On a day where the Panthers seemed to be writing a rough draft of their personal history every few minutes, Carolina edged Jacksonville, 34-27, for its third win in a row.
This was a game with more thrills than a Scarowinds maze, as the Panthers alternately exhilarated and scared a crowd that hadn’t seen the home team win in Charlotte in 11 months.
Christian McCaffrey scored three more spectacular touchdowns and set a passel of new records; Ron Rivera became the winningest coach in Panthers history; rookie Brian Burns scored his first-ever NFL TD; Luke Kuechly made his 1,000th career tackle; four former Panthers greats were inducted into the team’s Hall of Honor at halftime. ... and still, it almost wasn’t enough.
Because there was Jacksonville’s mustachioed cult figure of a quarterback, Gardner Minshew, flinging the ball near Carolina’s end zone four times in the final 19 seconds in a valiant effort to tie the game and send it into overtime.
Carolina stopped the first three of those throws, only to have two of those not count due to defensive penalties. But on the final play, an untimed down from the Panthers’ 24 with the clock already reading 0:00, Kuechly batted down a ball he could have intercepted but chose not to.
That did it, as the Panthers (3-2) officially had a winning record for the first time in 2019. Carolina fans streamed out of the stadium, sweaty and relieved.
Even though Carolina never trailed, most of the game felt as dangerous as handling a copperhead.
Minshew was terrific whenever he wasn’t losing a fumble; he threw for 374 yards against a Panthers team that had ranked No. 1 in the NFL in passing yards allowed. Carolina’s proud defense came into the game allowing 287.5 total yards per game; it gave up 507.
Carolina quarterback Kyle Allen won his fourth straight start as an NFL quarterback (he’s 3-0 this year), even though he played a relatively quiet game with 181 passing yards and couldn’t locate tight end Greg Olsen even once.
“It helps when you rush for 285 yards, I’ll say that,” Allen said. “I don’t know — I mean, it’s cool.”
And it was cool for Carolina, a team that was 0-2 and had a star quarterback with a bum foot and a coaching staff on the hot seat only three weeks ago.
Then Allen subbed in for Cam Newton, everyone else started playing a little better and the Panthers’ fortunes suddenly changed. The Panthers will leave for London Wednesday — their first overseas game ever, next Sunday against Tampa Bay, with a chance to win their fourth consecutive contest.
You would certainly assume Allen will start that one in jolly old England, too. The Panthers then have a bye on Oct. 20, so a plausible scenario would have Newton returning from his foot injury on Oct. 27 for Carolina’s road game against San Francisco.
Christian McCaffrey was the headliner for the Panthers once again Sunday (it’s only news anymore when he isn’t). McCaffrey somersaulted his way for one TD, sprinted 84 yards for another, caught an 18-yard pass for a third and gave a lot of orthopedic surgeons in Jacksonville some extra business Monday with all the Jaguar players’ ankles that he broke.
The Panthers kept running basically the same misdirection play with McCaffrey, and it just kept working. In the open field, he is like catching a cloud.
Still, McCaffrey was human, leaving the game with 237 yards from scrimmage (tying his own franchise record) deep in the fourth quarter because of that most human of ailments: cramps.
That pushed the Panthers to use backup tailback Reggie Bonnafon, who promptly broke free on a 59-yard TD run of his own. Add in Burns’ strip-sack on Jacksonville’s penultimate possession and then Kuechly’s bat-down on the game’s last play, and it was just barely enough.
“I’m just very fortunate,” Rivera said afterward. The Panthers coach was talking about himself — his records, his family, his players.
But he could have been speaking for the whole stadium at Bank of America on Sunday. It all could have worked out differently, but it didn’t.
The Panthers were fortunate. But they’ve also become pretty good, as a season that was in danger of going down the tubes early now promises to be interesting until the end.