The Carolina Panthers’ undefeated season nearly came unraveled Sunday, but quarterback Cam Newton and placekicker Graham Gano sewed up victory No. 14 just in time.
The Panthers edged the New York Giants 38-35 on Gano’s 43-yard field goal as the clock ticked to 0:00 – the final three points in a wild adrenalin rush of a game. The Panthers blew all of a 35-7 lead in the second half but still improved their overall record to 14-0 by pulling off a great escape.
Afterward, Panthers players were somber and unsmiling.
“It feels weird in the locker room now,” Newton said, “because we were so high in the third quarter and then we found ourselves back in a battle.”
Said safety Roman Harper: “It’s the most disappointed 14-0 locker room I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Carolina led 35-7 late in the third quarter before the Giants began to sizzle. Aided by a couple of key Panthers mistakes and a quarterback in Eli Manning who has won two Super Bowls, New York scored 28 straight points in a bizarre 15-minute span.
Suddenly, the game was tied at 35 with 1:46 left.
And then came Newton – who had yet another amazing day in his NFL MVP-caliber season. Newton ended up with 340 yards and five touchdowns passing and added another 100 yards rushing, including a 10-yard scramble on Carolina’s last play from scrimmage that allowed Gano to attempt a shorter field goal.
Although he had an earlier attempt blocked in the fourth quarter, Gano hit this one so true he didn’t even watch the ball go through the uprights.
“I knew it as soon as I hit it,” he said.
A stadium filled with 79,436 fans went dead silent. The Panthers were 14-0.
The Panthers will play at Atlanta Dec. 27th and at home vs. Tampa Bay Jan. 3rd as they try to finish a 16-0 regular season. Their first playoff game will be in Charlotte Jan. 16 or 17th.
The game had a notable subplot, as wide receiver Odell Beckham and cornerback Josh Norman both “lost their composure,” according to their respective coaches. Beckham was called for three personal fouls, and Norman had two. Beckham took a helmet-to-helmet shot at Norman on one of those that Norman later said was “malicious in every way” and should have gotten Beckham tossed from the game (and Norman is right about that).
But Beckham stayed in and got the best of Norman late. Beckham made up for his dropped touchdown pass early in the game with a 14-yard score straight over Norman’s head that tied the game at 35.
Coach Ron Rivera was furious on the sideline by then – and he really hadn’t calmed down much by the time he had his postgame press conference. He sounded a lot like his team had dropped to 13-1.
“Very disappointed in ourselves,” Rivera said. “We had an opportunity to close a team out and we didn’t do it. We didn’t keep our focus and maintain our composure.”
But even after all the fourth-quarter miscues – Newton’s fumble, Gano’s blocked field goal, Norman allowing the Beckham touchdown – there was still plenty of time for Carolina to pull victory No. 14 out of the fire.
As he has often done in what is easily his best season, Newton took the game over. He marched the Panthers steadily down the field – no play on the last drive went for longer than 16 yards – and set Carolina up for its 18th straight regular-season win.
The 2015 Panthers have now set a franchise record for most points scored (449) and lead the NFL in average points per game (32.1).
“That’s Cam,” Kuechly said. “That’s what he does.”
Was the last drive fun?
“It’s not fun,” Newton said. “It’s fun to watch, I’m pretty sure, but it’s not fun. I got a couple of gray hairs.”
So did Panthers fans all over, as their team leaped back from the cliff just in time. Losing a 28-point lead in the last 17 minutes and getting beaten would have qualified as the most epic collapse in Carolina’s history.
Instead, the undefeated Panthers roll on, with regular-season games at Atlanta and at home vs. Tampa Bay remaining. They won another thriller.
“It shouldn’t have been a thriller – I can tell you that,” Newton said.
But it was. And, somehow, the Panthers got it done again.