Panther fans everywhere exhaled Sunday about 4 p.m. and said, “Now that’s more like it.”
Carolina had laid an egg in its first game – a 16-10 road loss to Tampa. But the Panthers rebounded with a flourish Sunday, beating New Orleans, 35-27, in their home opener to get to 1-1 with a winnable home game against the New York Giants on Thursday night.
What changed? Here’s a quick list:
-- The Panthers’ defense finally forced a turnover -- two, in fact. After not getting any takeaways against Tampa Bay, Charles Godfrey intercepted Drew Brees (under heavy pressure from Charles Johnson) in the first quarter at the Saints 9 and galloped into the end zone. That tied the game at 7-all and made it obvious it would be competitive. This was roundly described as the play of the game in the Panther locker room afterward.
Then Jon Beason intercepted Brees again late on the Saints' final drive to seal the game.
-- The Panthers remembered Cam Newton – and the team in general – can run.
After tying a franchise low with 10 rushing yards against the Bucs, the Panthers got four times that on one 40-yard Newton rush off an option play. They ran for 219 yards and three rushing touchdowns, which meant extended drives and fewer possessions for Brees. The offensive line deserves big credit here.
-- The Panthers got a strong pass rush to bother Brees. Johnson and Greg Hardy both pressured Brees several times, including Johnson’s great pressure on Godfrey’s interception and a Hardy pressure that caused an intentional grounding and moved the Saints out of field-goal range. Thomas Davis also knocked him down on a blitz. No.9 is going to be very sore.
-- Cam Newton. Other than one lost fumble, he had a superb game, throwing and running with abandon. It looked a lot more like last year. Newton ended up with a QB rating of 129.2.
-- Resilience. The Panthers made a boneheaded play early on a fourth-and-inches, when instead of having Newton run a quarterback sneak they tried another option that resulted in a lost fumble (and it was a called option play -- Newton said so after the game). But they forgot about that one quickly and from then on the major mistakes seemed to belong to the Saints – including forgetting to cover Steve Smith on one play that turned into a 66-yard completion.
-- Brandon LaFell and Steve Smith. Both had more than 100 combined yards, with LaFell’s coming early when Smith and Greg Olsen were mostly being neutralized by the Saints. LaFell is known as a deep threat but was more of a possession receiver in this game, while Smith had two catches of 35 yards or longer.