The team the Carolina Panthers always hoped they would be showed up Sunday on the first day of October, upsetting the defending Super Bowl champions in their backyard.
Carolina’s dramatic, 33-30 victory over New England at Gillette Stadium was fueled by an offensive breakout from a Panthers team that had only scored 22 points total in its past two games. This time the Panthers offense looked far different, and provided just enough for Carolina to weather the inevitable Tom Brady storm.
This victory certainly made next week’s game bigger. Carolina (3-1) and Detroit (3-1) will face off in Michigan in a battle of two of the (for now, at least) top teams in the NFL. No one is undefeated in the NFC anymore after Atlanta lost to Buffalo – former Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott did Carolina a favor there. As of Sunday night, Carolina was tied for the best record in a wide-open NFC.
Here are a few of the reasons the Panthers got their biggest win of 2017 so far:
▪ Cam Newton’s huge day. Newton threw a bad early interception to a double-covered Damiere Byrd, but after that had the best day he has had in a very long while. Immediately after the interception, Newton completed 16 of his next 17 passes for 211 yards and three touchdowns.
Newton ran for a 7-yard TD as well as he became the Panthers’ winningest all-time quarterback, surpassing Jake Delhomme. He ended up throwing for 316 yards and running for 44 more in a glittery performance.
▪ Graham Gano. After missing an extra point earlier in the contest – his first miss of any kind all season – Gano came in to try and find redemption with a 48-yard field goal with 0:04 left in the game and the score tied at 30. Bill Belichick decided to ice Gano with a timeout. Gano then cranked the ball through the uprights for one of the biggest kicks of his Panthers career, and on the sidelines Newton blew a kiss to the sky.
▪ Devin Funchess overpowering defensive backs. Funchess, who had not scored all season, had two TDs in this one, with Newton noting that Funchess had some “big-boy catches.” Funchess was wide open on his first TD after a blown coverage by the Patriots, but on the second he had to beat tight single coverage and catch a ball slightly behind him, all of which he did for a 16-yard score. He also picked up a couple of critical first downs by running over people and fought off cramps to have a significant fourth quarter.
▪ The Patriots defense. New England came into the game dead last in the NFL in total defense, and it sure looked the part. Several times the Patriots had no one within 15 yards of a Carolina receiver, including on Fozzy Whittaker’s 28-yard screen pass for a touchdown and Kelvin Benjamin’s 44-yard “where-is-everybody?” romp. Benjamin, who had a big day himself with 104 receiving yards, also had another 39-yard catch to open the fourth quarter. And the Patriots shot themselves in the foot a couple of times with their muskets on a couple of key defensive penalties. New England is going to be an 8-8 team, as harsh as that sounds, if that defense gets no better.
▪ Luke Kuechly. At one point, Kuechly strung together at least four tackles in a row. On a defense that was patched together with duct tape in the secondary and with linebacker Thomas Davis (rib) obviously not at 100 percent, Kuechly got the team just organized enough to force a few field goals instead of touchdowns and did a ton himself. New England did score 30, but without Kuechly it would have been far worse than that.
▪ Julius Peppers. The ageless wonder had two big sacks of Tom Brady, bringing his season total to a team-high 4.5 after four games. Peppers is going to hit some of those contractual sack incentives he has by midseason at this pace.
▪ Mike Shula. The Panthers offensive coordinator tried a lot of stuff in this one, including a double reverse on which Newton blocked and a fake screen pass to Christian McCaffrey that made almost the entire Patriots offense lean toward No. 22. When Newton instead threw the ball to Fozzy Whittaker, the running back was left with a clear path and a convoy to the end zone.
“I had no idea what I had in front of me,” Whittaker said. “Then I caught it and looked and I said, ‘Man, it is open.”