CHARLOTTE — Twenty-five minutes into Sunday’s game against the Falcons, the Carolina Panthers appeared lifeless. Two Jonathan Stewart fumbles gave Atlanta an early 10-0 lead.
“That was unlike Stew,” quarterback Cam Newton said. “It just got us out of our rhythm.”
With the home crowd booing the playcalling, the Falcons received a punt and moved into Carolina territory once again, poised to add a third score to their tally. The Panthers needed some type of a spark.
“When the Panthers are emotionless, good things don’t happen,” Newton said. “Whether you’ve got to fake it or do whatever you need to do, if we can get Bank of America Stadium with a pulse, that’s when we’re at our best.”
That spark came, as it has so many times this year, from the Panthers’ defense.
Thinking knockout touchdown, Atlanta went for it on fourth-and-1 from the Carolina 35. Safety Kurt Coleman and linebacker Thomas Davis were able to stuff running back Devonta Freeman for no gain, however, giving the Panthers the ball.
“Any time a team goes for it on fourth-and-one, to me it’s a sign of disrespect,” defensive end Charles Johnson said. “I look at it as that, and we came out on top.”
“It’s just a sense of pride around here, man. Those guys challenged us, and you’ve got to step up,” said tackle Kawann Short. “That’s what we do around here.”
“We want to get the ball back to our offense as much as we can,” defensive tackle Kyle Love said. “Those third-and-1, fourth-and-1 stops are big for us. The more we put the ball in the offense’s hands and put them in scoring position is big for us.”
Newton moved the offense 65 yards in three plays, finishing off the touchdown drive with an impressive pitch to Christian McCaffrey for a 6-yard score.
“Those are champion-type characteristics,” Newton said. “We got a little 10-point swing right there.”
That put the defense back on center stage.
“Any time the offense puts up points, that’s a big boost for us,” Johnson said. “Then the defense can go out there, do their thing and get ball back to offense.”
Sure enough, Mike Adams picked off a Matt Ryan pass on the second Falcons snap.
“They ran that play earlier, and Julio (Jones) was open,” Adams said. “I knew he was open, and I knew they were going to come back to it. … It was perfect timing. I knew with two minutes, they would come back to that play. I just jumped it.”
“It’s crazy, because the guys were just talking in the huddle and said we needed a turnover,” Johnson said. “Then we came out and had one and put the offense in scoring position.”
After two McCaffery gains, Newton kept the ball on third down, diving and dunking the ball over the goal line, off an Atlanta defender’s helmet, to give the Panthers an improbable lead. It was a 14-0 run in 4:04 of game time.
The Panthers never trailed again and finished off a 20-17 victory that snapped a three-game losing streak to last season’s NFC champions. It also improved the Panthers to 6-3, a half a game out of the NFC South lead.
All it took was a bit of a spark, and then the offense and defense were able to feed off of each other.
“We knew what we were going to get from our defense,” Newton said. “Our defense has been consistently great and locked in all year. We knew if we gave those guys some type of pulse, some type of juice, they’d be able to pin their ears back.”