It seemed like the same old story. The beginning was the same: a critical offensive error, a late punt, the defense holding a slim lead. The same nightmare was unfolding again in front of my very eyes, in the biggest of games, in the most critical of situations. As the opposing offense took the field, I cradled my head in my hands, praying desperately not to relive the torment and anguish of yesteryear. The story was the same, but the ending had changed.
Instead of crumbling in the face of pressure, the Carolina Panthers‘ defense rose to the occasion, finally finishing out a close game against a tough opponent. Instead starting on their heels and slowly backpedalling into the end zone, the Panthers’ defense pinned their ears back and attacked, sacking Colin Kaepernick on first down. That dazing blow sent the San Francisco 49ers into a state of confusion, burning nearly 25 seconds while lining up and putting pressure on Kaepernick to snap the ball. That pressure rattled Kaepernick, causing him to launch a prayer down field to be promptly intercepted.
So many times over the past two seasons, the Panthers melted down in the fourth quarter, failing to seal the game with their offense and subsequently falling apart on defense. The first part of that formula occurred when Cam Newton fumbled the snap on third down, but the defense prevented it from being completed.
This turnaround is a very promising sign for Carolina. They’ve already shown they can beat down inferior teams, but by beating the 49ers they’ve shown they can close out close games, win on the road and beat tough teams; three things an elite team must be able to do. It’s a little early to call the Panthers elite, but if they can win on Monday night, they will surely be deserving of that designation.