Before I get started, I know it's only the Bengals. But it felt good didn't it?
After a season filled with just squeaking by when we won and doing ourselves in when we lost (mixed with the occasional Falcon thumping), what a pleasure it was to stick it to somebody else. For an afternoon, the thrill was back. For one game, we had something to cheer again. For one week, temporary or not, our team redeemed itself.
Not everything was wine and roses. The offense got off to a typical slow start, and there's no way our defense should've given up 31 points to the Bengals. Goofy turnovers kept Cincy in the game far longer than they deserved to be. Still, to quote John Madden, "Winning is a great deodorant. It covers up a lot of stink." Sunday was grade "A" triple strength deodorant.
The game started off quiet poorly for our Panthers, with Cincinnati driving quickly and easily for a touchdown. Follow that up with a short "drive" and punt, and things could've been very bad very quickly. But Todd Sauerbrun buried Cincinnati at their own 4, and the Panther defense was about to make a statement. After pushing Corey Dillon back 3 yards, the defense forced a
Corey Dillon fumble that was recovered by Al Wallace for a touchdown.
Things looked sour for Carolina again as the Bengals moved down the field (mainly through the air) before stalling at the Carolina 34. Luckily, Bengals' kicker Neil Rackers didn't have enough leg and the 52-yard field goal fell short. Carolina immediately went for the throat with a 49-yard
bomb to Steve Smith. The team moved all the way to the Cincy 1-yard line before looking like the "same old Panthers" when Dee Brown fumbled the ball away. But on this day, the defense wouldn't give the game away. On 2nd and 9 from the 2, the Panthers destroyed the right side of Cincinnati's offensive line (manned by Cincy's big Willie Anderson) to tackle Dillon for
a safety. The less-than-capacity crowd erupted like Mount Vesuvius on its worst day!
Despite excellent field position (and momentum) following the free kick, the Panthers were only able to tally 9 yards and were forced to punt. Cincinnati fared no better, save for an 18-yard pass interference penalty. They didn't know it, but they were about to walk into a trap. Travis Dorsch punted the ball to Steve Smith, and the secret weapon of the day was turned loose. Nifty moves combined with excellent blocking to send Smith 61 yards to the end zone. Nervous Panther fans stood waiting for a flag – we had seen this before on big plays this year – but there were none. The Panthers had managed to take a 16-7 lead with no help from the offense. An
unfamiliar feeling of glee began to spread around Ericsson Stadium. Could we actually win two in a row?
Cincinnati wasn't out of it yet. The Bengals moved down the field again, mainly through the air (again) and scored a touchdown to draw closer at 16-14. Carolina's offense continued to stall, going 3 and out and barely eating up 2 minutes in the 2nd quarter. Cincy moved the ball again, this time mainly on the ground, but far too easily against a highly ranked defense such as ours. The defense finally made a stand at the Carolina 7, but the Bengals were able to take the lead on a short field goal, 17-16.
With only 44 seconds left in the half, the Panthers moved the ball better than expected, albeit helped by a Bengal penalty. Still, they got no closer than the Cincy 39 and ended the half with a Rodney Peete interception.
Now, I don't know what was said to our team in the locker room, but a totally different offense came out in the second half. We had a good return by Isaac Byrd to start things off, and the Panthers came out with guns blazing. Deep passing was the order of the afternoon, and the floodgates opened. A 31-yard TD to Steve Smith put us up 23-17, and a 3-and-out by
Cincy put us in stellar field position. Then, for a brief second, those "same old Panthers" returned. Nick Goings fumbled and Takeo Spikes recovered for a 45-yard TD, putting Cincy back on top, 24-23. It very well could have ended right there. After all, this is a team that has found ways to lose again and again for the past 2 years. But we had sunk our teeth
into the Bengal defense, and we weren't letting go. We knew how to hurt
them and it was time.
Cincy came out with 8 and sometimes 9 men in the box, daring the Panthers to pass. And that's just what we did. The Panthers flew right back down the field and reclaimed the lead on a Peete-to-Moose TD, 30-24. Carolina forced another 3-and-out by Cincy, and the hero of the day stepped up yet again. Following a punt, Steve Smith danced and juked his way to an 87-yard touchdown. 37-24? Was I on crack? Was I getting a residual buzz from the
case or two of beer the drunk across the aisle had put away? Nope. Everybody else was seeing the score too.
We almost, almost let the Bengals back in it when the next drive culminated in an improbable 12-yard Jon Kitna touchdown run, drawing the score to 37-31. But it was all Panthers from there. The Panthers kept the ball in the air again; 24 yards, 29 yards, 10 yards. The drive was capped off with a 2-yard TD pass to Wesley Walls, the Forgotten One. I rubbed my eyes. 44-31? Whoever runs the scoreboard must have worked harder than he has in YEARS. The Carolina defense stepped up with two sacks on the next Cincy drive, forcing another quick punt.
Air Carolina was open for business again: 15 to Moose, 22 to Moose, and 15 more to Moose. Cap it off with a 6-yard scramble from Dee Brown, and things are sweet. But what's this? We're going for 2? We get it? Wow - 52-31. It's all over but the crying, and I must be in the Twilight Zone!
The shocking thing is that Carolina moved to the Cincy 2 before the game was over and took a knee on 4th down. When the Panthers are taking pity on you, you know you've had a bad day.
You can sum up this day with the reaction of John Fox after the game. All year long, he has repeated a lack of surprise at anything the team has done, good or bad. This one surprised him. ‘Nuff said.
NEWS AND NOTES
Carolina now leads the series with Cincinnati 2-0.
Wesley Walls had two receptions for 29 yards and one touchdown. This moves him into sole possession of 11th place for catches by a tight end (429) and sole possession of 3rd most touchdowns by a tight end (53).
The 52 points scored by the Panthers tied Oakland for the most scored by any team in the NFL this year, and is a team best for Carolina.
The safety recorded on Corey Dillon was the first scored by Carolina since 1997.
Carolina recorded 4 sacks (Mark Fields 2, Will Witherspoon 1, Brentson Buckner 1), moving the season total to 42.
The Panthers had their first successful 2 point conversion since 2000.
Steve Smith broke or tied 10 team records with his performance Sunday.