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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It was, as Roman Harper surmised, the most disappointed 14-0 team you’ll ever see. Ron Rivera was ticked that his team lost its composure and its lead. Dwan Edwards was annoyed that the defense had gotten lax on tackling with the game nearly in hand in the second half on Sunday. And practically everyone was furious at Odell Beckham Jr., whose on-the-field MMA undercard with Josh Norman defined a chippy, chaotic, physical and — yes — slightly disappointing 38-35 victory for the Carolina Panthers over the New York Giants.
Norman, speaking — literally — through clenched teeth, questioned Beckham’s toughness after the Giants’ star receiver melted down, at one point running at least 10 yards just to launch at Norman’s head with his own helmet. When the locker room opened, Norman was sitting on his stool, wearing half his uniform, staring into space. Even after he took his time to shower and meticulously dress himself — two bracelets, a watch, cufflinks in his French cuffs, a camel colored dress coat — Norman narrowed his eyes, the pupils rimmed in red, as he spoke with a fury.
Hurney deserves praise for acquiring so much top-shelf talent. And Panthers owner Jerry Richardson deserves the credit for pulling the plug on Hurney in 2012 because of bloated contracts, poor salary cap management, and an inability to sustain success. Gettleman, who cut his teeth with the Giants, has proven to be the right man to navigate out of cap trouble while picking up bargain role players in free agency along the way.
While most teams spend huge money in the secondary, Gettleman has essentially replaced the group every season with castoffs like Kurt Coleman, Roman Harper and cheap nfl jerseys and mid-level draft picks. The defense hasn’t suffered. Gettleman resisted the calls to sign a veteran stopgap at receiver when wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, Gettleman’s excellent 2014 first-round pick, tore his ACL in August. Gettleman believed the guys in place would suffice. The Panthers lead the league in scoring with Ted Ginn, Jerricho Cotchery, Devin Funchess and Corey Brown at wide receiver.
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Sure, we’ll toss them in a discussion about undefeated teams, only to note they’re the most likely to fall first. Yes, we’ll mention that Josh Norman is playing really well, only to stop short of adamantly noting he’s playing better than any cornerback in the NFL. And absolutely, we’ll even tell you it’s a nice story, before wondering when it will end.
Maybe that’s merely life as a small-market team with a limited level of historical significance. But what the Panthers did to the Packers in Sunday’s first half wasn’t just worthy of our “aw, shucks” compliments. It was real-deal, dominating football against the one team with the best chance of challenging them for home-field advantage in the playoffs.
And so on Sunday, that shoe became a boot, and the only place it dropped was squarely in the rear ends of the two-time defending conference champion Seattle Seahawks. The Panthers beat them on the ground (144 yards rushing). They beat them through the air (Cam Newton posted a tidy 108.3 passer rating). They beat them up front. They beat back their comeback, and beat them in a different way than they beat them before.
Carolina beat them, and beat them, and beat them until what was happening out there was impossible for those who have been missing what’s going on down here to miss it any longer. Asked as he jogged triumphantly off the field if his team had felt overlooked, first-team All-Pro corner Josh Norman smiled: “Yeah. Yup. Look at the score, though.”
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While Cam Newton absorbed Sunday’s defeat by sitting at his locker for more than 45 minutes, most of which he spent with a towel over his head, Harper seemed more capable of maintaining focus on the bigger picture. And that’s not a knock on the 26-year-old Newton. The 33-year-old Harper merely has the benefit of life experience.
“In 2009, we were 13-0 when we lost our first game to the Cowboys,” said Harper, referring to his time as a key member of that season’s Saints squad. “Then we lost two more. We were the first team in NFL history to lose our last three games and still win the Super Bowl.”
Before he broke his arm, Thomas Davis was the best player on the field in the NFC Championship. After three ACL surgeries and ten seasons with the Panthers, he’s still one of the fastest linebackers in pursuit of the ball. His knowledge and film-study lets him react to plays before they start rolling, resulting in big plays behind the line of scrimmage. The Panthers love to show pressure up the middle with Davis and Luke Kuechly, forcing confusion from opposing lines. Both players can blitz, both can drop back into coverage, and both need to be monitored every play.
Kuechly is at an even higher level. Even Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall told me this week that Kuechly was the best linebacker in the league. His range in pass coverage will allow him to close on any Peyton Manning flutterballs. Ron Rivera said Kuechly was the natural heir to Mike Singletary and Brian Urlacher as the NFL’s true complete linebacker. His ability in pursuit seems to be contagious.