Fun & Games: Paw Prints, Divisional Round: Team of destiny

1
125

by Anthony Harrison

Over the weekend, I saw something that pissed me off.

I absorbed as many written and video previews of the Jan. 17 Seattle Seahawks-Carolina Panthers game as humanly possible. One of them was from NFL Now, featuring retired Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew and host Marc Istook.

Jones-Drew didn’t seem to acknowledge the Panthers as a threat.

“They’re gonna have a lead in the fourth quarter, Marc,” Jones-Drew said of the sixth-seeded Seahawks. “I’m not psychic, but I can feel it. The defense has got to be able to hold this lead.”

Finally, Istook asked bluntly, “Who wins this game, though?”

A pensive beat from MJD. He wanted to be right.

“Seattle’s gonna win this one,” he replied. “They’re gonna find a way to win it. They’re a team of destiny.”

After that last line, I shouted something unprintable at my phone and shut it down.

But after watching that preview, anxiety mounted in my mind until I sat down at my friend Lamar’s house to watch the game.

Thankfully, none of MJD’s predictions came true.

[Courtesy Panthers.com]
JStew [Courtesy Panthers.com]
First play from scrimmage: Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart — the man we’ve missed so dearly since his high-ankle sprain over a month ago — returned with a vengeance, sprinting on a 59-yard tear and igniting the Charlotte crowd, not to mention Lamar, his girlfriend Roody, TCB’s own Eric Ginsburg and myself.

Three plays later, Stewart dashed into the end zone with only two-and-a half minutes off the clock.

By the end of it, Stewart tallied 106 rushing yards and another touchdown; thus, he alone could have maintained Carolina’s 28-game streak of 100-plus rush yards per game, the longest active streak in the past 40 years.

So much for Seattle stopping the run.

Adding insult to early injury, most of the Panthers defensive line joined to stop Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, himself back from a long convalescence, for a loss of a few yards.

On the second Seattle play, the miracle: Following immense pressure from defensive tackle/sack machine Kawann Short, Carolina linebacker/demigod Luke Kuechly snatched an interception, which he ran 14 yards for another touchdown.

Words cannot capture the hype at Lamar’s. Jumping out of seats, smacking high-fives, the concept of inside voices lost in the mania.

Carolina had tacked on two unanswered touchdowns against perhaps their bitterest rival outside their division. And four minutes hadn’t even passed in the game.

The Panthers were dominant in the first half. There is no other word more accurately encapsulating their performance.

And the whole team dominated.

Jerricho Cotchery [courtesy Panthers.com]
Jerricho Cotchery [courtesy Panthers.com]
Of course, quarterback “Killa” Cam Newton launched laser beams and scrambled for yards and downs fantastically. Tight end/Norse god of war Greg Olsen caught anything thrown near him, including an absolute stunner of a touchdown reception. Not one to rest on laurels, Kuechly plastered the ’Hawks with eight combined tackles in the first half alone. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan, a free agent Carolina signed when Charles Tillman got sidelined mid-season, picked off a brilliant interception, once again proving his worth. Wide-out Jerricho Cotchery made those important little plays I appreciate so much — mark my words, Cotchery may make a play securing the Lombardi Trophy.

But, though I love the man, we didn’t hear a peep from wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., who Jones-Drew and others believed could clinch Carolina’s victory. Strangely enough, he once carried the ball for 11 yards, which isn’t his métier.

Cross out MJD’s X-factor.

This spellbinding play by our boys in white and blue led to 31 points at halftime for the Panthers — the highest-scoring half in franchise history. The Seahawks had laid a goose egg.

That would soon change.

Directly out of the locker room, Seattle played like they were gonna find a way to win it, shoving the Panthers into a defensive stance despite the padded lead.

Josh Norman sacks Russell Wilson. [courtesy Panthers.com]
Josh Norman sacks Russell Wilson. [courtesy Panthers.com]
Their defense halted a dynamic, seemingly unstoppable Panthers offense. Carolina couldn’t even maneuver into field-goal range, while the Seahawks defibrillated a dead drive with a faked punt. And Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson ceased giving Carolina picks, instead chucking bombs into the end zone and reassembling broken plays with his legs.

The mood at Lamar’s shifted from joy to nervousness, but we joked as Roody napped on a sofa.

“Seattle dosed up on speed like Nazis on the Eastern Front,” I said. “Keeps them aggressive.”

“Just a touch of Adderall,” Lamar said.

“Or a gram,” I retorted.

“Did Carolina get high in the locker room or something?” Eric later asked, jokingly.

“Oh, yeah,” Lamar replied. “Look at him,” he said, pointing to a close-up of Newton on the sideline with a slack look on his face. “Stoned out of his mind.”

This game exposed one of Carolina’s only inconsistencies: Finishing. Looking forward, if the Cats start a game as explosively as they did against the Seahawks, they must reserve some of that momentum for the second half, especially against teams as resilient as the Arizona Cardinals, Denver Broncos or New England Patriots.

Yet time was not on Seattle’s side.

While I was still anxious, I kept my eye on the game clock and the play clock and realized there was no way the ’Hawks could win.

“They’re taking too long to make plays,” I mused aloud about halfway through the fourth quarter. “There’s no way they can come back if they don’t play hurry-up.”

They didn’t enter panic mode until their final possession, and the Carolina defense held them to a field goal with a minute remaining.

A blind man could see the imminent onside kick.

But then, a man with a thrice-busted knee performed another miracle.

Thomas Davis defies understanding. [courtesy Panthers.com]
Thomas Davis defies understanding. [courtesy Panthers.com]
Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis didn’t recover the onside kick as it skittered into Panthers territory. No, Davis just straight-up snatched the pigskin out of the damn air as the shallow punt fell, careening over Seattle fullback Derrick Coleman as he crashed to the ground.

But he kept the ball.

The play was unbelievable, but if you believed anyone could do it, it would be Davis, the pounding heart and soul of the Panthers.

If you want to know how words taste, maybe you should ask Maurice Jones-Drew. While we were right to fear the Seattle Seahawks — who, granted, appeared in the last two Super Bowls and won the first of those visits — our Carolina Panthers are the team of destiny.

I’m not psychic, but I can feel it.

  • Marc Istook

    Great article. What can I say – the Panthers came out and owned the Hawks. This team is starting to feel more and more like that early championship Patriots team, the one that nobody believed in and yet they kept winning, week after week, until they took home the Lombardi. Gonna be fun watching this one play out.