Cam Newton planted his right foot inside his 40-yard line, lofted the mother of all perfect passes down the left seam and prepared to celebrate. Game, set – wait, what? Are you freaking kidding, Ted Ginn Jr.?
It was the third offensive play of overtime for the Carolina Panthers, who’d all but given away a Monday night contest on their home field that they’d led 23-6 with ten minutes left in the fourth. But Andrew Luck had flipped a switch, and now the Indianapolis Colts were in front, 26-23, endangering Carolina’s unblemished record.
Newton, the worst great quarterback in the NFL – or is he the greatest bad quarterback in the NFL? – decided to end the suspense right there. Yet Ginn, the fastest player on the field, intervened, opening his hands at the 17-yard line and watching helplessly as the football spiraled into, then bounced out of, his mitts.
It figured. If the Panthers were going to get to 7-0 and remain the only unbeaten team in the NFC, they were going to have to grind out another ugly victory. That’s what they do better than anybody, after all.
The details from there are almost beside the point, but we’ll riffle through them anyway. Newton responded with a 19-yard completion to tight end Greg Olsen and a 12-yarder to Ginn, enough to set up Graham Gano for a game-tying 42-yard field goal. On the ensuing defensive possession, safety Roman Harper tipped a Luck pass that fell into the hands of linebacker Luke Kuechly in Colts territory. Four plays later, Gano drilled a 52-yarder for a 29-26 win.
For those of you scoring at home, it was Carolina’s 11th consecutive regular-season victory, which sounds like kind of a big deal. Because, you know, it is. It’s a huge deal, even if no one on God’s green earth is taking the Panthers seriously as Super Bowl contenders.
The NFL has four teams that have yet to lose, two of which are Tom Brady’s New England Patriots and Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos. Roughly all of the free world awaits their matchup in Week 12 – and presumed rematch in the AFC Championship game – while ignoring the 7-0 Cincinnati Bengals in the process.
Like the Bengals, Carolina isn’t taken very seriously. The NFC seems clearly to be the lesser conference this season, but 6-1 Green Bay – after the worst game of Aaron Rodgers’ career, a Sunday defeat at Denver – continues to get Super Bowl-level respect. Even 4-4 Seattle, which lost at home to the Panthers in Week 6, casts a longer shadow on the rest of the season than Carolina in the eyes of many.
Really, it’s bullshit. Carolina just wins, you know? It has to count for something.
It had to impress somebody that Newton started 1-for-6 for 13 yards, yet the Panthers led 10-0. Why? Because a defense led by the best linebacker pair going, Kuechly and Thomas Davis, and arguably the best cornerback duo in the business, Charles Tillman and Josh Norman, was singing. Because an underrated offensive line was plowing running lanes for underrated back Jonathan Stewart and, of course, for Newton too.
Newton – who finished 16-of-35 for 248 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception and a lost fumble – didn’t complete his second pass until his 10th attempt of the night. His current passer rating of 78.1 ranks 29th in the league (strangely, that’s higher than both Manning and Luck). That figure would undoubtedly be better if star wideout Kelvin Benjamin were healthy, but whom are we kidding? It’s a fairly damning stat. There are things Newton does that no one else can do, but let’s slow our roll before we anoint him an elite quarterback.
We should segue here for a brief discussion about Luck and the 3-5 Colts, who are tied for the division lead in the preposterously bad AFC South. Luck, a better quarterback than Newton – or is he? – was atrocious for three-and-a-half quarters on Monday, continuing his season of struggles. He turned it around late in the game and led a pair of clutch touchdown drives, possibly saving coach Chuck Pagano’s job in the process.
But 3-5 is indefensible for Luck and his team, if we’re being honest, and former longtime Colts hero Manning and the Broncos will be in Indianapolis on Sunday. It could get mighty uncomfortable for everyone on the home side.
Enough, though, about Luck and the Colts. Boring, right? This season, they’re pretty much irrelevant. The undefeated Carolina Panthers are anything but. Maybe it’s time they finally got some love.