CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The suddenly-paranoid fan base of the Carolina Panthers can relax, at least for four days.
The team is OK. It’s not going to fall apart at the seams, and Cam Newton isn’t headed toward a sophomore slump. The offensive line can still block, and the Panthers also still have a ground attack that is among the best in the NFL.
They are the team we thought they’d be, which was evident in their 35-27 victory over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
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The Panthers showed resilience in bouncing back from an awful performance after they lost 16-10 at Tampa Bay last week. Everything the team didn’t do well against the Buccaneers it corrected this week. And that the Panthers had to overcome adversity falling behind early as the Saints seemingly marched down the field as if it were scripted, makes this victory more special.
“We came back and played the way we are capable both offensive and defensively,” Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said, also noting how proud he was of his team’s work ethic during the week.
The players can’t help but know what’s being said and written about them. They embraced the expectations in the preseason, and each was excited when center Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer predicting a trip to the Super Bowl. So they are all in, which is why this victory was a measure of relief.
“Huge,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “You want to win all of your home games; that’s kind of the first rule in the NFL . . . I think it was a good momentum boost for us.”
While the talk shows and message boards were ripping the team for lacking heart, and questioning every aspect of its makeup, and wearing the weight of expectations, the Panthers rolled up their sleeves and went back to work.
They do have leadership. It might come in various forms, but that’s OK. This is a young, growing team, and adversity can help shape its future. Born out of last week’s ugliness was a spirited week of practice. Veteran defenders such as linebacker Jon Beason stepped up as a leader.
Newton, the veteran offensive linemen, future Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Smith, and the talented stable of tailbacks also led. So did Rivera.
Last week’s game offered few examples of why people were so excited about this team. Sunday’s contest was loaded with a buffet of evidence.
Charles Godfrey’s interception and 9-yard return for a touchdown got Carolina on the board early. Quite frankly, without that play, it’s conceivable New Orleans could have built an insurmountable cushion. Godfrey finished with 11 tackles and broke up another pass.
The Saints scored on three of their first four possessions, but managed just 13 points. Carolina was hanging despite being dominated, thanks to Godfrey’s play.
“Very big, especially since we had them backed up . . .,” Rivera said about Godfrey’s pick six. “It was a great read and great play. That’s what you need at that time is (to) really have one guy step up and make a play, and who knows from that point.”
There was Smith’s 35-yard reception on third-and-15 that gave the offense life and led to a second-quarter touchdown that put the Panthers ahead for good. Smith also had a 66-yard catch and run on Carolina’s first play following a Saints touchdown that cut the margin to 28-20 in the fourth quarter. The Panthers crossed the goal line five plays later.
There were 120 combined yards on 25 carries by Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams a week after Carolina had a franchise low 10 yards. There were eight receptions by fourth-year receiver Brandon LaFell, who is developing into a legitimate No. 2 receiver.
“Brandon has really developed into a fine receiver,” Rivera said. “He’s really a solid football player, and he just showed what he’s capable of. And those types of plays that he made with the consistency he’s making them really helps us.”
There also was Beason breaking up a pass midway through the fourth quarter forcing a New Orleans punt, and then with just seconds left the former All-Pro picked off Drew Brees to seal the deal.
And there was a maligned defensive line that after the first quarter-and-a-half consistently got some push, often hitting Brees, who came up limping twice during the game.
If they gave helmet stickers in the NFL, Rivera and the staff probably would have run out.
The Panthers so turned the tide that at one point in the second quarter New Orleans had run 32 offensive plays to Carolina’s 16. From that point until into the fourth quarter, the Panthers ran 29 to the Saints’ seven.
And while the Panthers still have tons of work to do, this is the kind of victory they can absolutely build on, especially with the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants coming to town Thursday night.