by Anthony Harrison
Y’all. We need to talk about the Carolina Panthers.
First things first: A lot of cool sporting events happened in the Triad last weekend. Greensboro Roller Derby had its final home bout. Lake Higgins staff stocked a pond with delicious trout and let anglers keep their catch in Greensboro. RJ Reynolds High School hosted the seventh annual Matthew Gfeller Memorial Doughnut Run in Winston-Salem and Gillespie Golf Course in Greensboro had a 5K spread over an obstacle course. There were even freakin’ chariot races at UNCG for Classics Day.
But you know what’s really awesome?
The Panthers are undefeated, nine games into the season, after beating the Tennessee Titans 27-10 on Nov. 15.
In the 20 years of the franchise’s existence, no Panthers team has even gotten close to a perfect record. Not the second year, when the Panthers went 12-4 and made it to the NFC Championship game. Not in 2003, when the original Cardiac Cats went to the Super Bowl, losing to the New England Patriots off a ball-breaking 54-yard field goal. Not in 2011, after Carolina drafted quarterback Cam Newton, who broke record after record in his rookie campaign.
And definitely not last season, but let’s ignore that weirdness.
No, the best start the Panthers have experienced up until now is 5-0, back in 2003. As mentioned, the Panthers went to the Super Bowl that year.
This season, I’ve done my best to catch every Panthers game, and almost all have been thrillers to the very end.
And that’s why I’ve deemed this team “Cardiac Cats 2.0.”
In Week 6, the Cats came back in the fourth quarter to stun the Seattle Seahawks at home. A few people may have poo-poohed the win, saying the 2-3 Seahawks were weak.
But we’re talking about the defending NFC champions. At home.
The Seattle crowd is notoriously intimidating; twice they’ve been logged by the Guinness Book of World Records as creating the loudest crowd noise in sporting history, most recently at 137.6 decibels during a Monday-night game against the Saints in 2013.
Despite all expectations, the Panthers finished on top in the fourth, 27-23.
Next, the Panthers took on the Philadelphia Eagles. Routine win at home, aside from some spooky moments.
The real fun started when the Indianapolis Colts came down to Charlotte in a Monday-night matchup for the ages.
If you didn’t catch it, let me say this: The final score is only half the story.
I watched the game at Natty Greene’s in Greensboro with Triad City Beat Associate Editor Eric Ginsburg, and we were practically the only people upstairs for much of the time. Most of the game, the Panthers’ pass rush absolutely destroyed QB Andrew Luck with five sacks and two interceptions, forcing one of the worst games in Luck’s career and securing a 23-6 lead in the fourth quarter. The bartender started closing shop, stacking chairs as we watched.
But when the rain stopped pouring, Luck and Indianapolis turned on. And they scored two touchdowns on a weary defensive line.
Eric and I were reasonably stressed.
“Dude, if this goes into overtime, we’re gonna have to leave,” Eric said. “I’m not keeping them here late.”
Sure enough, the Colts scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, capped by a field goal around midnight, forcing overtime.
Some fans were watching at the downstairs bar — mostly employees — so despite Eric’s earlier protest, we joined them for the grueling extra periods.
I suffered an elaborate series of heart-attack scares as both teams marched downfield for field goals. And then Carolina linebacker and demigod Luke Kuechly made an interception in the end zone.
Eric will back me up: I ran down the bar, past the front counter and outside, then ran back in, jumping in his arms, screaming triumphantly.
We won that game 29-26 on a long field goal by kicker Graham Gano.
Six days later, we beat the formidable Green Bay Packers, the best team we’ve faced yet, but not before a fourth-quarter rally kept hearts in Panthers fans’ throats.
But another clutch interception in the red zone — this time by linebacker Thomas Davis Sr. — made all the difference.
After that, I was in shock, sitting on my couch, expecting the game to keep going after the commercial break following the broadcast of the final score: 37-29, Panthers.
This should not be happening.
The Panthers have suffered injuries, one taking out star wide-receiver Kelvin Benjamin for the season. Killa Cam isn’t putting up elite numbers as a QB. And they’ve blown huge leads. They’re inconsistent, too.
But one thing is consistent: They keep winning.
The Titans game on Sunday was a classically ugly, brutal Panther victory marked by flashes of brilliance and stultifying foibles. They rushed for over 100 yards. Cam threw 21-for-26 and ran in — or dribbled in — a touchdown. Tight end Greg Olsen may exist on a higher plane than most humans: He averaged for 10 yards on his eight catches, including a spellbinding one-hander. And the defensive line shut down Tennessee in the second half.
That’s called finishing.
But this was supposed to be a blowout.
Defensive holes, the Titans pass rush and a costly block in the back canceling out punt returner Ted Ginn Jr.’s touchdown kept the victory from being an easy one.
You hate it as a fan, but you love the guys. The ends justify all means and mistakes.
The Panthers may not win out for the season — they have a tough rematch at New Orleans and two games with Atlanta, and there are no gimmes in the NFL — but for now, they’re one of only two undefeated teams in the league.
The other is the New England Patriots, perennial contenders and last year’s Super Bowl champs, who’ve handed Carolina their only “loss” this year in a 17-16 preseason matchup.
Cardiac Cats 2.0 is the kind of team they make movies and ESPN “30-for-30”s about: a ragtag bunch of outcasts, has-beens and ringers coming together against all odds to beat the Bad Guys.
I want to see a rematch of the 2003 Super Bowl.
If it happens, the Panthers will keep pounding all the way there.