CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As far as Sundays go, they don’t get much bigger for the Panthers (10-4). They cruised to a relatively easy 30-20 win over the Jets, and Cam Newton threw for 273 yards and a touchdown in a game the Jets played from behind throughout. But after, the questions all seemingly revolved around next week and the Panthers chance at revenge with the Saints.
1. The Panthers are in the driver’s seat now in the NFC South
The Panthers big screen lit up with a video clip of Zac Stacy taking in a 40-yard touchdown run versus the Saints to go up 24-3. Everyone at Bank of America Stadium erupted, knowing the significance of the Saints receiving a whooping on the road a week before a date in Carolina for the NFC crown.
The Saints did end up losing and barring a regular season finale collapse in Atlanta, which is definitely possible with the hot-and-cold nature of this Panthers squad, next week’s game against the Saints will be for ownership of a first-round bye and the right to host their first playoff game. Win out and the Panthers are the owners of a bye and the NFC South division championship — their first division title since 2008.
“It’s very big,” Cam Newton said of the Saints loss. “We control our own destiny right now. We just have to continue to do the things we’ve been doing up to this point.”
The 31-13 trouncing the Panthers took in New Orleans a week ago is still fresh in their mind and they’ll have the chance for revenge Saturday night. They’re 6-1 at home with their only loss at home coming to the NFC leading Seattle Seahawks.
“[The Saints] should probably be ready for a battle, man,” Greg Hardy said.
Even head coach Ron Rivera couldn’t keep his eyes off of the scoreboard, knowing what the potential of a Saints loss brought for his team.
“Unfortunately, a few times too many,” Rivera said when asked how many times he looked. “To be honest with you, I did get distracted a couple of times. But for the most part I was only concerned with our scoreboard for a while, but I did get a couple flashes. I did hear the crowd start to cheer and when I looked up they showed the score so that caught my attention a couple times.”
Now, the Panthers are in the driver’s seat, and two weeks after getting embarrassed, the Panthers will have a chance to regain control of the division and right a perceived wrong.
“They gotta come through here next week,” LaFell said. “The NFC South will come through here.”
2. Santonio Holmes may not have meant his “weak link” comment as a slight but the Panthers secondary definitely took it that way and responded.
Santonio Holmes may not have been talking trash but simply critiquing the Panthers’ defense when he called the secondary the “weak link” of their unit, but undoubtedly the Panthers took it as a slight.
So when Captain Munnerlyn picked off a Geno Smith pass midway through the fourth quarter and returned it for a touchdown to put the Panthers up 30-13, he made sure to give it a little extra, mocking Holmes jet plane celebration before a crash landing into the turf of the end zone.
“I think my celebration says it all,” Munnerlyn said. “He always do that the little jet thing and I had to give it back to him and I crashed.”
He’s aware it’s probably going to cost him some money from the league office and it cost him 15 yards on the field but said the celebration was worth it for calling out his secondary.
“I didn’t know what [Captain] was going to do either. He was laid out there, so I had to bring him back to life,” said Drayton Florence who picked up Munnerlyn.
Florence had the assignment of Holmes for much of the day and limited Holmes to just two catches for 14 yards. The Panthers secondary made sure to remind him frequently on the field what they thought of his comments, and safety Quentin Mikell said after that the secondary thought Holmes was the Jets “weak link”.
“When an opposing wide receiver calls us out, he’s gotta pay for it,” Florence said. “I think he had 2 catches. He’s really not a factor. He has 16 catches, one touchdown on the year.
“I told the guys earlier I was going to do everything in my power not to let him get a catch on me and when he tried to block me in the run game, I was going to put him on his ass. Watch the tape and you’ll see what happened.”
On the day, the Panthers secondary rebounded from a terrible performance a week ago against Drew Brees by holding Geno Smith to a 15-of-28 day for 167 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
It was an especially huge day for Munnerlyn. Not only did he get two sacks on corner blitz to tie his career high, but his fifth career pick six broke Mike Minter’s Panthers record.
“I’m a punt returner and it seems like every time I catch a pick I take it to the house,” Munnerlyn said. “I have seven in my career, five for a touchdown. That’s nothing but a blessing.”
3. DeAngelo Williams 72-yard screen play was the back breaker.
The Jets had the ball in the middle of the second quarter at the Panthers’ 10-yard-line down 6-3 with a first-and-goal and the chance to take the lead. The drive stalled, they kicked a field goal, and just like that the game was over.
Why? Because the very next possession the Panthers only needed 20 seconds to get in the end zone when Cam Newton faked a screen pass left and actually executed one back on the right side to DeAngelo Williams who got a great seal on the edge from Travelle Wharton and took it 72 yards down the sidelines, sprung by a beautiful, downfield block by Brandon LaFell to break the 6-6 tie.
“We just got a thing with screen plays, just run yourself out of the picture,” LaFell said. “Only way you can see yourself [on the film] is if it’s a touchdown.”
From there, the Jets quickly went three-and-out and the Panthers drove down the field for a Graham Gano field goal before the half to give them a 16-6 lead heading into the locker room.
That lead’s not insurmountable for most teams, but it is for the Jets. The Panthers secondary has looked back at times but never bad enough to let Geno Smith throw on them consistently. Combine that with a punt block, which gave the Panthers the ball in their red zone, and the Jets didn’t have a chance.
“My coaches have engrained it in me so much I’m still not very happy about this game. We gave up 20 points, which is far too many, but I’m very happy we got the win,” safety Mike Mitchell said. “To be able to bounce back and get a “W” against a good team that’s a hungry team trying to get in the playoffs, that’s encouraging.”
The “W” was especially important because it puts them at 10 wins. Usually, 10 wins will get in the Playoffs, and one win over the last two would put the Panthers in the Playoffs.
“We got the taste out of our mouth, and now we got what we want,” Munnerlyn said.
4. 30 points on the board but the Panthers offense sputtered bad in the red zone for the second straight game.
392 yards of total offense against that Jets defense isn’t a bad day at the office, but the Panthers unit left still feeling like they could have done more. For the second straight week, there were inefficiencies in the red zone.
Five trips to the red zone only brought one touchdown.
“We gotta get that fixed. You’re not going to beat good teams, not going to make playoff runs kicking field goals,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “Fortunately our defense kept us in there and held them to field goals, so we gotta get that addressed and we will. We’re usually pretty good down there, last two weeks for whatever reason just kinda sputtered.”