By Michael Brennan
Thousands of miles from Charlotte, NC, the Carolina Panthers (5-9) continued their late-season surge.
The Panthers defeated the San Diego Chargers (5-9) at Qualcomm Stadium late Sunday evening. After upsetting the visiting Atlanta Falcons a week earlier and routing the Chargers in San Diego, both fans and analysts now find themselves asking “where was this team all season”?
Much like last week, Carolina started hot, putting up 21 points in the first quarter alone; with Mike Tolbert punching in two scores against his former team. Philip Rivers fumbled on his first drive – one of two turnovers collected by the Carolina defense on the day – setting the Panthers up in excellent field position to score once more.
Cam Newton did not have quite the dynamic performance he did against the Falcons, but Newton was consistent, posting impressive numbers without turning the ball over. He completed 19 of his 33 passes for 231 yards and two touchdowns. On the ground, Newton only carried the ball four times for seven yards. Unlike most matchups this season, Newton had some legitimate support in the run game.
For the first time all season, the Panthers had a leading rusher that posted more than 50 yards on the ground that wasn’t Newton. DeAngelo Williams, despite seeing a diminished role in the offense for most of the season, has stood out in the absence of teammate Jonathon Stewart. Williams carried the ball 22 times for 93 yards on Sunday in addition to catching two passes for 51 yards and a touchdown.
In a game considered to be his personal “Super Bowl”, Steve Smith was targeted a handful of times by his quarterback. Smith, who was raised in the Los Angeles area, purchased several tickets for family and friends to watch him play. The 12-year pro made the most of the occasion, reeling in six passes for 57 yards and a touchdown.
Throughout the game there was a supreme struggle for San Diego to create something on offense. The lone score for San Diego came in the wake of a DeAngelo Williams fumble that set the chargers up inside Panther territory.
Other than that, it was nearly impossible for the Chargers to find opportunities for points. Quarterback Phillip Rivers was sacked 6 times by a vicious Carolina pass-rush. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson compiled two sacks each as a part of the continuously dominant Carolina front four.
Despite being short many defensive starters the Panthers held San Diego to 164 total yards of offense. The defense that has been a point of emphasis for Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott has continued to get better all season long. Anchored by rookie-sensation Luke Kuechly, the Carolina defense stifled both the Falcons and Chargers in the last two weeks.
Newton and the Panthers have really started to impress in their late-season surge. While they are far from Super Bowl contenders, two more wins will at least give them a better record than they finished with last season. Two more wins might also spare Rivera the loss of his job as head coach.
The Panthers will play host to the visiting Oakland Raiders next week. The Raiders feature one of the worst defenses in the NFL and bring with them one of the worst records in the AFC.