never make it up.
Carolina led only 13-9 at halftime, but had the potential to lead by more. Carolina saw two promising drives short-circuit in Washington territory – one after an illegal-hands-to-the-face call on right tackle Trai Turner and the other after Newton drew a questionable penalty on third down.
The Newton flag continued one theme of the season. He was scrambling on a play to his right and went into his baseball slide after gaining minimal yardage. A Washington defender barreled in and launched himself at Newton as the slide began. That tackle attempt ended up inducing a glancing blow that was helmet-to-helmet contact. Newton then threw the ball at the defender as the play ended.
Trent Murphy’s hit was not flagged but Newton’s toss of the ball was perceived as taunting, and the 15 yards took the Panthers out of field-goal range. I thought the penalties should have been offsetting – Murphy was wrong, although so was Newton – which would have meant the down would be replayed.
Still, Newton had the only touchdown pass of the first half for either team when he found Ted Ginn Jr. sneaking behind Washington safety Donte Whitner for a 30-yard TD. Ginn would later drop what could have been a 50-yard deep pass, but he did give Washington problems all night, as did Stewart and Newton behind a patchwork offensive line that also played well.
That, and a superlative defensive performance, were enough for the Panthers.