Carolina Panthers: 5 Most Exciting Moments of the 2011 Season

Jimmy Grappone@cltsportshubCorrespondent IJanuary 18, 2012

Carolina Panthers: 5 Most Exciting Moments of the 2011 Season

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    With the NFL's championship weekend approaching, the dust has finally settled on the Carolina Panthers' (6-10) 2011 campaign.

    The Panthers had a season to remember as much for their 4-1 stretch late in the season as for the handful of close games they could have won.

    They also led the league in big plays of 25-plus yards and broke a slew of NFL records, mostly by pending Rookie of the Year Cam Newton,

    Newton, who set the NFL's rookie passing record with 4,051 yards, had arguably the greatest single season by a first-year quarterback in NFL history.

    The Panthers gave Carolina fans the most exciting brand of football they have witnessed since Kevin Greene and Julius Peppers terrorized opposing quarterbacks, Muhsin Muhammad and Steve Smith terrorized opposing defensive backfields together and Jake Delhomme was a viable starting quarterback.

    And did I mention all the records?

    So, what were the five most exciting moments of the Panthers' 2011 season?

    Click on the next slide to find out.

No. 5: Kealoha Pilares' 101-Yard Kickoff Return Against the Lions

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    The Panthers got out of the gate quickly in Week 11 at Detroit, forcing three Lions' turnovers along the way to an early 17-point advantage and a 27-14 halftime lead.

    The high water mark came on Kealoha Pilares' 101-yard kickoff return, the longest in team history, to put Carolina up 24-7 in the second quarter.

    Special teams miscues hurt the Panthers all season, but for once, Carolina came up with a big play in the kicking game.

    Pilares' return was the first score by the Panthers' kickoff return team since Rod "He Hate Me" Smart ran one back for a touchdown in 2003.

    Carolina eventually lost the game, 49-35, but they topped 30 points for just the second time all season and showed they could play with the big boys, if only for a half.

No. 4: Cam Newton's Game-Winning Drive Against the Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Where there's rain, there's often a rainbow.

    And where there's a rainbow, there's supposedly a pot of gold at the end.

    The Jaguars came to town on a rain-soaked Sunday afternoon featuring a 30-minute monsoon which swept through the area late in the second quarter and continued through halftime, creating a quagmire on the field and small rivers behind the benches as the water rushed out of the stands and accumulated on the sidelines.

    There may not have been any actual rainbows in the Charlotte skies that day, but the rain eventually stopped, and Newton's game-winning touchdown pass to Greg Olsen was the treasure Panthers fans were waiting for.

    Carolina won the game, 16-10, for Newton's and coach Ron Rivera's first victories with the Panthers.

No. 3: Steve Smith's Catch vs. the New Orleans Saints

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    Steve Smith became the 35th player in NFL history to gain 10,000 career receiving yards this season, creating debate over whether No. 89 in the Black and Teal has had a Hall of Fame career.

    While the Hall of Fame conversation may be one Panthers and Atlanta Falcons fans will debate for many years after Smitty hangs up his cleats for the final time, the player known as Mighty Mouse did have a Pro Bowl season in 2011.

    He also had one of the best catches of the year in Week 5 against the visiting New Orleans Saints when he rose up over Jabari Greer for a 54-yard touchdown catch-and-run in the first half.

    Smith elevated like a young Spud Webb to catch a Cam Newton pass which would have sailed high over the heads of all but a handful of NFL receivers, pushed Greer to the ground on his way down and skated the last 20 yards into the end zone untouched.

    The Saints' Roman Harper did not take kindly to his teammate being embarrassed on the play, though, and hit Smith in the end zone as he was coming to a stop, inspiring a bench-clearing brawl that ended in Smitty's teammates coming to his rescue and firing up the team.

    Not that Smith, who can handle his own battles, needed any help.

    The big play fired up the crowd and the Panthers, but they went on to lose the game, 30-27, on a Drew Brees-led game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.

No. 2: Cam Newton Debuts with 422 Passing Yards vs. the Cardinals

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    No one could have expected this.

    In the Panthers' first game of the season and Cam Newton's NFL debut, the rookie quarterback passed for 422 yards in Carolina's 28-21 loss to the Cardinals, including 178 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith.

    Newton's passing total was the highest mark of any quarterback making his first start in league history.

    Newton followed up his Week 1 performance with 432 yards passing in Week 2 against the Green Bay Packers in his first home start, but he would not reach the 400-yard mark again for the rest of the season.

No 1: Cam Newton Breaks Quarterback Rushing Record

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    Cam Newton may not have had his longest or most exciting run of the season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 13, but his three one-yard scoring runs helped the rookie break Steve Grogan's 35-year old NFL record for most single-season rushing touchdowns by a quarterback.

    The Panthers defeated the Bucs 38-19 and won consecutive road games—they beat the Indianapolis Colts on the road in Week 12—for the first time in two seasons.

    Newton also started a Carolina tradition of giving touchdown balls to Panthers fans in the stands, though one of the team's public relations employees quickly recognized the importance of Newton's record-breaking touchdown ball and swapped it with another ball from the team's equipment locker.

    With the road win, the Panthers emerged from the NFC South basement, and Newton secured what should be his nearly unanimous selection as the 2011 NFL Rookie of the Year.

    You can follow Jimmy Grappone on Twitter @imapone24. He also welcomes your comments and he has a thick skin, so he can handle your abuse.