By Taylor Welsh. November 5, 2017. CHARLOTTE, NC — It was the Panthers’ first game without star wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, but the Carolina Panthers gained more than they perhaps anticipated with the blockbuster trade by outscoring the Atlanta Falcons at Bank of America Stadium, 20 – 17. And they did it with the team’s newest offensive weapon.
All photographic images by Brad Batchelor for Blowing Rock News
After the preseason, Carolina head coach Ron Rivera said he had a playbook specifically designed for this year’s first round draft pick, Christian McCaffrey. None in the announced crowd of 74,244 nor the millions watching on national television had witnessed evidence of such a dynamic playbook’s existence because it was not heavily used — until this week.
On this Sunday, McCaffrey was the focal point of every red zone play, helping the Panthers’ offense stay on track with three catches for 25 yards and a four-yard touchdown scamper in the red zone, the first rushing touchdown for the rookie.
“I like to be one of the guys that they call on to score,” McCaffrey told Blowing Rock News afterwards, “but when you have guys like Devin Funchess and Curtis [Samuel] and backs like Jonathan Stewart who all can make plays at any point of the game, it makes everyone on the team better.”
We knew it was unlike Stew to fumble those balls, so we had to rally around him…
This win by the Panthers was far from perfect in execution. In the early stages, just as Carolina seemed to get the rushing attack clicking, running back Jonathan Stewart would give the ball back to their NFC South rivals. He let two fumbles slip from his grasp in the first half after modest rushing gains.
“We knew it was unlike Stew to fumble those balls,” starting quarterback Cam Newton acknowledged later to reporters. “We knew that, so we had to rally around him and keep playing with our heads up.”
Despite taking an early beating—down 10-0 after a six-yard touchdown grab by Falcons’ Mohammad Sanu—the Panthers offense had some gas left in the tank as the clock ticked down toward intermission. Carolina scored twice in the final two minutes of the first half, starting with McCaffrey’s 4-yard open trot to the end zone after receiving a pitch-out pass from Newton.
On the Falcons ensuing drive, Matt Ryan threw a pass intended for Julio Jones, but was caught instead by the Panthers’ 14-year veteran safety Mike Adams, who returned the INT 40 yards to set up Newton’s go-ahead touchdown from nine yards out, a high-flying diving effort around the right side that just got the ball across the goal line before losing control. It gave the Panthers its first lead, entering the locker rooms at halftime, 14-10.
The two touchdowns were historic: it was the first time in franchise history that the Panthers have scored two offensive TDs in the final two minutes of any half.
That’s a champion-like characteristic…we are going to need plays like that to keep winning ball games.
“That’s a champion-like characteristic,” Newton said about Adams’ interception. “That’s a 10-point turnaround and we are going to need plays like that to keep winning ball games.”
After halftime, the Panthers continued to ride the momentum established in those final two minutes of the first half with some third quarter trickery. On the first play of the second half, Newton performed Boise State’s “statue of Liberty,” handing the ball off to Curtis Samuel for a 14-yard, first down gain. Nine plays and 48 yards later, placekicker Graham Gano slotted a 31-yard field goal to give the home side a 17-10 lead with 3:59 left in the third quarter.
As has often been the case during this 2017 NFL campaign, Carolina’s defense was a major part of Sunday’s NFC South Division win over defending National Conference champion Atlanta. On the Falcons’ first offensive possession of the second half, the Panthers’ defense forced a three-and-out and gave Newton & Co. the ball back.
After driving to the Atlanta 27-yard line, the Carolina drive stalled and the Panthers settled for a 45-yard Graham Gano field goal.
I was not caring about my body or ligaments. I’m just trying to win football games.
However, the drive was not without some game-defining moments. With 3:59 left in the third period, Carolina faced a 4th and 1-yard to go at the Atlanta 30. Initially, the Panthers had the kicking crew on the field to try and take a 20-10 lead. Instead, Newton converted on a keeper up the middle, getting the first down and continuing to put pressure on the falling Falcons.
“I saw the opening and took full advantage of it,” Newton said later. “This was one of those games where I was not caring about my body or ligaments. I’m just trying to win football games.”
In the end, the Panthers had to settle for a 45-yard field goal by Gano to take the same 20-10 lead heading into the final quarter, but not before denying Atlanta another offensive possession for almost another three minutes of game time.
How Do You Spell R-E-L-I-E-F
Then the unimaginable happened: Atlanta’s Ryan-to-Jones connection misfired. On 4th -and-7 on the Panthers’ 39, Ryan patiently waited for his superstar Jones to get open, then saw him bust through Carolina’s secondary coverage. It should have been a routine catch for Jones, wide open in the end zone, but the 7-year veteran out of Alabama bobbled and dropped the pass. It was double tragedy for the visitors from Georgia. They failed to put points on the scoreboard to close the deficit and they gave Carolina good field position when the game well into the fourth and final quarter of play.
The Falcons’ defense turned on a switch, though, forcing the storming Panthers offense to punt the ball after just six plays and just 15 yards gained. Then, after Ryan’s offense got the ball back, things started clicking for Atlanta. Running back Tevin Coleman capped a 7-play, 92-yard drive with a 19-yard touchdown reception off a screen pass with 3:25 remaining in the game. Atlanta had a chance, trailing 20-17 and a high probability of getting the ball back for one last chance to surge ahead.
After forcing the Panthers to punt again on yet another three-and-out, the Falcons’ offense also failed to move the ball. On 4th and 13 from their own 18-yard line, Ryan hurled a pass directed at wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, but it was broken up by linebacker Luke Kuechly and cornerback Kevon Seymour, giving the Panthers a big divisional victory.
“We just wanted to come out and execute the game plan,” Newton said in concluding his post-game press conference. “Now we are going to celebrate this win and get (ready) for our next game before we heading into the bye.”
The Panthers will have an extra day of rest this week as they will face the Miami Dolphins at home after next week, under the Monday Night lights, November 13, 2017, with kickoff at Bank of America Stadium slated for 8:30 pm.
This story was edited by David Rogers.