Panthers keep Colts winless with 27-19 victory

jperson@charlotteobserver.comNovember 27, 2011 

— After a tough-two week stretch for his defense, Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott played a video at the team hotel Saturday night that featured a big play by each of his players.

After the video ended with a clip of Sherrod Martin intercepting a pass against New Orleans in Week 5, the Panthers’ free safety stood up in the meeting room and yelled.

Martin was the last player standing Sunday, as well – with his feet inbounds.

Martin sealed the Panthers’ 27-19 win against Indianapolis by intercepting a tipped pass by Curtis Painter in the back of the end zone with 35 seconds left.

After the replay official confirmed the call – Martin dragged his right toe on the blue turf before his momentum carried him out of the end zone – Cam Newton came out for a kneel-down to snap the franchise-worst, 12-game road losing streak.

The Panthers (3-8) exceeded their win total from last season and celebrated their first road victory since a 41-9 defeat of the New York Giants on Dec. 27, 2009.

It was a bit of redemption for both Martin and the defense, which surrendered 79 points in the previous two games. The 49 points the Panthers gave up last week in a loss at Detroit were the third-most allowed in team history.

But the Panthers ended Sunday’s game with end-zone interceptions on the Colts’ final two series. Martin’s pick allowed the third-year safety to avenge a missed tackle on Reggie Wayne’s 56-yard touchdown catch that pulled the Colts (0-11) to 24-19 midway through the fourth quarter.

“I was glad that wasn’t my last play on film because I knew I was better than that,” Martin said. “The thing was, we were better than that as a defense. And we were all able to bounce back together and finish with a win, not just bounce back by myself.”

After last week’s meltdown against Detroit, which overcame a 17-point deficit to win 49-35, McDermott thought his defense needed a confidence shot. In addition to the video, McDermott gave an impassioned speech and encouraged his players to believe in themselves.

“We were ready to go (Saturday) night,” linebacker Dan Connor said of McDermott’s talk. “It was (about) the defense has to start pulling our weight. We want to be on the same level our offense is on. That’s what it came down. We came out fired up.”

It helped that the Panthers were facing a Colts’ offense that, without Peyton Manning, resembles Carolina’s anemic attack last season. Indianapolis, threatening to join the 2008 Lions as the NFL’s only 0-16 teams, had not scored an offensive touchdown in its two previous games.

The Panthers forced two three-and-outs at the start of each half and held the Colts to 84 yards on their first seven possessions. But with the Panthers hanging back in zone coverage, Painter began finding his underneath receivers as the Colts racked up 239 yards on their last four drives.

With the lead, McDermott opted to stay in the zone and rush only four against Painter, who was 39th out of 40 quarterbacks in fourth-quarter passing entering the game.

“You’d like to finish off in a more dominating fashion, and we’ll learn to do that in time,” McDermott said. “We did play coverage and wanted to try to make the quarterback beat us. And he made two mistakes and we came up with two huge plays.”

On second-and-1 from the Panthers’ 33-yard line with 4:29 left, Painter threw deep down the right sideline for Pierre Garcon. Cornerback Chris Gamble, running stride for stride with Garcon, turned around to snare the third interception of his bounce-back season.

“They wanted to make a big play, so they tried to throw it downfield,” Gamble said. “I just was ready for it and I came up with the pick.”

Painter drove the Colts inside the Carolina 5 on their next drive. On second-and-goal from the 3, Painter tried to hit Austin Collie on an in route.

But strong safety Charles Godfrey deflected the pass, and Martin caught the carom for his third interception this year.

“The nice thing was Sherrod just hustled to the ball, made an effort play,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “Any time you hustle, good things are going to happen.”

Painter said he’d like to have the first interception back, but didn’t fault himself on the throw to Collie.

“The guy makes a great play gets his feet inbounds. That one didn’t bounce our way,” Painter said.

Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams led a balanced attack with 69 rushing yards and two touchdowns – his first two-touchdown game in more than two years. Backfield mate Jonathan Stewart added 70 yards on 10 carries, while rookie quarterback Cam Newton was an efficient 20-of-27 passing for 208 yards, with a 95.9 passer rating.

But after the offense failed to do much on its last two drives, the game was in the hands of the Panthers’ defense. It might not have been dominating, but the defense delivered.

“Sometimes you’ve got to punch yourself out of a corner. I think we did that,” McDermott said. “There’s a bunch of winners, guys with a lot of pride in that room. I’ll go to war with those guys any day.”

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