It was the Carolina Panthers’ last shot. Despite the fact that the Seattle Seahawks had developed a reputation for blowing fourth-quarter leads, the Panthers’ chances of beating the reigning NFC champs on their home field seemed slim.
After all, the Seahawks are all but invincible at CenturyLink Field, and Carolina was down three, at their own 20, with 2:20 left, facing a top-ranked defense with only one legitimate threat in their passing arsenal. Seattle, on the other hand, had just one job: Defend Greg Olsen. They couldn’t do it.
They also couldn’t cover anyone else when the game was on the line, which probably means that Seattle’s reputation for letting late leads slip away is now simply a fact. The Panthers were able to take advantage of this in the fourth quarter, as Cam Newton was 6-of-6 on the final drive, completing passes to six different receivers, including the game-winner to Olsen, who was left uncovered on the final play.
The 26-yard touchdown reception by Olsen left All-Pro safety Earl Thomas and All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman staring at each other in disbelief (they were probably wondering if they’ll still be All-Pros), as the most obvious talent on Carolina’s offense was left wide open in the end zone to give the Panthers a 27-23 victory.
The win kept Carolina undefeated and gave them sole possession of first place in their division – but, more importantly, it also validated their claim of being an elite team in the NFC. That wasn’t something people were saying about the Panthers before this week, despite heading to Seattle with an unblemished 4-0 mark.
That’s probably because Carolina’s wins had come over the Jacksonville Jaguars (now 1-5), the Houston Texans (who were starting Ryan Mallett), the New Orleans Saints (who were starting Luke McCown) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (the worst team a year ago.) The doubts about the Panthers’ legitimacy aren’t new; few people considered them a real contender in the playoffs last season, even after they won each of their last four games.
Those four wins came over the Saints, Bucs, Browns and Falcons. And their playoff win a year ago came against the Arizona Cardinals, who were starting Ryan Lindley, arguably the worst quarterback in NFL postseason history.
So the Panthers came into Sunday actually having won nine of their previous 10 dating back to last season, with the only loss coming against Seattle in the NFC Divisional game. That 31-17 defeat, punctuated by Kam Chancellor’s 90-yard interception return for a touchdown, only further made Carolina look like NFL posers among the elite class. They were simply an average team that was beating up on inferior competition. And for three-and-a-half quarters, that storyline looked like it would continue.
Newton was inaccurate, the receivers were untalented, Chancellor intercepted Newton again. Then, like lightning to a clock tower, history began to repeat itself for a Seahawks team that inexplicably shrinks once the fourth quarter hits.
Up 23-14 with 8:21 left as they punted it back to Carolina, the Seahawks simply needed to continue what they’d been doing for most of the day – keep Carolina off the board. The Panthers responded with an 80-yard scoring drive that took a little over four minutes, and they never even faced a third down while doing it.
And that’s when the déjà vu kicked in. Just like last week’s game in Cincinnati, all Seattle needed to do was gain a few first downs and run out the clock. Instead, they threw the ball three times, burned just 86 seconds and kicked the ball back to the Panthers. Memories of the debacle against the Bengals – in which the Seahawks blew a 17-point lead in the fourth – came flooding back.
And then, on that final drive, Newton was able to find everyone from Devin Funchess to Ed Dickson, the Seahawks’ defense seemed lost and the rest was history: Newton to Olsen, touchdown, ballgame.
With that, the Panthers now find themselves at 5-0, running with the big boys of the NFL. Their next three games come at home, including a Week 9 matchup against the other undefeated team in the NFC, the Green Bay Packers. I’m sure most people expect the Packers to win that game without a hitch.
But Sunday’s comeback win showed that perhaps this year will be different, that the Panthers truly belong. Or maybe it showed that the Seahawks really are a flawed team, incapable of closing games out. Either way, after six weeks, there’s no shortage of uncertainty.