There's an old saying: Even a blind squirrel can find an acorn now and then. Maybe the Panthers should change their mascot to the Blind Squirrels. This win went very much like the first three. The running game was backbone of the offense, the passing game was nothing if not minimal, and the defense took the ball away while smothering our enemy. Kinda nice if you can get it to work.
The game started poorly enough for the Panthers, with the offense going 3 and out on its first possession. The Browns moved down the field on their first possession, exposing the Panthers' weakness in covering the middle of the field. William Green also made plenty of contributions to the drive, but the drive stalled out at the Carolina 7. After eating up nearly 7 minutes, Cleveland kicks a field goal to go ahead 3-0.
The Carolina offense finally decided to wake up on its second possession, mixing the run and pass to great effect. Unfortunately, the drive went south after two penalties on the offensive line forced the Panthers into a 1st and 30. The Black and Blue crew almost pulled it off, but had to settle for a field goal attempt. In true Panther fashion, the kick sailed wide left.
In what can only be described as a miracle, Mike Minter intercepted a Tim Couch pass and returned it deep into Cleveland territory. It had been so long since anything went right for the Panthers we barely recognized it when we saw it. The team took quick advantage of the turnover with a rare appearance (rare these days, anyway) of Wesley Walls in the end zone. Tack on the extra point and the Panthers lead 7-3.
Following the kickoff, Carolina and Cleveland trade missed field goals. Cleveland's sails wide right while Carolina's is blocked by Gerrard Warren. Little of any consequence happened on the way to half-time, save for a 34 yard reverse from Dennis Northcutt and Julius Peppers' 12th sack.
The second half opens with Cleveland driving again, getting as deep as the Carolina 36 before Couch throws another interception, this time to Emanuel McDaniel. What? That's two turnovers in favor of the Panthers?!? Surely that's a sign of the Apocalypse! Even if the Panthers did have to punt after three downs, at least they got the ball out of their territory.
In a third quarter filled with a flurry of punts, the Panthers tried (unsuccessfully) to give the game back to Cleveland. Two interceptions, one from a Dee Brown trick play, could have put the Browns in the driver's seat. The second interception did put Cleveland in field goal position, pulling the Brownies back to 7-6. But the Panthers decided not to fold this time.
The fourth quarter began with a 6 minute drive placed squarely on the shoulders of Dee Brown. Even though the drive didn't produce a touchdown, Carolina took back three points in a field goal, leading 10-6.
Then it happened. After the kickoff, Mark Fields sacks Tim Couch, causing a fumble, which was recovered by Deon Grant in Cleveland territory. Fear gnawed at the stomachs of Panther fans everywhere as Cleveland challenged the call. Despite our notorious reputation concerning replay, the call stood. Fists were raised all across the Carolinas.
The Panthers then went into its prevent offense; The team didn't move the ball much, but it ate up the clock to the tune of 4:49. One field goal later and the Panthers were up 13-6.
Now, I know what you're thinking, because I was thinking it, too. There's about three minutes left, we have to kick the ball back to Cleveland, and we're up by 7. How can the Panthers screw this one up? For a frightening instant, we almost had our answer. With 2:08 left in the game, Couch passed towards Kevin Johnson and it appeared Reggie Howard had picked it off. The
ball popped out as Howard hit the ground and Johnson snatched it up, zooming into the end zone. A lump began forming in my throat. Then, a little divine intervention came. The officials declared Howard never had possession, so it was incomplete, no fumble, no touchdown. Since the play happened outside the 2 minute warning, the booth upstairs couldn't review it and the Browns couldn't challenge since they had blown all their time-outs.
WHEW! The next play sealed the deal with E-Mac's second interception of the day. 3 knl-downs later and Carolina had won for the first time in two months. Astounding!
And I'd rather be a blind squirrel than 3-9.