Scott Fowler

What were the Carolina Panthers’ best 10 plays this season? Let’s ask them.

What were the best 10 plays of the 2017 regular season for the Carolina Panthers?

That was my quest – to narrow more than 2,000 plays down to a “Top 10” on the eve of Carolina’s fourth playoff appearance in five years. And I didn’t want to tackle it alone.

So I asked a dozen Panthers – 11 current players and head coach Ron Rivera – to nominate specific plays while also offering on-the-record commentary about what they considered to be the best of the best.

The panel’s input was invaluable and especially affected which plays made the top five. Ultimately, though, I chose and ordered this top 10 myself (also taking into account the many responses I got from fans when asking them via Twitter to nominate plays as well). So blame me for any errors or omissions as we count down from 10th to first.

No. 10: Kurt Coleman and Thomas Davis stuff Devonta Freeman (Nov. 5)

Down 10-0 at home, the Carolina Panthers were about to be in deep trouble when Atlanta went for a fourth-and-1 at the Panthers’ 35 in the second quarter. Matt Ryan handed off to running back Devonta Freeman, who seemed to have a hole.

But Coleman submarined low, Davis hit Freeman high and the Panthers had a fourth-down stop in a game they would eventually win, 20-17.

“That one play changed the entire momentum of the game,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said as he ranked it among his favorite plays of the season for me. “It’s kind of a hidden play people don’t think about, but it was huge.”

No. 9: A preseason play that actually mattered (Aug. 19)

If you were making 100 guesses as to the plays on this list, this would be the one you would never guess. But coach Ron Rivera loves this play so much that I am putting it in the top 10 on the strength of his nomination and impassioned defense of it.

Carolina was trailing Tennessee 17-0 and had a first-and-10 at its own 25 when Jonathan Stewart ran behind a surging offensive line for 4 rather mundane yards. On TV, Panthers announcer Mick Mixon described the play like this as Stewart took the handoff: “It all starts here – or maybe not.”

But in fact, it did start there by Rivera’s way of thinking.

“When you look at the way that happened, the offensive line fired off the ball,” Rivera said. “We moved the pile 4 yards. It was a tough, physical run, and it epitomized what I was trying to emphasize how important it is to be a physical football team. Up until then, they were smoking us pretty good.” The Panthers did score on the drive, although they still lost the game.

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Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano kicked the game-winning field goal from 48 yards out on the final play against New England on Oct. 1st. Gano would miss only one field goal all year. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

No. 8: Graham Gano hits the game-winner vs. New England (Oct. 1)

This was the one play that stuck out to linebacker Thomas Davis above all others. Gano’s 48-yard field goal came on the last play of the game and clinched an enormous upset for the Panthers, 33-30, in Foxborough, Mass.

“Just huge,” Davis said of Gano’s kick. “A huge momentum shift for the team, too. We had just come off a loss to the Saints and needed something good. That was it.”

No. 7: Cam Newton tells Clay Matthews to ‘Watch this! (Dec. 17)

Cam Newton talks to opposing defenders all the time on the field – it’s just part of his shtick. But rarely has a TV mic caught a moment quite as perfect as this one in Carolina’s 31-24 win over Green Bay.

With Carolina on Green Bay’s 7, Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews looked at the Panthers formation, saw where Christian McCaffrey lined up and screamed for his teammates to watch “that wheel route, it’s that wheel route!”

Newton then said very clearly to Matthews: “You’ve been watching film, huh? That’s cool. Watch this!”

McCaffrey said later he was smirking at Newton after Matthews’ misdiagnosis – it wasn’t a wheel route at all, and McCaffrey caught an easy 7-yard TD pass on an “in” route seconds later.

You could make this entire list very Cam-centric, of course, but I didn’t want No. 1 to completely dominate it even though he did lead the team in both rushing and passing. You may notice Newton’s “dunk” TD against the Falcons is not listed in this top 10, although it did receive enough votes for honorable mention and was the hardest play for me to leave out.

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Carolina quarterback Cam Newton (1) breaks off a 62-yard run in the fourth quarter against Minnesota Dec. 10th. The run set up the game-winning touchdown in the Panthers’ 31-24 win. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

No. 6: Cam Newton’s 62-yard run (Dec. 10)

The first of two Newton runs on this list came with Minnesota having just erased all of a 24-13 Carolina lead to tie the game at 24-all.

On a second-and-5 at the Panthers 30 with just over two minutes to play, Newton had a read-option play. He faked the handoff to Stewart and shot between a great hole on his left created by Matt Kalil and Andrew Norwell.

Minnesota safety Andrew Sendejo had a clear one-on-one shot to tackle Newton about 10 yards downfield, and Newton faked him out so badly that Sendejo fell down without touching the quarterback.

“This is an obvious choice for the list,” backup quarterback Derek Anderson chortled, “because Cam made that guy fall on his face.”

Newton didn’t score, but ran for 62 yards to set up the game-winning TD.

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Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart (28) burst free for a 60-yard TD run against Minnesota Dec. 10th -- one of Stewart’s three TDs on the day. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

No. 5: Jonathan Stewart’s 60-yard run (Dec. 10)

In the very same game, but three quarters earlier, Stewart had bolted untouched for a 60-yard TD – punctuating it by turning around and falling backwards into the end zone. This was center Ryan Kalil’s favorite play of the year.

“There was a lot of talk all week about how we weren’t going to be able to run the football against Minnesota,” Kalil said. “They were the best defense in the NFL and it just wasn’t going to happen…. The other conversation I kept hearing about Stew (from outsiders) was ‘Stew is done.’”

On the play, the Panthers ran an unbalanced line and put Kalil’s younger brother, Matt, on the right side instead of the left along with three other blockers to the right of the snap. The blocking was perfect and Stewart hit the hole like he was 21 years old for what would become the first of his three TDs in the game.

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Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly scored the team’s only defensive touchdown all season with a 34-yard fumble return against the New York Jets after a Wes Horton sack. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

No. 4: Wes Horton’s sack sets up Luke Kuechly’s scoop-and-score (Nov. 26)

The Panthers only scored one defensive touchdown all season, and this was it. Carolina was in danger of losing to the lowly New York Jets – the Panthers were down 20-18 early in the fourth quarter. Then Horton took an inside route to the quarterback, found only a running back in his way and blew past him to grab Josh McCown.

McCown made the ill-fated decision to try to throw the ball while going down and instead fumbled it. Kuechly grabbed it and ran 34 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.

“That play was all Wes,” Kuechly said.

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Carolina defensive end Wes Horton had a “strip sack” of New York Jets quarterback Josh McCown on Nov. 26th in the fourth quarter with the Panthers trailing, 20-18. Teammate Luke Kuechly recovered the fumble and scored. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

No. 3: Cam Newton’s 2-yard fumble/touchdown against Tampa Bay (Dec. 24)

If one play could symbolize the Panthers’ struggle and success this season, this would be it. Carolina (11-5) has gone 8-1 in games decided by eight points or fewer – keeping its fans nervous almost all season — and this was the last of those wins.

Down 19-15 with 39 seconds left and the ball on the Tampa Bay 2, Newton took his eye off Ryan Kalil’s shotgun snap because he was trying to think about whether to dive over the pile or not while trying to score. The ball hit the ground, but Newton picked it up and rolled into the end zone anyway.

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Carolina quarterback Cam Newton fumbled a snap and scored the game-winning touchdown anyway Dec. 24th against Tampa Bay on a play that served as a symbol for the Panthers’ season. However, the play was not No. 1 on the “Top 10” list of best Panthers plays of 2017. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

“That one kind of epitomized the year we had,” Rivera said, “along with the next play that KK Short made to cause the (Tampa Bay) quarterback to fumble (recovered by Julius Peppers) and seal the game. There was a lot of fighting back this year for us.”

No. 2: Kaelin Clay’s punt-return touchdown vs. the New York Jets (Nov. 26)

Among the 12 panelists, this play got the second-most mentions, trailing only No. 1.

“A really good individual effort to take that one to the house,” Panther safety Colin Jones said of Clay’s 60-yard TD, in which he did a 360-degree spin to avoid one tackler, darted to the left between three more and outraced everyone before galloping into the end zone.

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Panthers wide receiver Kaelin Clay scored on a 60-yard punt return against the New York Jets on Nov. 26th to help key a 35-27 victory for Carolina. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Clay’s return came almost right after Kuechly’s scoop-and-score (No. 4), meaning two of the Panthers’ top four plays of the season occurred during a three-minute slice of time in New Jersey. Weird.

No. 1: Damiere Byrd’s 103-yard kickoff return against Tampa Bay (Dec. 24)

This was the longest touchdown – of any sort – in Carolina’s 23-season history. The blocking Byrd got was excellent, and so was the wide receiver’s speed and elusiveness. Sadly, Byrd was lost for the season with a leg injury on another kickoff return only one quarter later – he scored three touchdowns in a two-week span before getting hurt.

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Carolina’s Damiere Byrd, far left, ran back a kickoff against Tampa Bay 103 yards for a touchdown on Dec. 24th. More Panthers players picked this as the “play of the year” than any other. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

“I’ve been here for nine years,” said J.J. Jansen, the Panthers’ long snapper and a longtime fixture on all the special teams. “In the first eight years, we scored on exactly one kickoff return and one punt return. That’s it. And now we’ve done it twice in a month, with Kaelin (Clay) and then with Damiere.

“The whole group takes such joy in those situations, and it has also bred some confidence that we can win a game on special teams. Because if we get to go to the Super Bowl, somewhere in there during the playoffs will be a choppy, ugly game that you just have to win — just like we won the New York and Tampa games partly because of these returns.”

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler

Nominating players

The 12 Carolina Panthers who nominated plays for “Best Plays of the Year” for this story were players Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, J.J. Jansen, Daryl Worley, Colin Jones, Ed Dickson, Ryan Kalil, Derek Anderson, Fozzy Whittaker, Wes Horton, Christian McCaffrey and head coach Ron Rivera. Players were allowed to nominate a play they were personally involved in, but no one did.

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