Carolina Panthers playoff push continues with 30-20 win over the New York Jets

Entering the fourth quarter, the Carolina Panthers knew they needed to make plays against the New York Jets (6-8). And this time it was a special-teamer – little-known Jason Williams – who blocked a punt early in the fourth quarter with Carolina clinging to a 16-13 lead and led to a Panthers touchdown. And everything turned around…just like that.

Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn established a franchise career mark with this interception returned for a touchdown. It was his fifth of his career. (PHOTO: David T. Foster, Charlotte Observer)

Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn established a franchise career mark with this interception returned for a touchdown. It was his fifth of his career. (PHOTO: David T. Foster, Charlotte Observer)

Seven minutes later, Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn intercepted a pass and returned it 41 yards for a touchdown, giving the Cats an insurmountable 30-13 lead.  That play gave Munnerlyn a Panthers career pick-six team career record with five. He previously shared the record with Mike Minter. Munnerlyn has seven career interceptions, so returning five of those for touchdowns is a remarkable accomplishment.

The Jets did score once again, but could not come any closer. Final score, Panthers 30 Jets 20.

New York played tough on Sunday…like a team with nothing to lose. And that’s how they should be playing. See what talent you have and let ‘em go after it. Carolina, on the other hand, now owns a 10-4 record, are in the 5th playoff slot, but, with a win next Sunday against the New Orleans Saints (also 10-4) and a win the following Sunday at Atlanta, the Panthers would win the NFC South and get a bye going into the playoffs.

While the Panthers win wasn’t pretty – I would call it workmanlike – it was critical. The NFL’s No.1 scoring defense gave up 20 points to the very average Jets (6-8). The Panthers had to kick three field goals when drives bogged down, and “Riverboat” Ron finally misfired, going for a fourth-and-2 and missing it.

Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short tackles Jets quarterback Geno Smith. (PHOTO: Jeff Siner, Charlotte Observer)

Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short tackles Jets quarterback Geno Smith. (PHOTO: Jeff Siner, Charlotte Observer)

But style points mean nothing in the NFL these days. Only wins do. And the Panthers now have 10 of them, including nine out of their last ten games.

Big plays…the blocked punt, the returned interception, a 72-yard touchdown reception by DeAngelo Williams…this has become the hallmark of the 2013 Panthers team. Making big plays when they need to and taking care of business for the rest of the game.

Like last week, the Panthers began slowly, getting only two field goals in two red zone opportunities early. They left eight potential points out there. And they are aware of this problem. In all, the Panthers went a dismal 1-for-5 inside the Jets’ 20 – a stat that usually doesn’t equal victory.

“We want to get the ball in the red zone – and score touchdowns,” left tackle Jordan Gross said. “But luckily we were able to keep the lead all game and our defense held them when they needed to. “We scored two touchdowns in other phases. It was definitely a team win.”

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton put a slight scare into the crowd, going into the locker room with one play left in the first half. Scrambling on third down late in the first half, Newton was tackled by New York defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, who slammed him down on his left hip and landed on his lower body.

Newton jogged to the locker room, where they did not X-ray his foot. Coach Ron Rivera said he was never concerned about his quarterback. “Once I got in they told me they just wanted to make sure and that way they would be able to re-tape his ankle and get his shoe back on.”

Newton waited until the last minute to emerge from the tunnel and jog back to the Carolina Panthers’ sideline to start the second half.

Head trainer Ryan Vermillion brought two extra pairs of cleats for Newton and placed them at the end of the bench while Newton warmed up.

He said after the game he’d be OK. “It’ll be all right. It was a shocker at first. As the game progressed it loosened up.”

“He stubbed his toe. They wanted to come in and make sure it was okay,” Rivera said. “We had a little bit of time, so they took him in early so they could take his shoe off, cut his tape off and take a look at it. But he is fine.”

PLAYOFF SCENARIOS:

It can be very simple: If the Panthers win out, Carolina will win the NFC South and receive a first-round bye. Or not. the 49ers, Panthers and Saints all sit at 10-4, but San Francisco lost to both New Orleans and Carolina this year. Arizona (9-5) is also in the mix for a wild card and would hold the tiebreaker with the Panthers if both teams finish with the same record. The next two weeks will be stressful for players, coaches, management, owners…and fans. But wildly entertaining if you just love football.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING:

  •  Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy said next week’s outcome would be different:  “I feel like we’re going to come out this week and win. That’s what we do. We’re going to show up. I have full confidence in my team,” Hardy said. “You know me, I’m going to work my behind off in practice and come out and dominate like I normally do. They should probably be ready for a battle.”
  • Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross on Coach Ron Rivera’s prediction that the next Saints game would be for the NFC title:  “Rivera told us that was going to happen. I didn’t know he was a fortune-teller.”
Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross (69) and quarterback Cam Newton (1) celebrate Newton's 72-yard touchdown pass to DeAngelo Williams. (PHOTO: Jeff Siner, Charlotte Observer)

Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross (69) and quarterback Cam Newton (1) celebrate Newton’s 72-yard touchdown pass to DeAngelo Williams. (PHOTO: Jeff Siner, Charlotte Observer)

  • Gross said Rivera had told his downcast team on Monday – just a few hours after a prime-time, 31-13 pasting administered by the Saints on Dec. 8 – exactly what would happen in six days. “He said keep believing and keep working, because the Saints are going to lose one on the road and we’re going to play them in two weeks for the division title,” Gross said. “That guy believes, man. It’s pretty infectious.”
  • Panthers tight end Greg Olsen on what win number 10 meant:  “It’s kind of the rule of thumb every year is if we can get to 10 wins we have a pretty good chance at the playoffs. Between that and winning your division, those are the two things that give you the best chance of making it, and we’re in position now to accomplish both. We’re sitting in good position now, big home game for us and the fans are going to fired-up. We’re going to need them.”
  • Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on the win:  “It’s very big, We control our own destiny right now.”
  • Panthers wide receiver Brandon LaFell on the upcoming Saints game:  “I wish we could play tomorrow. We’ve got the Saints on our minds.”
Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn had a great game - two sacks and one interception (shown here) returned for a touchdown. (PHOTO: Jeff Siner, Charlotte Observer)

Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn had a great game – two sacks and one interception (shown here) returned for a touchdown. (PHOTO: Jeff Siner, Charlotte Observer)

  • Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn on the first Saints game and the one coming up:  “We just let Drew Brees dink and dunk us down the field and they made plays. I think it’s going to be a totally different game plan. I think we’re going to go out there. And we’re going to execute. And we’re going to win the game.”
  • Munnerlyn on defensive coordinator Sean McDermott’s late Saturday night film session at the team hotel:  “I think (McDermott) just saw something and he kept watching film. He said, ‘This is my life, man. I want to win this game so bad.’ He did a great job of seeing what they didn’t see, their weakness, and he attacked it.”
  • Munnerlyn reacting to the Jets’ receiver Santonio Holmes who, earlier in the week, had called the Panthers’ secondary the defense’s “weakest link.”:   “I’ve never been called out like that before. I have never been a part of nothing like that. If you think that, I never heard nobody say it. And he went out publicly and he said it. I’m the laid back guy in the group. I took it personal. I was fired up when I got to the stadium. I couldn’t wait to play. Maybe I need to get a little geeked before the game more.”
  • Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert on his fellow running back DeAngelo Williams – who broke free to score on a 72-yard touchdown catch and run – his longest reception of his career:  “I told him he looked slow. We’ll see how much cardio he does this week.”
  • Panthers safety Mike Mitchell:   “My coaches have engrained it in me so much I’m still not very happy about this game. We gave up 20 points, which is far too many.”
  • Jets linebacker Calvin Pace on the difficult season and hot they want to end it:  “Try to win these last two games and finish what we started. There’s still two opportunities to go out and play football, so it’s something to be thankful for.”
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and Jets quarterback Geno Smith exchange jerseys after the game. (PHOTO: David T. Foster, Charlotte Observer)

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and Jets quarterback Geno Smith exchange jerseys after the game. (PHOTO: David T. Foster, Charlotte Observer)

  • Jets quarterback Geno Smith:   “There was plenty of positive today, but the way I am, I’m not even looking at that.”