One sign of a good team is that it wins some games without playing particularly well.
Such was the case with the Carolina Panthers Sunday, as they edged the New York Jets, 35-27, in a game that was in doubt the entire afternoon.
The key play was Luke Kuechly’s 34-yard, fourth-quarter fumble return for a touchdown. Carolina trailed 20-18 at the time.
Here are six other players who, along with Kuechly, did something in particular to help the Panthers (8-3) win their fourth straight game as they brace themselves for Sunday’s showdown at New Orleans.
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▪ Kaelin Clay. The speedy wide receiver had been struggling throughout the game’s first 50 minutes. He had his hands on three passes from Cam Newton that he didn’t catch, and one of them had nearly been intercepted. His punt returns had been pedestrian.
But Clay made up for all of that and then some when he grabbed a fourth-quarter punt shortly after Kuechly’s fumble-return TD and sped his way through traffic for a 60-yard punt return touchdown. This game, then, gave the Panthers both their first defensive TD of the season and their first special-teams TD of the season.
▪ Wes Horton. Although Kuechly’s scoop and score will be the biggest part of that fourth-quarter highlight, it was Horton’s rush and sack of Josh McCown that caused McCown’s rare error. (And Kuechly, of course, claimed that Horton made the entire play work and all he did was try not to “mess it up.”) The 38-year-old McCown ate up Carolina’s vaunted defense – especially its secondary – for large portions of the afternoon with 307 passing yards. But not that time.
▪ Devin Funchess. With Greg Olsen re-aggravating his foot injury during the game and neither Clay nor anyone else helping out much at wide receiver, it was Funchess who was the go-to target once again. Funchess had a 35-yard reception at a time Carolina was struggling to make anything work and ended up with 108 of Newton’s 168 passing yards.
▪ Cam Newton. He had an off day throwing the ball (11-for-28), but he ran the ball well and scored on both a 1-yard TD and a two-point conversion run. After the 1-yard TD, Newton did an extremely slow “Superman” celebration. Jets rookie safety Jamal Adams didn’t like it and came over and tried to interrupt the part where Newton mimes pulling off his shirt. He put his hand on Newton’s chest, which Newton immediately brushed off. It was as close to tugging on Superman’s cape as you could get. Newton would say later he had “no idea” what Adams was trying to do.
▪ Jonathan Stewart. The veteran running back didn’t have good numbers – 15 carries, 26 yards – but he scored a critical touchdown from 2 yards out in the third quarter. Stewart then pretended to use the football as a putter during his TD celebration in what he said was a spontaneous celebration he thought of due to “all that green” on the football field.
Is he a good golfer?
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“I’m a great golfer,” Stewart laughed. “I was just trying to showcase my golf ability for the Golf Channel whenever they want to hit me up.”
I asked Stewart if he was as good a golfer as Golden State’s Steph Curry, and he replied: “I actually think I can take him out.” Then he said he was just kidding, that he wasn’t that good but that he “wished to be.”
▪ Mike Pennel. The Jets defensive lineman had a terrible penalty late in the game with Carolina about to have to punt at midfield with just over two minutes to go when Newton’s third-down throw went incomplete. But Pennel roughed the passer, which gave Carolina a new set of downs. “That was just bad football,” Jets coach Todd Bowles growled.
The penalty allowed the Panthers to run out most of the clock, tack on one more Graham Gano field goal from 45 yards out and get out of New Jersey with another close win.