The Carolina Panthers and Cam Newton were far from perfect but didn’t have to in their 27-16 playoff win over the Arizona Cardinals, putting on a historically awful performance offensively, as Ryan Lindley did even worse than anyone expected.
The Panthers won a playoff game for the first time since the 2005 season as they held Arizona to just 78 yards of offense: 51 passing yards, 27 rushing yards. This was the lowest total every gained by team in the playoffs, breaking the 86 yards gained by the Cleveland Browns in 1958. Ryan Lindley looked confused, overwhelmed and simply like someone who couldn’t wait to get the nightmare over with, completing 16-of-28 passes for 51 yards, throwing two interceptions (and one touchdown) and also fumbling the ball once, although that was recovered by the Cardinals.
Cam Newton didn’t look great and threw a terrible interception in the first half as the Panthers looked unable to utilize their huge offensive advantage by turning the ball over and making silly mistakes on offense. But Newton of the last five weeks is mobile, confident and relentless, unlike the version we saw of him for most of this season. He made things happen with his feet, rushing for 35 yards, while throwing for 198, including two touchdown passes in the third quarter with 90 seconds separating between them, pretty much sealing the game.
Because as bad as the Cardinals were, they made the most of their opportunities, taking a 14-13 lead into half time following a touchdown pass from Lindley to Darren Fells and Marion Grice rushing for a one yard touchdown that was called a fumble at first but upon further review the call was changed. Both of these touchdowns came following Panthers turnovers: The Newton interception, leaving Lindley with just 17 yards to work with, and Brenton Bersin muffing a return catch, resulting in only 30 yards to work through.
Without the turnovers? The Cardinals finished with only eight first downs, which makes it seem possible they wouldn’t have even made a play inside Panthers territory. Bruce Arians looked helpless on the sidelines, seeing an 11-win season go up in flames, although he probably knew that was going to happen once Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton went down within a week of each other. The final two points achieved by the Cardinals came on a safety i nthe fourth quarter.
The Panthers ran the ball well, something they’ve been inconsistent with over the years, rushing for 188 yards on 41 carries, including 123 yards and a touchdown for Jonathan Stewart. They ran 13 zone read plays and gained 59 yards on them. Newton kept the ball four times, rushing for 13 yards. It was especially effective in the first half despite the lack of points, rushing for 63 yards on 7 zone read plays. Not brilliant, but in a game with good defenses that didn’t require something unique from the Panthers on offense, it was enough.
With the Cardinals averaging 1.7 yards per play, including just 13 yards in the second half, this game, despite finally making the playoffs after so many years, won’t be looked upon kindly by fans of the franchise in years to come. For the Panthers, this just goes to show that doing poorly or not significantly well in the regular season doesn’t always matter – getting hot and healthy at the right time usually makes up for earlier losses, especially when you’re playing in the right division.