Hard Work And A Little Luck Have Panthers At 7-3
The red-hot Carolina Panthers have somehow won six games in a row. Their latest win came in dramatic and controversial fashion on Monday Night Football. With under a minute left in regulation and trailing by four points, legendary QB Tom Brady was leading a New England Patriots drive down the field, just as he had done so many times during the Bill Belichick era. The suddenly renowned Carolina defense looked like it might be on its last leg. It came down to one last play. Brady, at the Carolina 18, stepped up and heaved the ball into the endzone, only to be intercepted by safety Robert Lester in the front end of the endzone.
The underthrown pass was intended for imposing New England TE Rob Gronkowski, who got tangled up with Panthers star LB Luke Kuechly deep in the endzone. Immediately after the play, back judge Terrence Miles threw a flag for pass interference. However, after Miles conferred with the other officials, referee Clete Blackmore announced that there was no penalty. And suddenly the Carolina Panthers were 7-3.
The messy conclusion spawned a handful of storylines for the two teams and the NFL as a whole. Brady, Belichick and (hilariously) backup QB Ryan Mallet were visibly upset with the call. Analysts, many of whom were former players, were also unhappy that pass interference was not called. But as inflexible people always say, rules are rules. The rule that pertained to that particular play was Rule Eight, Section Five, Article Three, which reads:
“Article Three Permissible Acts by both teams while the ball is in the air. Acts that are permissible by a player include, but are not limited to:
(c) Contact that would normally be considered pass interference, but the pass is clearly uncatchable by the involved players, except as specified in 8-3-2 and 8-5-4 pertaining to blocking downfield by the offense.”
The key word in that passage is “uncatchable”. According to Blackmore and the rest of the officials, despite what Miles initially thought, Brady’s pass was uncatchable due to where Gronkowski was standing in the endzone. They asserted that whether Kuechly was hanging on him or not, Gronkowski’s positioning would have made it impossible for him to physically get to the ball that Brady underthrew. For the Patriots, it is a tough pill to swallow but to the letter of the rule, it is fair.
For a team to win six games in a row in a league as talented and competitive as the NFL, it usually takes a little bit of luck. Some days, you would rather be lucky than good but against New England, the Panthers were both.
QB Cam Newton, who has been excellent over the last six games, had another strong performance, particularly on the ground. Newton was solid in the air too, throwing for 209 yards and three touchdowns, but he ran for an impressive 62 yards. On four separate occasions, he ran on third down and converted. Three of the four were dazzling, winding scrambles where he ran for three times as many yards than he actually gained. WRs Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell as well as TE Greg Olsen all had good games, each recording four receptions or more apiece. But it was the unsung Ted Ginn Jr. who caught the game-winning touchdown pass.
Defensively, the Panthers front seven continued to do what it does best by making it very difficult for the Patriots to move the ball and put points on the board for much of the game. They held the Patriots to just three points at halftime. When Brady threw a short touchdown strike to Gronkowski in the third quarter, it was the first touchdown that Carolina had allowed in eight consecutive quarters. The Patriots offense pushed back more in the second half, but the defense did enough to win the game.
The win was the Panthers’ second close win in a row, and it was also their second win in a row over a team vying for a playoff spot. Next, they face the Miami Dolphins, a team that looked strong at the beginning of the season when the Panthers were struggling. Since then though, Miami has been mediocre, inconsistent and scandalous. The Panthers probably will not need the luck they had against the Patriots for that game, but it definitely never hurts.