CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Three years. That’s how long it’s been since the Carolina Panthers won three games in a row, which they accomplished Sunday with a 17-6 win over the Oakland Raiders.
But after the game, the bulk of the chatter wasn’t focused on the Panthers newfound winning vibes or stingy defense.
It was focused on a bump and a kick.
The bump came when Panthers franchise quarterback Cam Newton went to hotly protest what he considered a late hit that he thought referee Jerome Boger missed. Boger backed away but stopped as Newton followed, causing Newton to bump into him, resulting in a 15-yard penalty. Although Boger said postgame that his call on the field of Newton “bumping” him wasn’t accurate, he did admit that there was contact.
“I misspoke when I said he bumped the official,” Boger said. “What I was penalizing him for was disrespectfully addressing the official. There was some contact between he and I, but it wasn’t of a malicious nature. It was where I was moving away and when I stopped to confirm what he was saying we slightly brushed each other.”
Newton was apologetic after the game. But the NFL, as well as every other professional sports league, has historically endorsed a very strict no-contact policy concerning its officials.
“I don’t know what to say about that,” said head coach Ron Rivera of his interpretation of the bumping the official rule. “We will just wait and see what happens.”
Newton said he apologized during the game to the ref and did so again publicly after the game. But apologies or not, the bump wasn’t Newton’s only extracurricular activities on the day.
He also got into it with Raiders defensive end Tommy Kelly late in the second quarter after Newton felt Kelly put a little extra into keeping him on the ground after the whistle. Newton quickly took exception and kicked out in an effort to get Kelly off of him, which Kelly responded to with a hand to the face that resulted in a personal foul.
“I was trying to get up. You know nothing good happens when you’re at the bottom of the pile, so when I get tackled and it’s a pile up I try to get up as fast as possible,” Newton said. “If I kicked him — with me looking at the replay I realize it looked like I kicked him but I was just trying to get up as fast as I can to get to the next play.”
It was a chippy game on both sides, complete with six personal foul penalties (three from each team) that largely overshadowed what was a brilliant day from the Panthers defense, holding the Raiders to just 187 total yards. Defensive end Greg Hardy hit quarterback Carson Palmer about as hard as a quarterback can get hit, knocking Palmer out for the game and forcing the Raiders to go to Matt Leinart, who completed just 16 of 32 passes for 115 yards.
It’s a Panthers defense that was abysmal a season ago (28th in the NFL) but has risen into the top 10 in the NFL in total defense. Anchoring that defense again Sunday as he’s done all season was rookie Luke Kuechly, who had 13 tackles on the day (nine solo), one tackle for loss and an interception. He returned the pick 25 yards, setting up the Panthers’ second touchdown just before the half.
“[Kuechly], obviously, it was a heck of a performance by him. That defense has turned into a hell of a defense and they continue to grow in front of our eyes,” said tight end Greg Olsen, who joked that Kuechly had his Defensive Rookie of the Year vote five weeks ago.
The Panthers’ late-season surge is largely reminiscent of the one they put together a season ago, winning four of their last six to end 2011 — a push that had people praising the Panthers as a playoff dark horse heading into the season.
However, this team seems different from the one a season prior. It seems closer to being the playoff team everyone thought they could be. The what-if game doesn’t hold much weight, but this is a team that’s lost seven of nine games by six points or less.
A year ago, the November and December surge was propelled by an offense that began to explode as Newton began to take better care of the ball. And while Newton’s surely taken better care of the ball with 15 touchdowns to one interception over the last five games, the defense has only allowed 11 points per game over the three-game win streak.
The addition of Kuechly, the return of Thomas Davis, and the emergence of Greg Hardy (11 sacks) across from Charles Johnson has given the Panthers a front seven that has been “stout and stingy” all season, Rivera said, and allowed a green secondary to make plays.
“We’re just starting to recognize stuff. We’re starting to come together as a group,” Johnson said. “We’re just jelling. When we jell, we come strong like that, and everybody’s just feeding off of each other.”