The Panthers finally broke one of the most curious streaks in their history Sunday. The only NFL team they had never beaten until Sunday was Miami, and it took all they had to grab a come-from-behind, 20-16 victory on the road.
In what was an often flat performance, the Panthers (8-3) did just enough to win their seventh straight game by going 80 yards on their last drive of the game when they absolutely had to have it. Here were 7 of the most notable reasons why they won:
1. 4th-and-10. On the Panthers' final drive, the most important play was a fourth-and-10 the team converted when Cam Newton hit Steve Smith in tight coverage. Smith bounced off two guys and gained 19.
2. The rest of that drive. Mike Tolbert, Newton, Greg Olsen (who had the one-yard touchdown catch pictured above), the offensive line -- it all came together at the end, and Miami's 15-yard late hit penalty on a Newton run didn't hurt. "One good drive can fix a lot of problems," Olsen said afterward.
3. End of first half. Although it will be overshadowed by that final drive, this was huge. Miami had the ball first-and-10 from the Carolina 11, already ahead 13-3. The Dolphins had to take a field goal -- Luke Kuechly had another controversial flag pickup in the end zone after jarring the ball loose -- and then Carolina drove down for its own field goal with Brandon LaFell's smart, get-out-of-bounds-at-just-the-right-time 29-yard grab to keep the halftime deficit at 16-6, far more manageable than 20-3 would have been.
4. Riverboat Ron. With Carolina facing a fourth-and-1 on its own 41 in the third quarter and down 16-6, Ron Rivera gambled big-time. The Panthers converted on a Newton run and eventually got a TD on an 83-yard drive (afterward, Newton purposely mimicked LeBron James' knee-lifting dance in tribute to LeBron, whom he counts as a friend). Newton also posed with Mike Shula and father Don -- the legendary former Dolphins coach, now 83 -- following the game (see the picture at end of this blog post).
5. Brad Nortman. The punter had a tremendous day, booming one big one after another in a game where field position really mattered.
6. Defensive stinginess. After allowing Miami such a big first half, the Panthers shut down Mike Wallace and company in the second half, doing just enough for Carolina to pull it off. Wallace nearly caught a Hail Mary that would have been a game-winner after safety Mike Mitchell for some reason allowed Wallace to get behind him on a play you simply can't let that happen, but Wallace dropped it. That's the way it is going for the Panthers this year -- part karma, part confidence, as I write in this column.
7. Close-call confidence. I don't think the Panthers would have won this one except for the fact they won in very similar circumstances against San Francisco and New England over the past two weeks. Close wins are contagious, just like close losses are.