Early Sunday afternoon, it was drizzling. The New Orleans Saints had already scored a touchdown on their first drive against the Carolina Panthers. The home team was down 7-0. New Orleans had the ball again. Things, quite literally, looked gloomy.
But then the afternoon turned for the Panthers. Under a heavy rush in his own end zone, the Saints’ all-everything quarterback Drew Brees made a bad mistake and threw a ball close to Panthers safety Charles Godfrey.
In many other years, that ball would have been dropped and fans would have simply groaned about the near-miss. This time, Godfrey ran it into the end zone and the Panthers were on their way to a 35-27 victory in their home opener.
“The vibe is changing,” Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said later. “Not only for this team, but for this whole organization.”
The Panthers had started 0-2 in each of the past three seasons and missed the playoffs each time. Now they are 1-1 after beating New Orleans – an upset that helps to make up for the egg they laid in their 16-10 loss to Tampa on the road last week.
This one was fun – both for the team and the fans who technically sold out the 72,000-seat stadium and in reality filled about 80 percent of the seats.
“It kind of felt like the way it used to feel out there,” said Jordan Gross, the Panthers’ left tackle who was a rookie starter on the Panthers’ Super Bowl squad of 2003 and has experienced almost every high and low since.
“The fans have been hungry for a few years now to have success like we’ve had in the past,” Gross continued. “We had to deliver today. Our fans deserved this. Now Thursday’s game is huge – the biggest home game around here in quite awhile – and I hope they are out in great numbers for that.”
The Panthers have a scheduling oddity this week. They play again at 8:20 p.m. Thursday at home against the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants (on NFL Network and on WSOC-TV, Channel 9, in Charlotte).
They will have much more confidence for that game after this one, a contest in which Carolina remembered it can run the ball. After tying a franchise low with 10 rushing yards in the Sept. 9 loss to Tampa Bay, Carolina ran for 219 yards Sunday. Four different backs – Newton, Mike Tolbert, Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams – scored touchdowns. It was a redemptive game for an offense that played so poorly in Tampa.
By halftime, the Panthers had turned that early 7-0 deficit into a 21-13 lead and there was much dancing in the aisles – and not just because the beach band Chairmen of the Board was providing the halftime entertainment and barefoot shaggers covered the field.
The rain had mostly cleared up by then and the Panthers never let go of the lead in the final 30 minutes. Both teams scored two touchdowns in the second half. Down by eight points, New Orleans got the ball back at its own 20 with 48 seconds left and no timeouts.
But on the second play in that drive, Panthers linebacker Jon Beason intercepted a Brees pass and the game was over.
The Panthers were far from perfect. Their defense allowed 486 yards. A shaky playcall and worse execution made the Panthers botch a fourth-and-inches from the New Orleans 4 in the second quarter, when Newton ended up losing a fumble on a desperation pitchout.
But Carolina showed resilience after that, with most of the major mistakes belonging to New Orleans. The Saints completely forgot to cover Steve Smith on one play, and the wide receiver turned it into a 66-yard gain.
Although Brees was sacked only once, Carolina kept good pressure on him and forced him to hurry a number of throws. “Our defense made some amazing plays today,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “They were our spark.”
Godfrey’s interception was widely agreed upon afterward as the game-changer. “I can’t tell you how huge that was,” Gross said. “It was like, ‘Oh – so Drew Brees is not invincible.’ ”
By the end, when Beason bookended Godfrey’s interception with one of his own to ensure the victory, the sun had finally arrived.
The Panthers haven’t arrived themselves yet. They still have a ways to go. But this Sunday at least fans could see the destination they have in mind.
Scott Fowler: email@example.com; Twitter:@Scott_Fowler