It was a big day for the NFL members of the big cat family, well, most of them. The Jaguars got their first win of the year against the Tennessee Titans. Detroit, in one week, went from playoff hopeful to heavy NFC North favorite, with Green Bay losing two games after Aaron Rodgers got hurt, and holding on for a victory over the Bears when Nick Fairley blew up the two-point conversion run to tie it. The Bengals, meanwhile, had a chance to make it a clean cat sweep after improbably tying the game on the hail mary to A.J. Green, but went for a fourth down near the edge of field goal range that turned disastrous.
The biggest day, though, belonged to the Carolina Panthers, where One was a magic number in a road win at San Francisco.
How big was this win? Carolina had dominated inferior opponents this year, with their five wins coming against teams that are now a combined 11-34. Those wins were by 24 points on average, and you can only beat who is in front of you. Still, they did little to quell the criticism of the Panthers during the Ron Rivera era–capable of winning big, but almost always coming up short when things get tough.
Carolina was 2-14 in games decided by 7 points or less since Ron Rivera became head coach. They opened this year with two close losses in games when they had a lead, including a one point loss at Buffalo in a game where they kicked a field goal to go up 6 points late.
They were 2-14. This is a brave new period for the Panthers, though. They are 1-0, winning by a single point at the NFC Champions from a year ago, in a game that could have easily gone the other way. For once, it did not.
FOURTH AND ONE FORTUNES HAVE CHANGED
A big sea change for the Panthers in their recent surge has been Rivera’s attitude on fourth down. He has aggressively gone for it with a team built for short yardage, when he had gone the more conservative route in close losses when facing a choice.
On Sunday, it was the other side, though, that faced a choice at one. San Francisco faced a 4th and 1 near the goal line, already up 6-0. As Brian Billick said, you kick to go up two scores. There is often a thought that you are more conservative in defensive battles. A counter view would be that points are valuable, and getting a 7 would have been huge. Harbaugh opted to take a delay of game while trying a hard count, then kick.
San Francisco never scored again. They should not have scored here, as Vernon Davis had fumbled after catching the ball, coming down with one foot, coming down with another foot while switching it to one hand to stiff arm the opponent, then coming down with a third foot while heading upfield, and getting it punched out.
Even after a challenge by Ron Rivera, the official ruled this an incomplete pass. At this point, we pretty much give up trying to divine what is and is not a catch in the NFL. It was still a big play, as Davis got hurt and did not return to the game, and San Francisco’s offense struggled.
ONE TOUCHDOWN WAS ALL IT TOOK
The two sides only combined for one touchdown on the day, and it would go to Carolina on the very next drive, erasing that “two score” thing that Billick was concerned about. The touchdown came on a pretty sweet play. Carolina motioned Brandon LaFell to the I-back position and faked an option run to the outside. Cam handed it to DeAngelo on the counter as he started sprinting out, though.
A great effort at the end by DeAngelo Williams, and a really poor effort from Carlos Rogers (#22) turned it from a pretty good play into a touchdown. Rogers initially gets sucked in, then waves at DeAngelo, then starts jogging at the 15.
TWO DEFENSIVE STANDS ON SECOND AND ONE
The third quarter was all about the Panthers’ defense, with the two biggest plays coming on 2nd and 1. On the opening drive, San Francisco approached midfield, and just got a nine yard play to set up second and short. Normally, a very profitable situation for the offense, with the ability to go for a big play or pick up the first. San Francisco went with a read option play, leaving Greg Hardy (circled) as the unblocked end that Kaepernick would have to read.
Hardy, nicknamed the Kraken, believes he can beat LeBron James in one-on-one. On this play, he beat Colin Kaepernick.
Here, you can see Kaepernick reading Hardy at the mesh point with Frank Gore, where he decides to pull it out. It looks like Hardy is in position to take on Gore, though Hardy does it all here. He’s reading the read. Bruce Miller, the fullback, is bypassing Hardy on this play on the arc block. His job is to get the corner and the arc block on the outside linebacker to open a big hole, assuming the quarterback has the defensive end frozen.
Hardy, though, makes an all pro play. A split second delay in failing to read whether Gore has the ball, and this was going to be a big play. Miller is in position to get his block, the cornerback is one on one with the receiver to that side, and everyone else is engaged. Instead it was a six yard loss, and a punt two plays later.
The next big 2nd and 1 swung field position in Carolina’s favor. Kendall Hunter got blown up by Thomas Davis, another of the Panthers’ defenders having a big year.
DOWNED AT THE ONE
Carolina got a long field goal from Graham Gano to take the lead, after Gano had missed another earlier in the half (before the Hunter fumble). After taking the lead, Carolina shut down the San Francisco offense, then punted it back. Brad Nortman came up with a great punt, and Colin Jones, originally drafted by San Francisco two years ago, snagged it just before it got into the end zone.
That put San Francisco’s limited offense without Vernon Davis in a world of hurt. They managed one first down before a sack of Kaepernick by Luke Kuechly pushed them back. San Francisco had to punt it back with less than three minutes left.
ONE EXTRA YARD FROM EIGHTY-NINE
Possession of the ball. About two and a half minutes remaining. Carolina had been in this position before, in fact three different times in the last two seasons. There was the Atlanta game last year. There was Tampa Bay’s comeback win on the pass to Vincent Jackson. There was Buffalo this year. You could understand if Carolina fans were nervous.
Carolina faced a third and eight, 2:18 left, San Francisco with only one timeout remaining. Some coaches may have opted to run and play defense there, get it to the two minute warning. Newton threw a strike on an out to Steve Smith, and he tried to slide down just past the sticks. There would be no fourth and one this time around.
It still wasn’t easy. Johnathan Stewart fumbled on the next play. Mike Tolbert recovered. On third down, Newton fumbled the snap exchange, and fell on it.
The first one is always the hardest. Carolina has now beaten a top contender, and did so in close fashion. One step at a time.