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For a moment, it looked like everything would end Thursday night for the Carolina Panthers. There were three minutes left against New Orleans, and the Panthers’ Super Bowl odds couldn’t have looked any more grim.
Luke Kuechly was out with what turned out to be a concussion, while Ryan Kalil had been sidelined as a result of a shoulder injury. They couldn’t even rely on Gino Gradkowski, not with his knee injury.
And when all seemed lost, Cam Newton suddenly stepped up, threw a bullet to Kelvin Benjamin over the middle for an 18-yard gain, and gave the Panthers hope for the season.
Newton’s play made it possible to run all but 14 seconds off the clock. Their 23-20 victory was very hard-won, and it moved them within two games of Atlanta in the NFC South. For many Panthers fans and players, it was like a breath of fresh air, that moment when they knew that they could hold on to their lead and slide across the finish line victorious.
Close games haven’t really favored the Panthers this season, and their 4-6 record says as much. They have incurred a number of losses because of a field goal. Their match against the Kansas City Chiefs might have been a low point, blowing 17-3 lead in the fourth quarter as a three-game winning streak came to an end.
Newton’s big play couldn’t have come at a better moment. Newton completed just 42 percent of his passes on that night his worst percentage since 2011. But Newton still got the job done, assuring fans that the team still had their sights set on the goal.
Very few people actually believe that the Panthers can achieve a third consecutive division title. But there is still hope, and they kept that hope alive on Thursday.
Benjamin, in particular, deserves appreciation for keeping possession long enough to prevent New Orleans’ Drew Brees from doing his magic at the end of the game. The Panthers needed to bleed the clock, and Benjamin was smart enough to do just that.
The victory wasn’t as joyous as the Panthers might have wanted, not with the injuries of Kuechly and Kalil. Kuechly, in particular, knocked the joy out of the win with the way he was crying as they carted him off the field.
The Panthers defense really stepped up, though. The Saints entered the week leading the NFL in total offense, yet the Panthers dominated defensively in ways they hadn’t done in their previous games.
They knew that they had to contain Brees and they did just that, sacking him three times and intercepting him once, forcing him to fumble to set up a field goal. Things only really took a dark turn when the injuries began mounting, making it that much more difficult for the Panthers to deliver on both sides of the ball.