Defense shines as Panthers rally past Bears

Luke Kuechly's 15 tackles led a Carolina defense that forced three fumbles, recovered two, picked off two passes and sacked Chicago QB Jay Cutler four times.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With the season on the proverbial line, the Carolina Panthers (3-2) reverted back to their winning ways by playing solid defense and doing just enough offensively to get the 31-24 victory over the Chicago Bears (2-3) on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

Here are four key aspects from the game:

After a shaky start, it seemed the defense of the Panthers, which has been nonexistent the last two weeks, was going to have another bad game. But then everything changed.

Carolina, which trailed 21-7 early, wound up sacking Bears quarterback Jay Cutler four times, while also forcing four Chicago turnovers, the biggest of which came late in the fourth quarter and wound up being the game’s most pivotal moment.

With the score tied at 24, Panthers cornerback Antoine Cason stripped tailback Matt Forte of the ball and Carolina recovered it deep in Bears territory with 4:18 left to play. Six plays and 23 yards later, Carolina scored a touchdown on a Cam Newton to Greg Olsen pass to give it the lead for good.

Chicago’s hopes were ended completely when Cutler fumbled while being sacked. It was recovered by the Panthers and the game was over.

To put things in perspective, the Bears mustered just 27 yards and had three turnovers over their last five possessions.

"There were a lot of good things that went on as that is concerned," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "I do agree it was great to see the pass rush get the chance to cut loose. Again, when you get yourself into the position when you have a lead, you get them into the second and third longs you can cut it loose and get after the quarterback."

Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly led the way with 15 tackles. There was even a Charles Johnson sighting, as the defensive end had a sack and tackle for loss. He had been essentially missing in action all season.

"That’s how we win games, with turnovers," Johnson said. "We played good up front in the second half and we came out with a win."

It’s not hyperbole to say or suggest that by beating the Bears that Carolina may have saved its season. 

After two blowout and ugly losses in a row, Carolina faced the possibility of going to 2-3 with a loss, with the next three games being at Cincinnati, at Green Bay and home to Seattle. It wouldn’t be difficult to picture the Panthers at 2-6 had things not gone well Sunday.

As it stands now, Carolina is atop the NFC South as Atlanta lost to the New York Giants. The Falcons are now 2-3 and tied with New Orleans, which continues to struggle. The Saints had to go into overtime to beat Tampa Bay in New Orleans.

"It’s huge," Rivera said of not dropping below .500. "We are on top of the South. We are giving ourselves a chance to take another step."

The old cliché that a win, is a win, is a win may be true, but it’s also true that some victories are sweeter than others. Such is the case for Rivera and Olsen, both of whom spent time in Chicago.

Olsen was drafted by the Bears and played four seasons with them before getting traded for a third-round draft pick four years ago. 

Olsen had a huge game against his old team as he had six catches for 72 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner.

"I said all week that it wasn’t about me personally, it wasn’t about my history with them or about them getting rid of me, and it really wasn’t," he said. "I’ve moved passed that. I don’t hold any grudges. I don’t wish I could go back in time and undo it.  I’m here for a reason and I wouldn’t trade being on this team or being in this city for anywhere and I’ve said that from the beginning. I’ve embraced being a Panther, I’ve embraced this city and I love being here and I’m excited to be a part of this team. I don’t look back and say what if. This was a normal game for us. 

"It was nice to see some familiar faces after the game and catch up for a couple minutes with some guys, but this was about the Panthers getting a win and that’s how I approached it all week."

For Rivera, he had no problem admitting that the win was extra special.

Rivera was a linebacker on the famed 1985 Bears Super Bowl team and also served as an assistant coach there. Combined, he was in Chicago 12 years.

"It felt great. It really did," he said. "It’s one of those things, again it’s like a family member. You always want to beat the family member when you are being competitive. It was good to have the opportunity. It was a great victory for us and a good victory for this football team."

It was the first time in three attempts that Rivera has beaten his former team.

Behind the running of their fifth-string running back, another running back that was picked up on Monday and Newton, the Panthers managed to put forth a decent enough ground attack to keep the Chicago defense honest. 

Darrin Reaves, who started the season on the practice squad, rushed 11 times for 35 yards, while Chris Ogbonnaya, who was signed as a free agent on Monday, added eight carries for 24 yards and a touchdown.

Newton even ran six times for nine yards. 

While the yards per carry aren’t great — 2.72 — the Panthers never got away from trying to run, which forced the Bears to have to respect it. That allowed Newton more success at completing passes.

"It was nice (to contribute)," Ogbonnaya said. "There are some things that I need to continue to work on. I haven’t played in a couple of weeks. Hopefully as I’m here I’ll continue to get better in this role."

Follow Brett Jensen on Twitter at @Brett_Jensen