The roulette wheel season of the Carolina Panthers took two spins for the good Sunday, as the Panthers edged Cleveland, 17-13, and Atlanta beat New Orleans.
Just like that, New Orleans was out of the NFC South race. The Panthers and Falcons will now play one game to decide the division next Sunday in Atlanta, with the winner hosting a playoff game in early January (likely against Green Bay, Detroit or Seattle) and the loser done for the season.
Carolina played a very unimpressive second half for the first 20 minutes, going down 13-10 when Cleveland's Brian Hoyer beat the Panthers on an 81-yard touchdown pass that shocked the stadium.
The Panthers, roused from their slumber, then came back on an excellent TD drive thanks mostly to quarterback Cam Newton, who scrambled around and hit Jonathan Stewart for a nine-yard TD pass that proved to be the improvisational difference. Cleveland got the ball back once, punted at midfield, and Carolina then ran out the clock thanks in large part to a big 30-yard Jonathan Stewart run.
I don't believe the game would have been nearly as close had Johnny Manziel stayed in it -- he made exactly one good throw during his time. But Manziel got hurt in the second quarter on a designed run when he was crushed by Carolina's Colin Jones and Luke Kuechly, and Hoyer came in and looked better. (Newton afterward said the Panther fans who cheered Manziel's injury were "classless" and that "We're better than that" -- he was absolutely right on both counts).
In the meantime, the Falcons went down 7-0 in the first 20 seconds, then scored 20 straight points and whipped the Saints, 30-14, in New Orleans. That knocked the Saints (6-9) out of the race. Carolina (6-8-1) and Atlanta (6-9) both stayed alive, with the Panthers now a few percentage points ahead in the standings entering the final week.
It was the Panthers' third straight win. Like last week against Tampa Bay, it wasn't very impressive. However, it again got the job done, leaving the Panthers a trip down I-85 next Sunday to decide the NFC South.
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