CHARLOTTE, N.C. — All Monday afternoon, fans had been walking to Bank of America Stadium, taking pictures, hanging out, hoping that when night came they would see something great.
The Carolina Panthers did their best clutch work of the season to beat New England, 24-20, in a game thrilling and dramatic.
If the Panthers had been a secret, quietly beating bottom-feeders before upsetting the 49ers in San Francisco, the Patriots were their coming-out party.
One NFL game was played Monday and the Panthers played it and they played it beautifully. The crowd was a 747 taking off from Charlotte Douglas International loud. Fans in Detroit and Denver, in New Orleans and New York, saw the Panthers win their sixth straight.
There were games within the game, battles and adventures. Steve Smith was featured. Surprised, right? Smith always draws the opponent’s best cornerback, who, in this case, was Aqib Talib. The Patriots defender is 6 feet 1 inch tall, 205 pounds, and 27 years old. Smith, 34 and 5-9, 185 pounds, established a relationship with Talib when the corner played for Tampa Bay.
Smith beat Talib for 42 yards in the first quarter. The Panthers had the ball on their 12. We’ve been waiting for Cam Newton to hit Smith deep and he did — perfect pass, perfect catch.
Three plays later, Newton threw high to Smith over the middle and Smith leaped and grabbed it for 5 yards. Talib clung to Smith’s leg after the play and wouldn’t let go. It was like a kid clutching his dad’s leg when they fake wrestled.
But Talib wasn’t faking. Maybe he thought if he stayed on the ground and didn’t see the scoreboard the first down wouldn’t count. Smith finally yanked his leg away and they briefly squared off.
Blessed be the 315-pound peacekeeper. Guard Travelle Wharton formed an eclipse between Smith and Talib. Talib was penalized 15 yards for unnecessary roughness.
By the end of the game, Talib all but petitioned the court to change his name to Melvin White. White, the undrafted Carolina rookie cornerback, had a long evening.
The Patriots were coming off a bye, so they had two weeks to prepare for the Panthers. And they repeatedly went after White. To negate the Carolina rush, Tom Brady threw quickly and underneath, attempting to exploit the defensive backs and linebackers. He threw 40 passes and completed 29 for 296 yards and a touchdown.
He’s Tom Brady for a reason.
In the fourth quarter, New England scored twice and took its first lead, 20-17, with 6:32 remaining.
Could Newton lead a dramatic game-winning drive? He could.
He rushed for 18 yards on the drive and hit four receivers, the last of them Ted Ginn Jr. for a 25-yard touchdown.
Then the drama moved to overdrive.
The Patriots began their final drive on their 20 with 59 seconds remaining and in possession of three timeouts. After three straight incomplete passes, Brady hit tight end Rob Gronkowski for 23 yards.
As New England moved, the Panthers on the bench raised their arms and picked up towels and faced away from the field, imploring a loud, loud crowd to make more noise. Mike Tolbert asked, and Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams did, too. So did Smith and Brandon LaFell. So did Brian Folkerts and Nate Chandler, Jordan Gross, and Ryan Kalil.
You know who else did? Tackle Byron Bell did. Bell is 6-5 and weighs 340 pounds. He waved his arms and jumped, and when he jumped the earth moved. When the earth moves, son, you best make some noise.
The Patriots drove to the Panthers’ 18 with three seconds to play. Brady threw into the end zone for Gronkowski and rookie Robert Lester intercepted the pass and the noise was crazy. A flag dropped and the cheers turned to groans.
Then the flag was picked up. The Panthers won. It was official.
Don’t be surprised.
You know how good Carolina head coach Ron Rivera is in close games.