The Carolina Panthers solidified their place amongst the top teams in the NFC with their thrilling 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. In a game that saw the two teams combine for 47 first downs and 776 yards of total offense, the Panthers made the big plays when they mattered the most.
The game started out slowly for the Panthers, as the offense was unable to get anything going early. Carolina was held scoreless for the first 24:15 of the game, and a 23-yard John Kasay field goal were the only points the Panthers could muster in the first half.
The Panthers punted on their first three drives of the game, gaining only 47 total yards in the process. Their first drive in the second quarter ended in turmoil, as Karlos Dansby got a hold of Jake Delhomme deep in Panthers territory, forcing a fumble and recovering it to set up Kurt Warner’s first of two touchdown passes.
This put the Cardinals up 10-0 and effectively took the crowd out of the game. The Panthers responded with a promising drive, but a wide open Muhsin Muhammad dropped a sure touchdown pass, forcing the Panthers to settle for a field goal.
The Panthers' defense held the Cardinals scoreless for the rest of the half, and rookie safety Charles Godfrey made a huge heads-up play to tackle Jerame Tuman after he received a pass from punter Dirk Johnson on a fake field goal late in the second quarter.
That play kept three more points from going on the scoreboard underneath the Cardinals’ logo and provided the offense with a spark that nearly resulted in the Panthers putting some points of their own on the board.
A last-minute drive down the field came up short for the Panthers, but the team was lucky to head into the locker room down only a touchdown after the way the Cardinals’ passing attack tore the secondary apart.
There was no shortage of offense for either team in the third quarter, as the Panthers and Cardinals combined for 34 points. The Cardinals came out of the tunnel and took it right back to the Panthers' defense. Any adjustments the Panthers made at halftime looked like the wrong ones, as the Cardinals drove 64 yards on eight plays in a little over four-and-a-half minutes and capped off the drive with a two-yard run by rookie Tim Hightower. Hightower was ultimately held in check by the Panthers, gaining only three total yards on six carries.
The Panthers then embarked on an offensive explosion that sparked another "Cardiac Cats"-like comeback.
DeAngelo Williams kept the game interesting with his 15-yard-touchdown run that came on the Panthers' first possession of the second half. The Panthers' offense drove down the field in just over three minutes, with Williams’ scamper capping off an 80-yard drive.
The Panthers' defense made its first big play of the afternoon when defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu caused the Cardinals’ Edgerrin James to cough up the ball on the second play of the drive. Thomas Davis scooped up the fumble for the Panthers and all of a sudden Carolina was 18 yards away from tying up the game.
The roaring home crowd did not have to wait long, as Delhomme dropped back and threw up a beautiful pass to Steve Smith in the right corner of the end zone for his first of two touchdowns, and John Kasay’s extra point made it a tie ballgame.
Just when it looked like the Panthers had gained control of the game and would pull away; the former MVP, Warner, reared his head and brought the Cardinals back.
Warner completed eight of nine passes on the next Arizona drive, eventually hooking up with Boldin in the end zone again, giving the receiver a multi-touchdown game in his return from facial surgery. Warner hit five different receivers on the drive, and Hightower was responsible for the lone running play on the drive; a one-yard gain.
The extra-point attempt was botched when Johnson fumbled the snap and was hit immediately by the Panthers' special-teams unit. That would prove costly for the Cardinals, as they were now only up six points.
It didn’t help matters any for Arizona, as they didn’t have to ponder long whether or not the missed extra point would hold any significance. On third-and-two from the Panthers' 35-yard line, Delhomme hit Smith on the left side for what looked as though it would be a 15-yard gain for a first down, but Smith had other plans. Using some of his patented acrobatic moves, Smith turned and took off down the sideline for a 65-yard touchdown.
Bank of America Stadium roared in unison to announce their excitement with the play, but spirits were temporarily dampened by Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt’s red challenge flag. After watching the replay, it looked as though it was possible that Smith had made contact with the sideline just before he broke free, and it was a total toss up as to whether or not the referee would find enough evidence to overturn the play.
After a lengthy review, it was determined that Smith had indeed stayed in bounds and the touchdown stood, sending the fans back into bedlam. The missed extra point attempt by the Cardinals registered on the scoreboard as the Panthers now led 24-23.
That score did not dampen the Cardinals’ offensive attack, however. Warner came out firing on all cylinders once again, completing four straight passes after his first of the drive fell incomplete, and putting the Cardinals well inside Rackers’ field-goal range.
After a Carolina penalty and a pass to Boldin for a medium gain, Arizona faced 2nd-and-3 from the Panthers’ 15-yard line. Warner’s pass was tipped and intercepted by Panthers linebacker Jon Beason, who returned the ball 44 yards to the Carolina 49-yard line.
This shifted the momentum back in the favor of the Panthers, and that’s where it would stay the rest of the game. Beason has had his hands on a number of passes this year but had seen them fall to the ground incomplete, until Sunday.
The Panthers weren’t able to put together much offense, but a 50-yard Kasay field goal would put the Panthers in front 27-23; the final margin. Kasay is 16-16 on the year and the 50-yard try was his longest of the year.
The Cardinals would only get the ball once more, and after picking up two first downs, a holding penalty and a Charles Johnson sack put Arizona in a hole they would be unable to crawl out of. Johnson punted to Carolina’s Mark Jones, and the Panthers took over with 5:57 left in the game.
It was apparent that the Panthers would need to come up with a couple of first downs or risk putting the ball back in the hands of Warner and the nearly-unstoppable Cardinals offense.
The Panthers did just that, with a third-down completion to Smith, then a huge catch by Dwayne Jarrett for 17 yards on 3rd-and-10. Just after the two-minute warning, the Panthers were faced with a 3rd-and-13. It looked almost imminent that Warner and the Cardinals would get the ball back.
The Panthers elected to keep the ball on the ground since Arizona was out of timeouts and time was running out. Williams took the handoff and busted through the Cardinals' defense for 15 yards, a first down, and a victory for Carolina. Delhomme kneeled twice and the Panthers improved to 6-2 on the year, heading into their much-deserved bye.
The Cardinals did not lose any ground in the NFC West, as San Francisco and St. Louis both lost. Seattle beat San Francisco, but improved to just 2-6. Arizona will travel to St. Louis Sunday to take on the Rams in a divisional matchup.
The Panthers head into their bye week atop the NFC South, as Tampa Bay fell to Dallas. The Saints held on the beat the Chargers in London and the Falcons were topped by the Eagles. When the Panthers come out of their bye, they will head to Oakland to take on the struggling Raiders.