By Taylor Welsh. November 13, 2017. CHARLOTTE, NC — Wow. In possibly the team’s most pivotal game of the 2017-18 season, the Carolina Panthers got the best of the Miami Dolphins, hook, line and sinker on Monday Night Football in front of a raucous, near sold-out crowd of 72,790 at Bank of America Stadium. Yes, Charlotte emphasized a strong ground game featuring veteran running back Jonathan Stewart (17 carries, 110 yards) and a reborn quarterback in Cam Newton (5 rushes for 95 yards), but with four of the team’s six touchdowns coming from passes to three different receivers in the 45-21 win, the Panthers proved they can do some damage through the air, too.
COVER IMAGE by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
It was only a day removed from an NFL Sunday that saw all of Carolina’s NFC South rivals flex their muscles, the Atlanta Falcons over the Dallas Cowboys, 27-7; the Tampa Bay Buccaneers getting by the New York Jets, 15-10; and the division-leading New Orleans South putting the hurt on the Buffalo Bills, 47-10.
But the Panthers responded with a message of its own, a message so powerful that the Panthers had their best offensive performance of the season and broke three franchise records in the process.
With the national spotlight turned brightly upon the Queen City for Monday Night Football, Carolina did more than trumpet, “God save the Queen!”
“We did some things vertically that opened up other looks underneath,” Panthers head coach Ron Rivera told a packed press conference after the game. “With a win like this, you start to see everyone coming together again. That’s been the hard part. I think part of it is the way [Cam Newton] has been playing in the past couple of weeks. It’s something we can continue to build upon.”
For the first time in franchise history, the Carolina Panthers scored four passing touchdowns and rushed for over 200 yards in a single game, totaling another franchise-record of 548 total yards. The team also set a franchise record of rushing for 200 yards in back-to-back games, doing so with a smile on its face and a swagger in its step.
Quarterback Cam Newton seems to thrive under the national spotlight, leaving Monday’s contest with a 6-1 record in Monday Night Football games. And unlike the controversy of players admitting their hatred toward Thursday Night games, the seven-year veteran showed his love for Monday games earlier in the week when he reminisced on his knowledge of the special event.
During his pre-game press conference heading into Monday night, Newton said he was going to be wearing a cowboy hat in honor of Hank Williams, Jr.
He wasn’t kidding.
Although Newton didn’t look like a cowboy, his performance on Monday did show some good ol’ gunslinger characteristics, his four touchdown passes including two to Devin Funchess, one to Panthers’ rookie running back/wide receiver/master decoy Christian McCaffrey, and yet another to veteran tight end Ed Dickson. For his part, McCaffrey had a career-high night of his own: a first multi-touchdown game, one rushing and one receiving.
And it didn’t take long for the Panthers’ first round draft pick to put his stamp on this game.
After Panthers placekicker Graham Gano recorded the game’s first three points by booting a 40-yard field goal late in the first quarter, the Carolina displayed a healthy mix of running and passing plays. The series included Newton finding second-round draft pick, wide receiver Curtis Samuel, in between five Dolphin defenders (Samuel had a handful of crucial catches for Carolina before leaving the game with an ankle injury in the third quarter). That play netted the Panthers’ offense 23 yards. The series also featured an 18-yard, bulldozing run by Stewart to put Carolina on the 14-yard line with 9:05 remaining in the first half.
Minutes later, after an 11-yard pass to Funchess to the four-yard line, Christian McCaffrey laterally shifted in between the hash marks to make a pair of defenders miss, including Pro Bowl linebacker Kiko Alonso. The juke helped the rookie surge into the end zone to cap a 12-play, 85-yard scoring drive for the Panthers, boosting their advantage to 10-0.
In response, the Dolphins altered their offensive play calling, mimicking the Panthers’ previous drive and catching the top-ranked Carolina defense off guard. Meanwhile, the NFL’s last-ranked offense marched 75 yards down the field. With two yards to go, Dolphins’ quarterback Jay Cutler flicked a shovel pass to his tight end Julius Thomas. He met a pack of Panthers at the goal line, but the 6’5’’, 262-pounder, the 4th round draft pick of the Denver Broncos in 2011, fought his way over the goal line for a touchdown that narrowed Miami’s deficit to just 10-7 with 2:10 left in the half.
Rivera later told reporters that the turning point of the game came in the final minute of the first half after his team was forced to punt the ball back to Miami just eight plays after the two-minute warning. Michael Palardy’s punt flew well past the end zone, giving Miami the ball on its own 20-yard line, but on the first play after regaining possession, Miami quarterback Jay Cutler flipped a short pass intended for his tight end Thomas along the left sideline, in front of the Panthers bench, but middle linebacker Luke Kuechly ignited his teammates along the sideline by jumping in front of Thomas for the interception, his team-leading third of the year.
Add a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct (taunting) penalty against Miami after the play was over and the Panthers were able to set up shop 20 yards away from paydirt with 41 seconds to go and two timeouts to spare. This, after it looked like Carolina’s action for the first half was all done.
Three plays and two timeouts later, Newton found former Oregon tight end Ed Dickson, an 8-year veteran seeing a much bigger role with an October injury to Greg Olsen, who made an acrobatic, seven-yard catch with his fingertips to give his team a 17-7 cushion when they retired to the locker room for intermission.
“Scoring before we headed into halftime was huge for us,” Rivera agreed in responding to a reporter’s assessment. “[Ed Dickson] has worked very hard for us, so it was great to see him get his chance to make a play for us.”
The Panthers continued to build offensive momentum coming out of the break — and in record-setting fashion.
Newton began the second half completing a 15-yard pass to wide receiver Devin Funchess. It pushed the former Heisman winner from Auburn past legendary quarterback Dan Marino (Miami Dolphins) for the third-most total yards in a quarterback’s first seven seasons with 27,836 yards, behind Peyton Manning (30,062, Indianapolis Colts) and Matt Ryan (28,866, Atlanta Falcons).
To keep the high energy rolling, Newton slung a screen pass to a waiting Funchess later in the same drive on third-and-long opportunity. After watching McCaffrey and offensive tackle Matt Kalil open the entire left side of the field with two crackling blocks, Funchess trotted untouched for what he called after the game “a walk-in score” from 28 yards out for his first touchdown of the night to give Carolina a 24-7 lead with 11:50 to go in the third quarter.
Although the passing game was hitting on all cylinders Monday night, so was the rushing attack led by Stewart who, despite having two uncharacteristic fumbles last week against the Atlanta Falcons.
Fellow Panthers’ running back Curtis Artis-Payne also joined in on the fun Monday night, taking his second hand-off of the game for a 12-yard touchdown with 7:15 remaining in the third stanza to bolster the Panthers’ lead to 31-7.
“It was really good to see those guys run the way they did,” Rivera recalled. “Jonathan ran hard, like he always does, McCaffrey’s elusiveness showed, and then Artis-Payne’s ability to hit it and go. I thought all three of those guys brought something special to the table and contributed very well to this attack.”
In an unlikely third-and-long for the Miami Dolphins on the ensuing possession with 5:14 to go in the third, running back Kenyan Drake shot through a huge gap on the left side, burning the Panthers’ defense for a 66-yard touchdown to narrow the gap to 31-14 and remind the Carolina faithful that the game was not over yet.
But even after the Dolphins’ biggest play of the game, there was still no chance for the AFC East contenders to come back in Monday’s landslide, especially after Newton exploded on the next Carolina possession for a 69-yard run to the 20-yard line. It was the kind of performance that reminded all in the stadium of his 2015 MVP season.
A few plays later, to seal the deal, Newton delivered a pass to the tightly covered McCaffrey, who made a diving catch out of the right side of the end zone to score his second touchdown of the night with three minutes to go in the third.
To put a proverbial nail in Miami’s coffin, Funchess found paydirt for the second time of the night when Newton threw a perfect pass to the third year pro’s back shoulder at the 15 yard line. The rest was up to the former Michigan Wolverine, outrunning two Dolphin defenders to finish a 32-yard touchdown catch and run to finish the night’s scoring.