Scott Fowler

Panthers ‘control the controllable,’ look for December momentum to carry into 2017

Carolina Panthers strong safety Kurt Coleman (20) and free safety Tre Boston (33) celebrate with fans as they leave the field after dealing Washington a 26-15 loss on Monday.
Carolina Panthers strong safety Kurt Coleman (20) and free safety Tre Boston (33) celebrate with fans as they leave the field after dealing Washington a 26-15 loss on Monday.

Tre Boston is one of the more quotable players in the Carolina Panthers locker room, but in the wee hours of Tuesday morning it was Boston who was doing the quoting.

After Carolina’s sturdy 26-15 road victory over Washington Monday night, I asked the Carolina safety what he thought about the 250,000-to-1 odds that the Panthers (6-8) could still make the NFL playoffs.

“Mama always told me: ‘Control the controllable,’” Boston said. “So if I can control us winning, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Carolina has put together two of its better performances of this scarred season in back-to-back weeks, and the Panthers technically are not quite out of the playoffs yet. They know that the writing is on the wall, though. Washington has to tie another game, for instance, for Carolina to make it in. Still, as usual under coach Ron Rivera, the Panthers are finishing well in December.

Rivera was feeling good after the game, as were the Panthers. Although the “coat-and-tie-on-the-team-plane” rule that got Cam Newton benched for the first offensive series against Seattle two weeks ago was supposed to be in place, Rivera walked through the locker room and told all the players they could either wear team-issued sweats on the plane or at least could ditch their ties.

Rivera made a point to stop by Newton’s locker with the news. “Just wanted to make sure you knew that,” Rivera said, smiling.

Newton listened, then said he was going to stick with wearing a tie to “make up for the last time.” Then the quarterback continued dressing in a pink-and-purple, peacock-worthy ensemble that he would later dedicate as a tribute to the late, kaleidoscopic and beloved sports announcer Craig Sager.

‘We play for each other’

Monday was that kind of night for the Panthers – loose, fun and mostly irrelevant.

I asked Boston another question: “What do you really have left to play for?”

“We play for each other,” he said. “We play for pride. We play because God gives us the chance to play the game that we love every day.”

Boston was rolling by then.

“Look,” he continued, “sometimes in life things don’t go your way. Sometimes you don’t make the playoffs. ... But there are people watching us. Kids watching us. How are they going to ‘Keep Pounding’ if we don’t? Yeah, we didn’t start the season the way we wanted. The season didn’t go the way we wanted. But we’re going to finish it the way we wanted.”

The Panthers defense is doing that. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly certainly would have improved things Monday night, because he always does, but for the second week in a row Carolina played smartly enough that you hardly noticed his absence (and I would sit him out the rest of the season, too).

Even without Kuechly, Washington’s powerful offense netted only one touchdown. Carolina’s defense directly set up 10 of the team’s 26 points by giving the team the ball inside Washington’s 25 twice on turnovers.

Couple that with a 300-yard, turnover-free performance from Cam Newton, Jonathan Stewart’s first 100-yard rushing game of the season and a makeshift offensive line that deserves major plaudits and you’ve got a recipe that looked mighty similar to 2015.

Another December to remember?

What we’re seeing now is one of the Panthers’ standard December finishes that should set a good course for 2017.

Consider: In 2012, Carolina won its final four games and then went 12-4 the next season. In 2014, Carolina won five of its last six (including the playoffs) and went 15-1 the next season. Now, in 2016, Carolina seems poised once again to finish with a flourish – although beating Atlanta at home on Christmas Eve will still be a very tall order.

It’s hard for Panthers fans not to play the “What Could Have Happened” game, and even the Panthers players can’t help playing it sometimes.

“A 6-8 record is not ideal,” safety Kurt Coleman said. “We left some games out there – we lost five games by three points or less. ... But it’s been such a learning curve, and I’m really impressed with how we came out and played against Washington.”

Washington (7-6-1) had far more to play for Monday. But instead Washington had three turnovers to Carolina’s zero and one ejection (tight end Jordan Reed) to Carolina’s zero. The Panthers could have won by 20 had their offense been a little better in the red zone.

But that’s quibbling. Carolina is playing good football again – controlling the controllable and fit to be untied until the batteries finally run out on this season.