Scott Fowler

Mike Adams has ‘wheels,’ and this Panthers defense has swagger

“Did you see my wheels? Did you see them?!”

This was Carolina Panthers safety Mike Adams Sunday, the most exuberant player in a very exuberant locker room, after the Panthers came from behind to edge Atlanta, 20-17.

In a game won primarily by the Panthers defense, Adams was involved in the game’s two biggest plays. The first was his interception with 1:27 left in the second quarter. Adams undercut a Matt Ryan pass over the middle intended for the tight end and then showed his “wheels” on a 40-yard interception return in which he crossed the entire length of the field as the stadium roared.

“Everyone thinks I’m slow,” Adams crowed, adding he had to “show off” a little bit. When I mentioned he had shown his “36-year-old wheels,” Adams laughed and said he would allow that reference to his age – this time.

That play was obviously all about what Adams did. The second one that he was involved in was not so obvious.

Carolina Panthers strong safety Mike Adams (29) runs back an interception late in the second quarter Sunday. Adams’ 40-yard return set up the go-ahead touchdown for Carolina, which won the game, 20-17. David T. Foster III

With Atlanta trailing 20-10 midway through the fourth quarter, the Falcons faced a fourth-and-7 at Carolina’s 39. Adams had final responsibility for Julio Jones in the coverage, and Ryan completely fooled the safety with a pump fake. Adams tried to “jump” the route, just as he had successfully done on his interception, but this time Ryan didn’t throw the ball. Instead, Jones arrowed behind Adams and got open by at least 10 yards for Ryan’s perfectly lofted throw to the end zone.

Adams was so far out of the play that most fans mistakenly assumed Panthers safety Kurt Coleman, who was desperately trying to make up ground, was the one who made the mistake.

Said Adams: “That was totally on me… I’ve got to be smarter than that.”

And then, in what had to be the most amazing moment of the afternoon, Jones bobbled the ball into the air, fell to the ground, got his hands on it again – and dropped it.

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones drops a sure touchdown pass from quarterback Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter of Carolina’s 20-17 win over Atlanta Sunday. Jeff Siner

“I wish I had my pom-poms, actually, to cheer when he dropped the ball,” Adams said. “No one expected that. … I guess it was too easy.”

Said Falcons coach Dan Quinn of Jones’ miss: “If there’s a guy you pick on Earth to throw it to, he’d be the one.”

Said Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly of Jones’ drop: “I think the fans had a little impact on it. I don’t know if the fans were putting some juju on it... They cast a spell or something.”

Panthers 4-1 in field-goal games

As in so many NFL victories, the team that wins combines a handful of very good plays with a pinch of very good luck. Carolina is 6-3 overall this season, including a 4-1 record in games decided by three or fewer points. Last year, the Panthers were 2-6 in games decided by a field goal or less.

Because of that one statistic, Carolina has already won as many games this season as it did last year – when the team finished 6-10. And with the defense playing this well, the Panthers have a chance against anybody.

Atlanta (4-4) has played uneven football all season, but the Falcons still have most of the same players from the team that led New England 28-3 in the Super Bowl nine months ago. The Panthers made the Falcons one-dimensional on offense, though, holding them to 53 yards rushing. While Ryan was sacked only twice – once apiece by Mario Addison and Wes Horton – he was pressured regularly.

Carolina defensive end Wes Horton sacks Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan Sunday during the Panthers’ 20-17 win. Curtis Compton TNS

It was Carolina’s defense that changed the game. The Panthers trailed 10-0 in the first quarter and looked like they were going to go down by three scores as Atlanta worked its way to a first-and-5 (after a penalty) at the Carolina 39.

From there, three Falcons runs only gained 4 yards. Atlanta decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the 35. But Coleman and linebacker Thomas Davis – No. 58 also had made the tackles on first and second down – combined to stop Devonta Freeman for no gain on fourth down. Not only that, but Atlanta was penalized 15 yards for an illegal crackback block, so Carolina took over at the 50.

“A fourth-down stop is pretty much a turnover,” Kuechly said. “It’s a momentum shifter. … That’s just as good as an interception or fumble.”

‘We’ve got to reward them’

Carolina’s offense rammed that one in for a touchdown on a 4-yard Christian McCaffrey run. Then came Adams’ interception, also converted into a TD, and suddenly Carolina was ahead 14-10 at halftime.

“Our defense has been so consistent and locked in all year,” Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said. “We knew if we gave those guys some type of pulse or some type of juice to get them going, they were just going to pin their ears back and go. … When our defense is playing lights out like that, we’ve got to reward them.”

The Falcons had torched Carolina for 81 points in two Atlanta wins in 2016 – 48 in the first meeting, 33 more in second. This time the Panthers defense surrendered one more TD in the fourth quarter, but then held up one more time at the end when it had to.

Atlanta got the ball back on its own 21 with 2:18 left and one timeout. Plenty of time. And Adams was out due to a pinched nerve in his neck, commonly called a “stinger.”

But Coleman stuffed a screen pass for a 3-yard loss on first down. Ryan then threw three straight incompletions, so the Falcons’ last-chance drive ended on Atlanta’s own 18. Carolina had not allowed a first down on the last drive and had beaten Atlanta for the first time in four tries.

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Taylor Gabriel lays on the ground as Kurt Coleman (20) and Luke Kuechly (59) celebrate following an incompletion on Atlanta’s final offensive play of the game. Curtis Compton TNS

That left Adams in the locker room not worried about Jones’ drop but very happy about his interception. I mentioned to the safety that a Fox Sports graphic had shown that he was running at a top speed of 18.9 miles per hour during his return, which at the time was the second-fastest any Panthers player had sped on any play (McCaffrey had been clocked at 19.0 mph).

“That’s what I’m saying!” Adams said. “I’m 36! Just saying.”