Recounting the Carolina Panthers Five Most Exciting Games of 2008
The Panthers' 2008 season was the most memorable for me since Carolina made a run at the Super Bowl in 2003, coming up three points short in the most exciting Super Bowl I have ever seen.
Every game in '08 was a challenge. The challenges were presented during training camp when hot-headed Steve Smith, the Panthers all-time wide receiver, sucker-punched Ken Lucas when the two got into a heated dispute after running a practice route.
Some say the Panthers' season hinged on whether or not Lucas would forgive Smith for stooping to such a low level. But fortunately, both Smith and Lucas were strong; Smith by making an apology, and Lucas for forgiving Smith.
On the other hand, a lot of fans and experts believed that the Panthers season would greatly depend on how well quarterback Jake Delhomme's elbow had recovered from tendon and joint elbow surgery.
It turned out that the Panthers were brought closer together as a family from that training camp incident, and Delhomme's elbow was as close to perfect as it could be after undergoing a succesful surgery.
In this article, I have gone through all 16 games of the regular season, and in no particular order, came up with the five most exciting Panthers victories in the 2008 season.
September 7, 2008: Panthers 26, Chargers 24
The first test of the regular season for the Panthers and quarterback Jake Delhomme came on a trip to the West Coast in a game against the Super Bowl-favored San Diego Chargers—without the services of Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith, who was suspended by the team for the first two regular season games.
As it turned out, the Panthers showed very little—if any—signs of being rattled by the hostile crowd of Chargers fans.
Following punts by both teams on their opening posessions, the Panthers took the ball 86 yards downfield in nine plays to the Chargers' one-yard line.
The drive turned out to be for nothing, after Delomme and fullback Brad Hoover failed to connect on a fourth-and-one pass.
The Panthers led until Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers connected with wide receiver Chris Chambers to give the Chargers the go-ahead lead at seven to six.
That day, the Panthers suffered two setbacks on the offensive line, when rookie right tackle Jeff Otah and left guard Travelle Wharton both left the game in the opening half with knee injuries.
In the second half, with the absence of two of their big offensive linemen, the Panthers running game suffered a setback, as the running game was limited to 30 yards.
Picking up the slack, however, were a hungry defense and the passing of Delhomme.
Trailing the Chargers 10-9 after a successful 27-yard field goal attempt by the Chargers' Nate Kaeding, Panthers safety Chris Harris forced a fumble on Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, which was picked up by cornerback Chris Gamble and returned 31 yards for a touchdown, giving Carolina the lead at 16-10.
After John Kasay made a 49-yard field goal attempt for the Panthers, Carolina's lead was extended to 19-10 with 10:15 remaining in regulation.
After the Panthers defense kept it in check for most of the day, the Chargers' offense exploded, with Philip Rivers leading the charge with two touchdowns in the span of five minutes, to turn the tables on the Panthers, and turn a nine-point deficit into a five-point lead.
Down 24-19, Delhomme and the Panthers offense were in dire straits as they needed to cover 68 yards in 2:21 without the comfort of having a timeout.
Delhomme came out guns a-blazing and completed 7-of-10 passes to five different receivers, moving the Panthers to the Chargers 14-yard line with two seconds remaining in the game—two seconds—was one of the most memorable plays in franchise history!
After juggling a high snap from the shotgun, which threw off the timing of the play, Delhomme pump-faked once before threading a needle of a pass between two Chargers defenders and connecting with tight end Dante Rosario in the back of the end zone, thrusting the Panthers to an improbable 26-24 come-from-behind victory, and a 1-0 start to the season.
September 14, 2008: Panthers 20, Bears 17
Coming off a very intense win and still riding the wave of their Week One victory over the Chargers, the Panthers returned to Bank of America Stadium for the home opener against the 1-0 Chicago Bears.
The Panthers opened the game as if they were still on West Coast time, quickly going three-and-out on the game's opening drive.
The Bears took full advantage of their defensive stop and took a 7-0 lead less than two minutes into the game, when wide receiver Brandon Lloyd returned a blocked Jason Baker punt for a touchdown.
The Panthers' offense struggled to find a rhythm, managing just 47 total yards and two first downs in the first half against a swarming Bears defense.
The Panthers could thank their own defense, which forced a turnover and limited Chicago to a single field goal after the blocked punt, when they headed into the locker room at halftime trailing by seven, at 10-3.
Things started looking better for the Panthers, if only momentarily, when quarterback Jake Delhomme connected with returned Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad for a 33-yard gain on the team's first offensive play of the second half.
The momentum of that play quickly dissipated when Bears cornerback Charles Tillman intercepted Delhomme on the following play, whereby the Bears set up shop at the Panthers 23-yard line.
Chicago took full advantage of the spoils given to them by Tillman a la Delhomme, extending their lead to 17-3 when fullback Jason McKie dove into the endzone from the one-yard line.
Facing their largest deficit of the young season, the Panthers offense started coming to life, driving for 52 yards in seven plays, which ended in a 45-yard field goal by Kasay, his second of the day.
On the Bears' ensuing drive, the Panthers' defense ran virtually the same play they had the week before in San Diego, when safety Chris Harris forced a fumble by Bears tight end Greg Olsen, which was recovered by cornerback Chris Gamble.
The turnover saw rookie running back Jonathan Stewart carry the ball four times for 20 yards, which would end in his first NFL touchdown from four yards out to bring the Panthers ever closer at 17-13.
Stewart continued to show why the Panthers selected him 13th overall in the draft during the fourth quarter, by gaining 28 yards in the final quarter and scoring a second touchdown in the game.
With 3:56 remaining and Stewart's one-yard touchdown run, the Panthers led the Bears 20-17. The Panthers relied on their defense one more time.
Chicago, facing a 4th-and-1 from the 50-yard line with 2:00 left in the game, McKie, who had scored a touchdown earlier in the game, was stuffed at the line of scrimmage for no gain.
The Panthers were allowed to run out the remaining 1:52 after clawing their way out of their second come-from-behind victory in as many weeks and the franchise's first 2-0 start since 2003.
November 30, 2008: Panthers 35 Packers 31
Lambeau Field in November—rain, snow, wind—miserable.
Miracles happen in one place—Lambeau Field.
There have been many fourth quarter comebacks over the years for the Packers at Lambeau, but this day saw one specific player missing: Brett Favre.
Instead, the snow that fell on the sloppy, snowy field in the fourth quarter turned out to be the perfect conditions for Steve Smith and Jake Delhomme to accomplish what they've set forth to do so many times—make a miracle with the game on the line.
The opportunity seemed both unlikely and just within reach that it would prove to be what dreams are made of.
What had been a 21-10 Panthers lead at halftime was erased in the second half by the Packers, who scored 18 unanswered points, leaving Carolina behind at 28-21.
Weather conditions worsened as flurries began to fall, but something exciting happened. As the weather got worse, the Panthers' play improved.
Panthers wide receiver and return man Mark Jones started the Panthers' drive on a 50-yard kickoff return.
On 3rd-and-11, Smith zipped up the field, and like Superman, leapt near the goal line and snared a 36-yard pass from Delhomme while crashing down at the one-yard line.
One play later, running back DeAngelo Williams scored, and the Panthers were tied with the Packers less than three minutes after losing their comfy lead.
The Packers took the ball back down the field in an attempted response to Carolina's scoring drive, but the Panthers' defense did not relent, twice keeping the Packers out of the endzone on a crucial goal-line stand at the one-yard line, including an incredible third-down play that saw Lewis, Peppers, and the entire defensive front envelope Green Bay fullback John Kuhn.
The Packers were forced to settle for a 19-yard Mason Crosby field goal, which helped the Pack take the lead yet again.
On this drive, there was a light of hope as the Panthers were only down by three points with enough time to work downfield. Worst case scenario, the Panthers could get John Kasay close enough to kick the game into overtime.
Fifteen seconds later, Smith appeared from nowhere with his second acrobatic catch of the quarter, a contorting, off-balance grab in which he maintained complete body control in mid-air, grabbed the ball, and eluded defenders until landing at the Green Bay one-yard line with 1:03 remaining.
DeAngelo Williams crashed into the endzone for his fourth score on the ensuing snap, giving the Panthers and fans a cardiac victory, while maintaining a share of first place in the division.
December 8, 2008: Panthers 38, Buccaneers 23
The scene was set for a classic NFC South showdown and a Monday night game with everything hanging in the balance for the Bucs and Panthers, both with records of 9-3.
The Panthers turned to the simplest of plans—which was what they did best—run the ball.
They ran against a very strong Tampa defense, that until that Monday night, had allowed just one rushing touchdown in 12 games.
Against a stifling defense that had allowed a meager 95.4 yards per game on the ground and 3.8 yards per carry, mainly using toss pitches, draw plays, inside traps and power sweeps, the Panthers took the Bucs for a franchise-record 299 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
DeAngelo WIlliams gained 186 yards on 19 carries, while Jonathan Stewart contributed 115 yards on 15 rushes.
Wide receiver Steve Smith also had a big night with nine catches for 117 yards and a touchdown.
The Buccaneers, while shell-shocked, did not go down without a fight; fighting tooth and nail on three occasions to tie the game, but never once took the lead.
The Panthers' uncanny ability to match the Bucs score-for-score helped remedy any chance for Tampa to gain any momentum.
Steve Smith's 38-yard touchdown reception came only six plays after the Bucs' Antonio Bryant made a 50-yard touchdown catch, while Carnell Williams' four-yard run for a touchdown was matched by Stewart's second score of the game nine plays later.
Since the Panthers leaned heavily on their running game they were able to maintain their lead throughout the game.
22 of the Panthers' final 25 plays went to Stewart, Williams, and Smith—the final two plays consisted of a pair of kneel downs by Delhomme.
December 28, 2008: Panthers 33, Saints 31
After coming off a gut-wrenching loss to the New York Giants the previous week, the Panthers had a couple factors hanging in the balance of the outcome of their season finale in New Orleans against the Saints: the division title, and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
The Panthers could not have scripted the first three quarters better than the way they unfolded—everything went right.
The Panthers built a 30-10 lead on the arm of Jake Delhomme and the legs of DeAngelo WIlliams and Jonathan Stewart.
Each of the Panthers' first four offensive possessions ended in scores—the fourth, and eight yard pass from Delhomme to Muhammad.
But the fourth quarter turned out to be a combination of what I expected, but how could it be happening?
The calm that preceded the storm that was Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints had finally arrived.
Brees, who entered the game needing more than 375 yards to break Dan Marino's all-time single season passing record, got into his groove in a hurry.
Brees threw touchdown passes on three consecutive drives, while the Panthers had been forced to punt twice after not punting in the first three quarters.
Teams that lose a 20-point lead in the final quarter usually don't regain the needed momentum to reverse even the slightest deficit—especially considering the Saints had a deafening home crowd behind them that was now in a fervor.
The Panthers, down by one point but with one timeout remaining, had luck and experience on their side. They were well versed in come-from-behind victories.
Jake Delhomme once again found a leaping Steve Smith for a 39-yard grab that moved the Panthers from their 18-yard line to the Saints' 43. From there, the Panthers set up shop; working both diligently and the time clock.
On the next five plays Carolina picked up 23 yards—four of which came off carries by DeAngelo Williams, who had an incredible 178-yard day.
From 42 yards out, John Kasay set up to attempt the game-winning field goal—after missing the potential game-winner a week earlier at the end of regulation—with under a minute remaining, split the uprights and hurdled Carolina into the postseason with a first-round bye, and as division champions.