On a soggy, sensational Saturday, the Carolina Panthers played one of the best defensive games in NFL playoff history and trounced Arizona 27-16.
Carolina will play on the road next weekend against Seattle or Green Bay, depending on the outcome of Sunday’s Dallas-Detroit game. In either case, the Panthers defense that fueled this win will receive a much sterner test. In this game, though, by the end it was a shock whenever Arizona made a first down.
Panthers fans who sat through a steady drizzle for more than three hours were rewarded with about 50 players taking a victory lap around the field at the end of the game. That celebration came at the suggestion of coach Ron Rivera, who knew that both previous Panthers home playoff wins had included a postgame lap.
“All the fans wanted was a lot of selfies and high-fives,” safety Roman Harper said. “And sometimes you have to give the people what they want.”
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It was an uneven performance from the Panthers overall – “We can play a whole lot better,” Rivera said – but because of the defensive firepower the Panthers grabbed their fifth straight victory. The Panthers held Arizona to 78 total yards, the fewest gained in more than 80 years of NFL playoff games.
“Wow,” Harper said when told of that statistic. “That covers a whole lot of ball. It’s kind of crazy to think we did that.”
The Panthers actually were going to be No. 2 in that category until the final play. Arizona’s desperation, five-lateral attempt at a final touchdown ended up losing 19 yards, sending the Cardinals from 97 total yards before the play to 78 after it.
The Panthers’ opponent in the next round of the playoffs will be determined Sunday by about 8 p.m. If Detroit upsets Dallas in Texas (kickoff will be 4:40 p.m.), the Panthers will play at Green Bay on Sunday, Jan. 11 at 1:05 p.m.
If Dallas wins as expected, Carolina will play at Seattle on Saturday at 8:15 p.m. Carolina lost to Green Bay and Seattle this season, but the Seattle game was far more competitive.
“We can’t be satisfied,” quarterback Cam Newton said. “We have a long way to go and we’re anticipating traveling and getting another big win next week.”
Carolina hadn’t won a home playoff game since the end of the 2003 season and hadn’t won one of any type since the 2005 season. But the Panthers defense made Arizona quarterback Ryan Lindley look like exactly what he was – an overwhelemed third-stringer. Lindley was intercepted twice, sacked four times and harassed constantly.
Lindley got a lot of practice in picking himself up off the ground and hitting his helmet with his hands after another play went awry.
Meanwhile, the Panthers defense was screaming to the ball on every play. “We are loving each other right now,” cornerback Josh Norman said of the defense. “And we are rolling.”
Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald gave much of the credit to Panthers linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, who controlled much of the game with their speed.
“Kuechly and Davis, those two hellacious players, they make plays all day for them,” Fitzgerald said.
With such an exemplary defensive effort, all the Panthers needed to do was be average everywhere else. And that’s what they were. Newton struggled at times, but he had two touchdown passes and some gritty third-down scrambles that made up for his turnovers. The Panthers outgained Arizona in total yards from scrimmage by the startling margin of 386-78.
The game turned during a two-minute sequence in the third quarter. Carolina was outplaying Arizona, but the Panthers trailed 14-13 at that point because of a fistful of errors.
Then Panthers running back Fozzy Whittaker took a screen pass from Newton, burst through four would-be tacklers and sprinted 39 yards for a touchdown to give Carolina a 20-14 lead. Panthers fans waved their white towels – not in surrender, but in elation.
On the ensuing kickoff, former Panther Ted Ginn Jr. coughed the ball up when he was hit by Carolina’s Melvin White and the Panthers recovered. Newton’s 1-yard touchdown pass to Mike Tolbert soon provided plenty of breathing room at 27-14. As the stadium shook, the Panthers knew that basically they just had to not mess it up.
They didn’t – helped by a fourth-quarter Kuechly interception at the Panthers 4 after Newton had lost a fumble.
“I thought had we got that touchdown right there after the fumble in the fourth quarter that we would have won this ballgame,” Arizona coach Bruce Arians said.
Kuechly was watching for the play, a short throw to Fitzgerald that the Panthers knew so well they had given it a nickname – the “star pass.” The middle linebacker credited the pass rush for hiding him from view.
“I don’t think the quarterback was able to see me and he just threw it right to me,” Kuechly said.
The win means a Panthers team that once was 3-8-1 now has made the NFL’s final eight, just as last season’s team did (that time with a first-round playoff bye).
Said Davis, the only player on the current roster who had experienced a Carolina playoff win: “It’s been a long time since we won a playoff game around here. Our fans were excited, they were behind us, they were energized and we fed off that energy.”
Beating Seattle or Green Bay will take a lot cleaner game than this one. But Saturday night the Panthers and their fans were happy to just soak it all in, saturated with water and joy.