The Panthers entered the second half of their season with a 5-3 record and two very difficult opponents on the horizon. Carolina would have to play at San Francisco -- the defending NFC champions -- and follow that up with a rare "Monday Night Football" appearance against New England.
The Panthers won both games, taking two big steps in their ascendancy toward an eventual first-round playoff bye. When you talk to Panthers players now, you understand that those two games proved something to a team that still didn't quite know how good it was.
The games were very different. The San Francisco game was a classic defensive battle, with only one touchdown -- a DeAngelo Williams 27-yard rushing TD -- scored the entire 60 minutes. The Panthers got a 53-yard field goal from Graham Gano for the game's final points early in the fourth quarter, then repeatedly stuffed quarterback Colin Kaepernick, sacking him six times in a 10-9 win.
That set up the home game against New England, the preeminent NFL team for most of the last decade. It turned out to be one of the most dramatic games Carolina has ever played.
Cam Newton led a tremendous 83-yard drive capped by a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. to give Carolina a 24-20 lead with 59 seconds left to play. Then Tom Brady came storming back, giving longtime Panthers fan nightmarish visions of a certain Super Bowl played 10 years before.
With 0:03 left at the Panthers 18, Brady threw to the end zone. Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly hugged New England tight end Rob Gronkowski like they had just seen each other for the first time in 10 years at a family reunion.
Panthers safety Robert Lester intercepted the under-thrown ball. An official threw a flag to call pass interference on Kuechly. It looked like the Patriots would get one final play at Carolina's 1. But after a huddle the officials waved it off, basically saying "Gronk" wouldn't have caught the ball anyway -- it was not catchable.
I later asked Panthers fans to name this play. Some of the best choices: "Immaculate Perception," "The Man Hug," "Gronkitis" and "Robbed Gronkowski."
With no time to rest, the Panthers flew to Miami and played average football for most of the afternoon. With the Panthers facing a fourth-and-10 from their own 20, trailing 16-13 and in desperate need of a big play, "Riverboat Ron" went for it again.
What came next was later voted in a poll I took of Panthers players as the season's most important single play: Steve Smith ran a slant route, grabbed a pass between two Miami defenders, pinballed through both of them and gained 19 yards to pick up the first down. Carolina would eventually finish off the drive with a TD and win, 20-16.
After those three heart-stoppers, the Panthers' final win in their eight-game streak was pedestrian -- a 27-6 home whipping of over-matched Tampa Bay.
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