ATLANTA — The Carolina Panthers got everything they wanted Sunday – a first-round playoff bye and at least one guaranteed home playoff game Jan.11 or 12.
And they got it in their typically unnerving fashion, as the “Cardiac Cats 2.0” played yet another game not decided until the final seconds. This one they won, 21-20, at Atlanta to finish 12-4 and clinch the NFC South division on the final day of the regular season.
Said Panther quarterback Cam Newton: “This team is kind of like duct tape. It’s not pretty when it goes on – but it gets the job done.”
That the Panthers did. Although few plays from this game deserve to be hung on a wall, the season as a whole deserves a prominent display in the Panthers’ trophy case. The Panthers started 1-3 and then won 11 of their last 12 games, rocketing to their first playoff appearance since the 2008 season.
Carolina ends up seeded No.2 in the NFC playoffs, behind No.1 Seattle. If both the Panthers and Seattle win on the Jan.11-12 weekend – game times and opponents have not yet been determined – Carolina will have to beat the Seahawks in Seattle on Jan.19 to advance to the Super Bowl.
If the Seahawks are upset Jan.11 or 12 and the Panthers win their first playoff game that same weekend, Charlotte would host the NFC championship for the first time ever.
The Super Bowl is Feb. 2 in New Jersey. To win their first-ever Super Bowl, the Panthers now need to win three straight games. About 7,000 individual playoff tickets for the home game Jan. 11 or 12 in Charlotte go on sale Wednesday.
“We’re going to keep going and ride this wave to the Super Bowl,” Panther cornerback Captain Munnerlyn proclaimed in a jubilant Carolina locker room after the game. “Oh yeah, that’s the goal. The first goal was to make the playoffs. The second goal was to win the division. And now it’s to win the Super Bowl. All we have to do is keep winning, keep winning, keep winning.”
On Sunday, the Panthers’ victory came mostly because of a defense that resembled a hammer. It nailed Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan by sacking him a Carolina-record nine times, including a team-record four from defensive end Greg Hardy.
But Carolina never lets its fans rest easy these days. The Panthers have won five games by four points or fewer in November and December.
“Hey, we find a way to win,” Panther linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “That’s all that matters. We like to keep it interesting.”
The Panther offense badly missed its best wide receiver in Steve Smith – who might be back for the playoffs and did show up Sunday to be what he called the “ugliest cheerleader” in Atlanta.
With Smith sidelined, quarterback Cam Newton had to run for many of Carolina’s big plays. The quarterback also threw two short touchdown passes, to Greg Olsen and Ted Ginn Jr. That and rookie cornerback Melvin White’s eight-yard interception return for a touchdown provided exactly enough points to beat an Atlanta team that only a year ago had made it to the NFC title game itself.
One of the biggest plays of the game actually was helped along by the Panthers’ tremendous fan support. Perhaps 5,000 Panther fans showed up in the Georgia Dome, but they were very loud.
“It was crazy,” Munnerlyn said. “We were out there on defense and I heard, “Dee-fense. Dee-fense.” I looked to the side and it’s our fans.”
On the Falcons’ final offensive series, Atlanta needed only a field goal to win and had time to get it. In a similar situation against Carolina one year ago in the same building, the Falcons had done exactly that following a 59-yard pass from their own 1-yard line.
But this time, with a first-and-10 at the Atlanta 43 and 31 seconds left, Ryan started worriedly pointing out a possible Panther blitz before the shotgun snap to some of his teammates.
Atlanta center Joe Hawley, though, was confused by the crowd noise and snapped the ball while Ryan was looking elsewhere. The Falcons lost 16 yards on the play and, very quickly after that, the clock ran out.
“It was loud at that time and he heard something else,” Ryan said of his center.
Do you get it, though?
Panther fans actually affected a game – on the road. That hardly ever happens anywhere in the NFL.
“It felt like a home game for us,” Panther center Ryan Kalil said. “I’d seen that in years past, but mostly in our stadium, when Washington or Pittsburgh fans or somebody come in there and buy a lot of tickets.”
So the Panthers’ thrill ride continues for at least two more weeks as the team prepares for the upcoming home playoff game and perhaps, much more.
As Newton said following the game after thanking team owner Jerry Richardson and all the club’s fans: “We were past due for a win like this and a season like this. Like we said in that locker room, it’s not sufficient to end this season like this. We’ve got a lot of hungry guys yearning to make this season even better… and we’re not done yet.”
Fowler: 704-358-5140; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @scott_fowler