The Panthers, who recorded a water-logged divisional loss at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-1) on the NFL's opening Sunday, were on the ropes early after the defense allowed another long touchdown drive and a perfect passing performance by the opposition's quarterback on their opening series.
But this time was different.
This time, the Panthers got out from underneath the black cloud that seemed to be following head coach Ron Rivera and company by exhibiting the makeup of a champion fighter.
Panthers Show a Fighter's Resolve
Carolina displayed Arturo Gatti's heart, Rocky Balboa's chin and Mike Tyson's punching power in Sunday's 35-27 home victory against the New Orleans Saints (0-2).
Each time the Panthers were knocked down against the Saints, they responded with a body blow of their own.
It all began with safety Charles Godfrey's nine-yard interception return for a touchdown after allowing Drew Brees and the Saints to march 80 yards down the field for a touchdown on the game's opening series, and it ended when Jon Beason's interception of Brees sealed the game with 31 seconds to go.
Perhaps Carolina's Week 1 performance, in which they tied a franchise-low with just 10 rushing yards on 13 attempts, was an aberration.
Tampa Bay's defense, which allowed 510 yards passing and 94 yards rushing against the New York Giants (1-1) in Week 2 is certainly not that tough.
The Panthers bounced back from their lackluster Week 1 offensive performance to hang 472 yards of total offense (253 yards passing, 219 yards rushing) against the Saints' defense on Sunday.
Carolina's defense had a solid, bend-don't-break outing for the second consecutive week, intercepting Brees (325 passing yards) twice, pressuring him often, and holding the future Hall of Famer to just one touchdown pass in 49 attempts.
However, the Panthers' dominant running game, the offensive line's drastic improvement, and Newton's efficient 14-for-20 performance—the 2011 No. 1 draft choice had a 129.2 passer rating and his 88.4 QBR was third best in the league on Sunday—were the keys to Carolina's win.
The Panthers headed to the locker room with a 21-13 lead after newly acquired fullback Mike Tolbert barrelled into the end zone from two yards out for his first touchdown as a Panther, and the team's third touchdown of the first half.
Each time the Saints got within a score in the second half, Carolina responded with a score of its own before Beason's interception provided the at the end of the game.
Which team will show up against the Giants on Thursday?
All four members of the Panthers' highly touted backfield—Newton, Tolbert, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart—found the end zone on Sunday.
Carolina's offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage against the Saints after being pushed around by Tampa Bay's seven- and eight-man fronts, and this time they used their read option running game to open up big plays in the passing game, as well.
Brandon LaFell led the way receiving for the Panthers with six catches for 90 yards and added a 25-yard run on a Rob Chudzinski-designed end-around play that looked like something you would see in football game.
Steve Smith pitched in with his second straight 100-plus yard receiving game with three catches for 104 yards, including a 66-yarder on an apparent blown coverage by the New Orleans secondary.
Though the Panthers' defense allowed an unsatisfactory 488 total yards, they came up big when it mattered most by harassing Drew Brees throughout the game and coming up with a pair of bookend interceptions.
Reason for Optimism, Room for Improvement
Who gets the game ball?
The Panthers' first win of the season was far from perfect, but then again, most games rarely are.
Carolina took advantage of New Orleans' early season Bountygate-related distractions to avoid the hole they put the Saints in by starting the season 1-1 as opposed to a typically unrecoverable 0-2 start.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott's unit has played much better so far this season than they did in 2011, and much of that comes from having a healthy and experienced interior line (Ron and Dwan Edwards), an effective pass rush from the defensive ends, and the return of linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis.
But they still gave up 163 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns on 27 carries.
So far, the 2012 season has been a tale of two completely different games for Carolina and we could be well into October before anyone really knows how this year's campaign is likely to go.
Carolina probably will not rush for more than 200 yards in a game many times this season, but they are more likely to approach that figure than they are to match their Week 1 mark for futility.
The Panthers' trend since Ron Rivera and Cam Newton came to town is that they win when they run the ball more often than they pass (33 passes, 13 runs vs. Tampa Bay; 20 passes, 41 runs vs. New Orleans), they win when Newton does not throw interceptions (two vs. Tampa Bay, zero vs. New Orleans) and they win when they play solid special teams.
Predict the Panthers' September record
A .500 winning percentage in September with the New York Giants (1-1) coming to town for a Thursday night game this week and a road game against the Atlanta Falcons (1-0) in Week 4 will be considered a mild success after their disappointing season-opening loss at Tampa Bay.
However, the Carolina Panthers are not interested in doing anything mildly this season, and with a big win against their NFC South nemesis in Week 2, the skies are not looking quite so cloudy anymore.
Jimmy Grappone is a Featured Columnist covering the Carolina Panthers and the NFL on BleacherReport.com.
You can follow me on Twitter @jimmygrappone and be sure to check out my archives for more Panthers articles.
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