Scott Fowler

Carolina’s Top 10: The best 10 plays of the best regular season the Panthers have ever had

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) celebrates throwing a game-winning touchdown to Greg Olsen (88) against the Seattle Seahawks in the fourth quarter at CenturyLink Field on Oct. 18. The Panthers won 27-23.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) celebrates throwing a game-winning touchdown to Greg Olsen (88) against the Seattle Seahawks in the fourth quarter at CenturyLink Field on Oct. 18. The Panthers won 27-23. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

“If we had just made a few more plays. …”

That is the lament of every NFL coach and player after a loss. More than half of all NFL games in 2015 – 54.7 percent, to be exact – were decided by a single score. The games are so close so often that a few plays truly do make or break every game and, in turn, every season.

In 2015, the Carolina Panthers went 15-1 partly because they fielded the most talent any Panthers team has ever had, but also because they developed a knack for doing just the right thing at just the right time.

Of the Panthers’ approximately 2,000 plays in the regular season, I wanted to narrow the list to the 10 best plays of the year. And on a team that posted the best record in the NFL, that’s hard.

To help me choose, I convened a five-man, black and blue-ribbon panel. I asked for nominations for the top 10 plays of the year from linebacker Luke Kuechly, safety Kurt Coleman, kicker Graham Gano, tight end Greg Olsen and coach Ron Rivera. (They could vote for their own plays if they wanted, but no one did.)

The panel’s input was invaluable and especially affected which plays made my top three. But ultimately, I chose and ordered this top 10. So blame me for any errors or omissions as we count down from 10th to first.

Dec. 6: Greg Olsen’s fourth-down catch to keep Carolina alive at New Orleans.

10 The Panthers had all kinds of trouble this season with the Saints. In this game, Carolina trailed 14-0 early and 38-34 late.

On fourth-and-4 from the New Orleans 46 with just more than two minutes remaining, Carolina trailed by four and the game hung in the balance. Newton scrambled left. Saints rushers started to pen him in. And just before he went down, he flicked a lob pass to Olsen.

Olsen had to go to the ground to get it, and the ball was so close to hitting the artificial turf that the Saints unsuccessfully challenged. But the Panthers’ Pro Bowl tight end came up with the catch and Carolina scored the winning touchdown several plays later.

Dec. 13: Ted Ginn’s 74-yard touchdown catch to set the tone vs. Atlanta.

9 Ginn has been involved in all sorts of huge plays this season. He has 10 touchdown catches, the most on the team and easily the best of his career, and he has given Carolina a deep threat on every down. He also has had several horrendous drops.

But against Atlanta the first time around, Ginn made a gorgeous catch in the first quarter, tiptoed down the sideline and scored a 74-yard touchdown. It was Carolina’s longest play from scrimmage all season.

On the very next series, he caught a 46-yard touchdown pass, and it was 21-0 Carolina by the time the first quarter had ended, on the way to a 38-0 victory.

Nov. 26: Luke Kuechly’s interception for a touchdowns at Dallas.

8 The Panthers’ Pro Bowl linebacker scored the first touchdown of his career on Thanksgiving Day on a 32-yard interception return. He then picked off another Tony Romo pass on the very next play as well.

A number of Panthers noted that the second interception had a higher degree of difficulty. “That second one was a great read and then he laid out for the ball,” Coleman said. “It was just an awesome play.”

But the first one, in my mind, did more damage just because it scored points. Even in Arlington, Texas, the stands rained down with chants of “Luuuuuuke” after that one.

On the touchdown play, Kuechly checked to a different coverage – after Thomas Davis gave him one of those knowing looks that players who have played beside each other a long time can give – following a Romo audible.

Davis wanted No. 59 to change coverages to combat the audible. Kuechly did. The result was that he dropped deeper into the zone coverage and read Romo perfectly.

“Luke’s pick-six was only in the second quarter, but it was really the exclamation point on the game,” Rivera said.

Nov. 26: Kurt Coleman’s pick returned for a touchdown at Dallas.

7 Although the Panthers were 10-0 entering their first-ever Thanksgiving Day game, woeful Dallas still was a one-point favorite early. Carolina needed a big performance against the Cowboys with the whole country watching (in the NFL game that would draw the highest TV ratings of the season to that point).

Coleman, one of general manager Dave Gettleman’s great mid-level free-agent finds, stepped in front of a Romo pass during the first minute of the game and weaved his way for a 36-yard TD – the first of his NFL career.

“Kurt’s interception set the tone for us,” Kuechly said. Coleman ended up leading the Panthers with seven interceptions in 2015, but this was the one that made the biggest splash.

Dec. 6: Jerricho Cotchery’s winning, 15-yard TD catch at New Orleans.

6 My panel nominated several plays made by Cotchery, who is the Panthers’ third receiver, plays less than half the offensive snaps and had a modest 485 yards for the season. But Cotchery has made major catches all season.

“I call him Uncle Jerricho Clutchery,” Newton said in December. “He’s just a clutch guy.”

This play was set up by No. 10 on this list ( Olsen’s fourth-quarter catch). Cotchery, a former N.C. State star, shook loose from the Saints 15 by pretending to run a corner route and instead veering off into a post.

The result: The winning touchdown pass from Newton in Carolina’s 41-38 victory.

Nov. 2: Graham Gano’s 52-yard field goal vs. Indianapolis to win the game in overtime.

5 Overlooked a bit in this season was the fact that Gano set the Panthers’ season scoring record with 146 points. He made 30 of his 36 field-goal attempts, and four of the misses were blocked.

There was no game where the Panthers were happier to have Gano than against Indianapolis on a wild Monday night in November when Carolina became the first NFL team to come back from an overtime deficit to win (something NFL rules had made impossible for decades).

Indianapolis stormed back in that game, erasing Carolina’s 23-6 fourth-quarter lead. Gano had missed an extra point attempt early in the fourth quarter, and that loomed large when the Colts tied the score at 23 on the last play of regulation.

After the Colts got a first-drive field goal in OT, Ginn dropped what would have been the winning TD pass on Carolina’s first drive. But he rebounded to catch a slant pass to get the Panthers in field-goal range and Gano banged in a 42-yarder. Kuechly then intercepted an Andrew Luck pass – thanks to a Roman Harper tip.

That set the stage for Gano’s longest made field goal of the year, a 52-yarder that gave Carolina a victory on a night that it had seemed for about the last hour that the Panthers surely were going to lose.

Sept. 20: Cam Newton’s front-flip rushing TD vs. Houston.

4 All it says on the official play-by-play sheet is this: “C. Newton up the middle for 2 yards, touchdown.”

That doesn’t come close to describing Newton’s touchdown in the second game of the season, when the Panthers were just 1-0 and still wondering who they were.

“To me,” Rivera told me a few days ago, “that was one of the most athletic plays I have ever seen.”

Houston – which eventually would make the playoffs – was tied with the Panthers at 10 in the third quarter when the Panthers faced first-and-goal from the Houston 2.

Newton ran the ball and, on the spur of the moment, decided to vault over the only defender who really had a chance to tackle him.

“My heart was in my socks,” Newton said of the play. “As I was flipping, I was like, ‘Hey, I wonder how this is going to end?’ And then I’m coming down and said, ‘Hey, I can stick this!’ 

The landing wasn’t quite perfect, but it still was one of the most extraordinary plays of Newton’s career. He also had a somersault at the end of a 72-yard TD run in 2012, but that time it was just a giddy celebration. This time it was a full-scale hurdle over a defender intent on causing him bodily harm.

Said Olsen of Newton and the play: “I told him the Russian judge gave him a 3, but everyone else gave him a 10.”

Nov. 8: Thomas Davis’s interception (helped by Kawann Short’s quarterback pressure) to save the Green Bay game.

3 Let Rivera set up this one: “The thing about Thomas’ interception against Green Bay was that it kept us from getting to that ‘Oh no, here we go again’ mentality that seemed to permeate here in my first two years. It permeated until my third season and the Buffalo game, really (in 2013). And then all of a sudden, after that, we turned it around.”

That’s a good description of what happened on Nov. 8. Just like the week before against Indianapolis, Carolina leaped to a huge fourth-quarter lead (37-14), then started getting reeled in by a team with an elite quarterback (in this case, Aaron Rodgers).

With two minutes to go, Rodgers faced a fourth-and-goal from the Carolina 4. He needed a TD and then a two-point conversion to tie.

Instead, Davis leaped to make one of Carolina’s biggest interceptions of his season at the 4. On the play, defensive tackle Kawann Short (a force all season, with a team-high 11 sacks) forced Rodgers’ hand by beating his man and hurrying the throw.

Later on the sideline, Rodgers would throw a computer tablet to the ground in disgust when he realized he missed a wide-open Randall Cobb for a score on the play.

“I had the easy opportunity there for a pitch-and-catch touchdown, but I got scared by something,” Rodgers said. “I can’t explain it. It was a mistake by myself. I will definitely be thinking about that one on the ride home.”

“That interception Thomas had,” Olsen said, “was huge.”

Sept. 27: Josh Norman’s interception to save the first New Orleans game.

2 Carolina led 27-16 with five minutes left in its third game of the season, and New Orleans had Luke McCown at quarterback. Totally safe, right? Wrong.

McCown, who would throw for 310 yards on the day, faced a third-and-6 from the Carolina 23 with 1 minute, 17 seconds to go. By then Carolina only led 27-22, so a touchdown would allow the Saints to take the lead.

McCown targeted Brandin Cooks and threw a high ball into the end zone. Norman leaped with Cooks, got his fingertips on it and held on for one of the most acrobatic interceptions you will ever see. Breaking it down in the simplest terms later, Norman said: “I saw ball, got ball.”

Everyone on my panel mentioned this interception – only No. 1 and No. 2 on this list both received that treatment. The headline in the next day’s Observer: “Norman Conquest.”

Oct. 18: Greg Olsen’s touchdown catch of a 26-yard Cam Newton pass to complete a fourth-quarter comeback at Seattle.

1 The Seahawks have been the Panthers’ nemesis for several years. Russell Wilson was 4-0 against Newton entering this game, which changed the tenor of the Panthers’ season.

Carolina had lost to Seattle in the playoffs after the 2014 season, and this game was taking a similar route in the third quarter when Seattle went ahead 20-7.

But in what I would contend was the defining game of Newton’s most valuable player season (and he’s going to be named NFL MVP on Feb. 6, I have no doubt), the quarterback led the Panthers on four 80-yard touchdown drives during the game. Four! On the road, against the team that has represented the NFC in the Super Bowl the past two seasons!

Newton was brilliant throughout the fourth quarter in this one, with the capstone the 26-yard throw to Olsen. It actually was one of the easier throws of the day for Newton, who benefited from Seattle’s mixup in coverage on the play.

But there was nothing fluky about the victory. Newton was the best player on the field that day, and he hit his best receiver at the best time possible for a 27-23 win.

“That whole drive really sticks out in my mind,” Rivera said, “and not just for the touchdown. On a play leading up to that one, Cam signified to me that he got it. All hell was breaking loose. We were trying to get personnel in and get the play call right. And he just stuck his hand up in the air to tell everybody, ‘I got it. Relax. Calm down.’

“And then a couple of plays later, Cam throws the touchdown.”

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