by Anthony Harrison
Allow me to frame the Dec. 20 game against the New York Giants with propaganda-esque positivity: This is what the 2015 Carolina Panthers are all about.
An ugly win. Scramblin’ Cam. A slapdash receiving corps. Clutch play down the stretch. Pounding against adversity. And occasional, quiet dignity from players like kicker Graham “Golden Toe” Gano.
It’s funny what the game came down to, considering how the first half went.
The game started out great. Weird, but great.
Cornerback and possible Defensive Player of the Year candidate Josh Norman is a weird dude. He’s my favorite type of athlete: a brash eccentric. Apparently, he psyches himself into big games against the best wide receivers by watching intense movies for hours and meditating on them.
I wonder what he watched in preparation for his matchup with Giants wideout Odell Beckham Jr.
Norman started the grudge match. After Beckham threw some push-offs at the Panthers cornerback in the fifth play from scrimmage, they got tied up at the end of play, and Norman threw Beckham to the ground, with the latter shrugging at the officials all the way down.
Norman was not flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct — a penalty which, had the officials not had their heads up their asses, could have nipped the mashup in the bud. If Norman had been punished for unnecessary play, Beckham might have felt vindicated.
But then, OBJ got nasty with his flustered retaliation.
“He just put his fingers in [Norman’s] mouth,” my sister Hannah said as yet another early facemask went unnoticed by the officials.
Eventually, Beckham logged three personal fouls and, until his late-game “heroics,” cost his team more yards than he gained. And he should’ve been flagged for more, but the officials hesitated to intervene. The blame for this notorious scuffle falls on them, too.
Bottom line: I used to really like OBJ. He shows tremendous talent and potential. I still think he’s the best young receiver in the NFL. But now, he’s shown an unhinged side which taints my view of him. Shoves, swipes, trips and especially rushing helmet hits get dangerous, not just for the player at the business end of them, but for the team’s chances and the game itself. He went over the line even in an inherently violent sport like football.
With Norman closing out on Beckham, Giants quarterback Eli Manning had to rely largely on his running backs. And while the Panthers couldn’t seem to halt the rush, the Giants only recorded one touchdown in the first half.
Meanwhile, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton led his offense on a tear where they’ve rarely looked better.
Cam picked up more rushing yardage in one play than he’d picked up in the entire game against the Atlanta Falcons — a lot more yards. His 47-yard dash stands as the longest running play of the season for the Panthers.
I cheered him on, as did many in the Carolinas, but he couldn’t hear us from our living rooms and taverns.
Cam didn’t quite make the touchdown, but it was a good move. He got into the Giants’ heads.
The whole Panthers offense did just that for the first half. And most of the third quarter.
But then, a switched flipped.
It started almost immediately after Panthers head coach Ron Rivera benched Newton with a 35-7 lead. Newton had been banged up on a play, and they rested him with ice on his knee.
It’s like the Giants saw that and thought two things: “This game isn’t over yet, jerks,” and, “This is the moment to come back.”
And they did just that. Unbelievably, they nearly orchestrated the greatest comeback in recent NFL history.
Eli’s been known for fourth-quarter stunners, but he moved the ball downfield with absurd confidence, finally linking up with OBJ. The latter seemed to have finally wrenched Norman out of his mind, calm the hell down and, in that, put his team back in the game.
Disaster struck about halfway through the fourth after Giants cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie blocked a Gano field goal attempt. Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara would have scored a touchdown but for quick thinking from Golden Toe Gano, who somehow had the frame of mind to tackle the bastard.
Then, a miracle: Panthers cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman, who’d missed the past few games due to injury, made a run-ending interception in the end zone.
Soon after, another disaster.
With Jonathan Stewart out with a sprained foot, Panthers rookie running back Cameron Artis-Payne picked up some of the slack in the ground game. He made two big back-to-back plays early in the last quarter, proving the Panthers’ depth extends outside of the wideout corps.
But then, he showed his inexperience when he and Cam shared a wonky fumble deep in their own territory due to miscommunication on a read-option play.
At that point, I grabbed a wooden spoon from the kitchen and, afraid that I may suffer some kind of seizure, clenched it firmly in my teeth for the rest of the game.
No matter what, though, the Panthers never lost their heads. And, after the quick, final drive in the last minute and a half of the game, with clutch play after clutch play from the usual suspects, they came out on top.
To me, that signals the ethic of champions.
The Panthers’ ability to keep pounding, no matter what they face or even what the cost may be, is nearly frightening.
Maintaining perfection and barring disaster, they may slay more giants than those playing out of East Rutherford, N.J.