Yes, it feels very, very good to be able to write about a Carolina Panthers win. Why? Because this season, matter of fact the last three or four seasons, it has not happened much. Therefore, as a content creator who is a huge Panthers fan, I’m making it a point to celebrate a victory whenever I can. Especially, one won on Thursday Night Football in front of the nation, which doesn’t happen much for my favorite NFL team either.
Last night, the Carolina Panthers beat their NFC South division rival Atlanta Falcons 25-15 in Charlotte. The win improved the team to 3-7 on the season, with all three of their wins coming against the New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Atlanta Falcons, the other three teams in the NFC South. The NFC South is without a doubt the worst division in the National Football League this year, and so even though the Carolina Panthers currently sit in last place in the division standings, they are still a game and a half behind the 4-5 division-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There are ten games left in the regular season, which means there is still time.
As I said before, times have been really rough in Panther Nation the last four seasons. Particularly this season, the third year of coach Matt Rhule’s tenure, has been at times, downright depressing. This third year was supposed to be the year that Matt Rhule and his under-achieving NFL team were going to head in the right direction. After going 5-11 in 2020 and 5-12 in the 2021 campaign, things could not go anywhere but up right? Dead wrong! That’s what we were in Panther Nation, dead wrong.
In 2022, the Carolina Panthers did not get their first win until the third game, when they beat the New Orleans Saints 22-14. Not only was it the first win of the year, but it was the first win in ten games dating back to when they beat the Arizona Cardinals in November, 2021, and the first victory at home in Bank of America Stadium since they beat the Saints in September of last year. It felt good for the Panthers to finally get a win, especially after losing a heartbreaker to the New York Giants 19-16 the week before. But I could not honestly say that Matt Rhule’s team was headed in a different direction. Baker Mayfield, the new starting quarterback that the Panthers had brought in this past offseason, was still playing horribly and the Panthers could win one, but it proved difficult for them to string together two or more consecutive wins. A someone who follows this team, I knew that winning, and winning consistently was critical for Matt Rhule keeping his job here in the Carolinas.
Sure enough, they started losing again. And not only losing, but looking bad while doing it. They dropped a game to the Arizona Cardinals the next week, a team that the Panthers usually beat but not when the offense can only run Christian McCaffrey to death, they cannot move the football down the field to save their lives, and Baker Mayfield’s passes keep getting batted down at the line of scrimmage and sometimes intercepted and returned for touchdowns. The culmination of this atrocity was when the Panthers got whipped 37-15 by the San Francisco 49ers at home where there were noticeably more 49ers fans in red jerseys in the seats than Panthers faithful. In this game, multiple passes were batted down and intercepted and penalties on both sides of the ball stacked and stacked. I said to myself, “My Panthers look like a college team playing against NFL players.” To add insult to injury, Baker Mayfield, who had four touchdowns and four interceptions up until that time, was injured and showed up to his post-game press conference in a walking boot. So now, with Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold injured, the Panthers would be down to their third-string quarterback P.J. Walker. When it rains, it pours.
The very next day, the Carolina Panthers fired head coach Matt Rhule after five games of the third season of what was originally a seven-year deal. The team was 1-4 on the season, and 11-27 since Rhule took over. Matt Rhule, who had succeeded in turning the college programs that he coached around by the third year, had proven that he could not do the same for his NFL squad. He was replaced on an interim basis by defensive pass game coordinator/defensive backs coach Steve Wilkes. Time to move on.
Steve Wilkes, whom Panthers owner David Tepper described as a “leader of men”, had spent one season as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals and six seasons on the Carolina Panthers coaching staff from 2012 to 2017, when the Panthers were winning under coach Ron Rivera. It is with this winning mentality that he has sought to turn this team around and create that consistent winning culture that Tepper talks about and us Panthers fans desperately hope for. Rolling with a new coach and P.J. Walker, the Panthers lost to the Los Angeles Rams the next week. After that, they traded away Robbie Anderson, one of their top receivers to the Arizona Cardinals and Christian McCaffrey, their top running back and best player to the San Francisco 49ers. Questions began being asked as to whether the Carolina Panthers were looking to sell all their pieces and rebuild? But Steve Wilkes and general manager Scott Fitterer insisted that this was not a “tanking” situation. The Panthers were still going to try to win football games and see what happens.
That next week, wow is all I can say. The Carolina Panthers played awesome defense and offense, and stunned Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 21-3. In this game, the Panthers rushed for 173 yards, without Christian McCaffrey. D’Onta Foreman ran for 118 yards and Chubba Hubbard added 63 yards. P.J. Walker threw for 177 yards and two touchdown passes to D.J. Moore and Tommy Tremble. And the Panthers defense held Tom Brady, who is 45-years-old but still one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, to only 3 points and no touchdowns. Suddenly, the Panthers were just one game behind the Buccs and Falcons for 1st place in the NFC South. That good feeling around football season here in North and South Carolina, felt like it was starting to come back.
But then, as the Carolina Panthers often do, they lost the next week to the Atlanta Falcons 37-34 in overtime. It was a game that in my opinion, they had all the opportunities in the world to win. But among other things, D.J. Moore ripped off his helmet after catching a last minute 62-yard touchdown pass from P.J. Walker, which tied the game, but the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty pushed the extra point attempt back fifteen yards, causing Panthers kicker Eddy Piñeiro to pull the point after touchdown attempt left of the upright. Then, Piñeiro missed a field goal that could have won it in overtime after C.J. Henderson intercepted a Marcus Mariota pass and returned it 54 yards to the Falcons 20-yard-line. After this second miss, Atlanta’s kicker Younghoe Koo, who does not miss, drilled a 41-yard field goal on the Falcons’ second possession in overtime to win the game.
But all positivity was not lost, despite the loss. Running back D’Onta Foreman ran for 118 yards and a career-best three touchdowns on 26 carries. P.J. Walker completed 19 of his 36 passes for a career-best 317 yards, including that awesome touchdown pass to D.J. Moore. Moore himself caught six passes for 152 yards. I felt like even though the Panthers lost the game, they were going to fight and be in every contest.
But then last week happened. Last Sunday, the Panthers were obliterated by the Cincinnati Bengals 42-21. Everything that could go wrong went wrong in this game. Bengals running back Joe Mixon rushed for 153 yards and scored a franchise record 5 touchdowns. Mixon also caught four passes for 58 yards. P.J. Walker only had 9 passing yards and was intercepted twice. When the third quarter came and the Cincinnati Bengals were already up 35-0, Walker was benched in favor of Baker Mayfield, who did manage three touchdown drives. I have seen some bad Panthers games in my day and this one had to be one of the worst.
So, last night’s 25-15 win over the Atlanta Falcons felt like true redemption, after what has been a roller coaster of the last eleven days. The Panthers were able to run the ball, something they failed to do against Cincinnati. The team totaled 232 rushing yards, 130 of those yards gained on the ground by D’Onta Foreman. He brought the rain-soaked crowd at Bank of America Stadium to its collective feet when he scored a 12-yard third quarter touchdown. Afterwards, Foreman decided to join the fans by leaping into the stands. P.J. Walker went 10-for-16 for 107 yards, a much better look than last Sunday when he posted a 0.0 passer rating. And the defense, who got ran through against the Bengals, made some big, game-changing plays last night. Cornerback Jaycee Horn picked off Marcus Mariota in the second quarter and Marquis Haynes, who did not have a sack this season, had two sacks on the final Falcons drive to seal the win for the Panthers.
So, the Panthers sit at 3 wins and 7 losses, with ten games left in the regular season. The Atlanta Falcons are 4-6 and the Buccaneers are 4-5 and currently hold the first place spot in the division by a half a game. But if the Buccaneers lose to the Seattle Seahawks in Germany on Sunday morning and the 3-6 New Orleans Saints lose, the Panthers as bad as they are will only be a game out of first place. This means that in the terrible division that is the NFC South, there is a chance they could win it and find their way into the playoffs. But this is still not a good team and won’t be until they find their franchise quarterback. P.J. Walker, Baker Mayfield, or Sam Darnold, are not the long-term answers. But until then, let’s see if they, under an interim coach, can win a few football games and maybe, just maybe, bring that good feeling around football season, back to the Carolinas.