Carolina Panthers: Top 5 Games of the 2011 Season

Nader KtaitCorrespondent IIJuly 17, 2012

Carolina Panthers: Top 5 Games of the 2011 Season

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    Determining any team's five best games in an NFL season is a difficult task. In fact, there’s really no objective way of going about it. And yet, it still might be pretty fun to talk about.

    At the same time, there were definitely some undeniably great moments during the 2011 season for the Carolina Panthers. They had a new coaching staff, headed by Ron Rivera, and a new rookie quarterback, Cam Newton. And even though they didn't have a winning record or made a playoff appearance, they still managed to impress a lot of people.

    Here was the Panthers' 2011 schedule:

    Week 1 Arizona Cardinals L 28-21
    Week 2  Green Bay Packers L 30-23
    Week 3 Jacksonville Jaguars W 16-10
    Week 4 Chicago Bears L 34-29
    Week 5 New Orleans Saints L 30-27
    Week 6
    Atlanta Falcons L 31-17
    Week 7  Washington Redskins W 33-20
    Week 8 Minnesota Vikings L 24-21
    Week 9 Bye  
    Week 10 Tennessee Titans L 30-3
    Week 11 Detroit Lions L 49-35
    Week 12 Indianapolis Colts W 27-19
    Week 13 Tampa Bay Buccaneers W 38-19
    Week 14 Atlanta Falcons L 31-23
    Week 15 Houston Texans W 28-13
    Week 16 Tampa Bay Buccaneers W 48-16
    Week 17 New Orleans Saints L 45-17

    Keep in mind, when a team goes 6-10 in a season, you’re more than likely to pick some games that they didn’t win. Some of my picks were not just based on one criteria or another; they were based on particular events that I thought made games especially memorable.  

    Of course, not everyone will agree with my picks and that's okay; but feel to share which game you thought should be on the list.

@ Arizona

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    At first, I thought about leaving this game out, but then realized how ridiculous that would be. This was Newton’s first game, after all. 

    In Week 1 of the 2011 season, the Panthers traveled to the west coast to face the Arizona Cardinals. To note: the Cardinals had acquired Kevin Kolb not too long before the start of the season.

    Thus, this was an especially exciting game for both teams, as many fans gathered around to watch what the future entailed for their team's new quarterback. 

    Although both quarterbacks played well, one definitely stole the spotlight. 

    In his NFL debut, Newton set the record for the most passing yards by a rookie quarterback. Newton threw for 422 yards and two touchdowns, but Cam’s overall performance was not the only thing that made this game so exciting for Panther fans.

    Panther fans must have been ecstatic to see Steve Smith become a huge part of what made Newton so impressive in this game. In Newton’s first scoring drive as an NFL quarterback, he threw a pass to Smith for a 77-yard touchdown.

    Smith had a total 178 yards and two touchdowns (to note, Smith had a total of two touchdowns throughout the whole 2010 season), and well on his way to becoming a star receiver in the NFL once again.

    The Panthers took the lead shortly before the first half in this game, but in the third quarter, Kolb thew a 48-yard pass to former Panther tight end, Jeff King, for a touchdown. The Panthers fired back with Newton’s first rushing touchdown, but after that, it was all Arizona.

    The Panthers lost their first game against Arizona, 23-30. Credit should have been given to Arizona’s defense, as they stopped Mike Goodson just a few yards from the goal line on fourth down late in the game. Cardinals linebacker Paris Lenon tackled Goodson about a half-yard short of the first down.

    Despite what Newton’s critics had said about him and his ability to become an NFL quarterback, Cam displayed some excellent pocket presence and threw the ball quite accurately in his very first game.

    Even though the Panthers lost the game, there had to have been a lot of optimism. At this point, the players, coaches and fans believed that the 2011 was not going to be a repeat of their 2-14 season the year before. 

Green Bay

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    The Panthers had a rough schedule. Aside from their division rivals, they had to play against several potential playoff teams. This particular game was against one of those teams.

    In the second week of the 2011 season, the Green Bay Packers traveled to Charlotte to face the Carolina Panthers in a very exciting matchup. This was the first home game for the Panthers and the first opportunity for Panther fans to see their new quarterback in action.

    At the time, the Packers were the defending Super Bowl champs and Newton had a lot on his plate. Newton not only had to prove that he could match his numbers from Week 1, but that he could find it in himself to compete against a very tough team.

    Newton did just that, again throwing for over 400 yards. His first touchdown in the game was a pass to Brandon LaFell in the end zone to give the Panthers a 7-0 lead.

    Of course, Aaron Rodgers was also pretty awesome. After falling behind two scores, the Packers began firing back. Rodgers threw the ball for over 300 yards and two touchdowns, and unlike Newton, didn't turn the ball over once. In Newton’s defense though, it was only the second game of his career. 

    Perhaps a big turning point of the game was a Panthers' turnover in the third quarter. Newton threw a long pass to Smith and Smith fumbled the ball as he tried to head out of bounds. Charles Woodson then recovered the ball.

    Turnovers weren't the only big problem in this game. Not only was the defense giving up too many yards, the Panthers' run-game was practically ineffective the entire game. Just like the week before, Newton was trying to force too many plays and ended up throwing three interceptions. 

    But at the same time, Newton was giving his team the best chance to win the game.

Washington

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    One might argue that the Jacksonville game should be included.

    Why? Because it was the Panthers’ first win. However, that game was sloppy. And by sloppy I’m not just referring to the weather (although the weather did play a huge part on how both sides played in the game. At times there was so much rain falling that the cameramen even had a hard time following the game), but plays which made both teams look like expansion clubs once again.   

    Instead, I choose another game, the Week 7 matchup with the Washington Redskins. 

    The Redskins actually started their season playing real well; however, as the Panther game got closer, they were dealing with some major changes at quarterback.

    In this game against Carolina, the Redskins started John Beck over Rex Grossman in hopes of fixing their quarterback problem. Beck actually had a decent game, throwing for 279 yards and one touchdown. Those were about the same numbers that Newton put up, the only difference being one crucial interception. 

    Newton actually did a great job at not turning the ball over in this game, which had been a major issue for the Panthers in each of their losses up to this point. 

    The first half of this game was a field-goal battle between Olindo Mare and Graham Gano. Despite Newton's awesome 25-yard run on third down in the very first quarter, the two teams were locked in a defensive stalemate. 

    In the second half, the Panthers came out firing. Newton threw a 37-yard pass to Brandon LaFell, and then concluded the drive with a 16-yard touchdown run.  

    What I especially liked about this game was that it was an all-out effort by both the defense and offense. On a particular Redskins drive, the Panthers defense stepped up to hold the offense to a field goal.

    Carolina then responded with a long drive of their own which concluded with a two-yard touchdown pass to LaFell.

    Another reason why I liked this game was because Newton didn't have to throw over 400 yards for a win. Actually, he never won a game throwing for that many yards, as we'll see in the next two slides. But in this game, Newton only threw for 256 yards and one touchdown (not including the one he ran in himself), and it was enough for Carolina to win. 

    The Panthers were also running the ball more in this game, giving Jonathan Stewart the chance to snag a touchdown in the second half, something that we didn't see often and would've liked to see more from this awesome running back.

    The Panthers ended up winning this game, 33-20.

    This win not only improved the Panthers' record, it also provided them with a new recipe for success.

@ Houston

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    As the 2011 season progressed, one question came to mind: Could the Panthers beat a playoff team?

    In Week 15, the Panthers definitely showed that they had the potential to do so.

    Now, I say "potential" because there are some who might argue that the Houston team that Carolina played wasn't exactly the Houston playoff team in its entirety. One reason why this Houston team may have been easier to beat was due to their loss of their starting quarterback, Matt Schaub. 

    Say what you will though, there were still a lot of great players on that Houston squad facing the Panthers, not to mention their third-string quarterback, TJ Yates, who had definitely proved in his prior starts that he was capable of playing at an elite level. 

    However, it wasn't necessarily Yates that Carolina had to worry about in this game. If anything, Texans running back, Arian Foster, gave the Panthers enough to worry about on his own. 

    Perhaps you could even include the Texans' defense on the Panthers' list of worries. I mean, they do have guys like Brian Cushing, who is pretty darn good.

    But anyway, the Panthers stepped up. They forced Yates to throw two interceptions and even forced Foster to turn over the ball as early as the first quarter. 

    Carolina took a 21-point lead before the end of the first half on the strength of touchdown passes to Steve Smith and Jeremy Shockey, as well as some great play-calling by the brilliant mind of Rob Chudzinski. 

    Lined up in a shotgun formation, Cam Newton handed the ball off between Richie Brockel's legs and then acted like he was taking the ball in himself. The Texans had no idea what was going on. Before they knew it, Brockel was celebrating his touchdown in the end zone.

    Of course, the Texans started coming back. And one must give a lot of credit to Foster, who rushed for over 100 yards in the game. But after the Texans scored their first touchdown, the Panthers answered with an 80-yard scoring drive that put the game out of reach. The key play of the drive was a 24-yard touchdown run by DeAngelo Williams. 

    The game pretty much ended with TJ Yates trying to force a play in the red zone, which resulted in a James Anderson interception.

    The Panthers beat the Texans, 28-13.

    Check out the highlights on Panthers.com

Tampa Bay

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    In Week 16, the Panthers played their last home game against their division rivals, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

    There are plenty of reasons why this game was awesome. 

    First, it was the Panthers' last home game and despite their inability to make the playoffs, the Panthers needed to give their home fans reasons to be excited about next season.

    And they definitely did.

    Sure, the Bucs were not the best team last year, but any game against a division rival is an important one, especially if that game demonstrates without any doubt why the Panthers are no longer last in their division.

    Secondly, there was the run-game: Stewart had 88 yards, while Williams had 66 yards and two touchdowns. The Panthers were definitely learning how to implement the rush in the most effective fashion.

    And for those of you who didn't see it, I recommend watching Newton's 49-yard touchdown run because it's just awesome.

    My third reason for loving this game was because we got a look how great LaFell could be. His 91-yard touchdown catch definitely gave Panther fans a glimpse at what the future holds for this young receiver, and also showed the league that Newton and LaFell could be the sign of great things to come. 

    The fourth reason why this was the best game is because the Panthers defense didn't look vulnerable on the field. If anything, they looked pretty good. It seemed that they were finally clicking and able to step up and force turnovers.

    Last but not least, Newton threw the ball for only 171 yards. Why is this a good thing you ask? Well, because it showed once again that the Panthers were definitely figuring out how to win games. Newton didn't force plays, but managed the game rather than trying to win all by himself. 

    The Panthers beat the Bucs, 48-16.