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Panthers have their mojo back

Posted Oct 1, 2017

A clutch road victory against NFL royalty could put the Panthers on the path toward a special season.

After Tom Brady and the Patriots did what Tom Brady and the Patriots do, Cam Newton prepared the Panthers for what they had to do in response.

Newton and the Carolina offense had clicked all day in a way it hadn't the first three weeks and in a way it rarely has since the special season of 2015, but Brady countered. After the Panthers forged a 30-16 lead on the home field of the reigning Super Bowl champions, Brady directed the Patriots on a pair of touchdown drives to tie the score with three minutes left.

Reminiscent of a memorable game late in 2015 when the 13-0 Panthers saw a 35-7 lead to two-time Super Bowl winner Eli Manning dissolve, Newton confidently pumped up his teammates on the sideline after the Patriots tied it. No need to panic, no need to press.

A few dramatic plays later, much like the Giants game of lore, Graham Gano trotted out onto the field, the outcome resting at his feet. Gano came through again, this time banging through a 48-yard field goal as the clock hit zero to give the Panthers the type of victory that could propel them to another special season.

"Moving forward, this can be a jumpstart to a great thing for the season," Newton said, "or it could just be a flash in the frying pan. We're expecting great things for us as a team."

The fantastic finish was redemption for Gano, who had a PAT earlier in the half sail wide left and who saw a 50-yard field goal slide wide in a 21-20 loss at the Broncos in last year's Super Bowl rematch to open the season. But the gains for Gano are only a small part of the story.

Even if the Panthers had suffered what would have been a devastating loss Sunday, there still would have been promising signs to grasp onto once the pain (eventually) subsided. Those positives persist in victory but are trumped by a bigger takeaway: This team has its mojo back after competing – and completing - in the clutch.

The loss in Denver at the start of last season had lingering effects, and a team that went 15-1 and went to the Super Bowl in 2015 went nowhere fast in 2016. The Week 1 heartbreaker set the tone for a 6-10 campaign in which Carolina won just two of eight games decided by three points or less.

Few thought Sunday's game in Foxborough would be a nail biter – not after what happened in Week 3. The Panthers were 2-0 albeit an ugly 2-0 heading into last week's NFC South opener against an 0-2 Saints team ranked last in the NFL in defense. But the Panthers offense struggled for the third consecutive week in a spot where almost everyone thought they'd thrive, and a 34-13 loss meant that even though the Patriots took over the cellar in total defense, most fans expected more (or rather less) of the same Sunday.

What they saw instead was a breakout performance headed by Newton, who accounted for four touchdowns (three passing) after totaling three touchdowns through three games. The offensive line cleared the way, the running game included him in well-timed ways, and the passing game headed by a career day from Devin Funchess had its way with the Patriots' secondary.

Two turnovers, a missed PAT, a 58-yard field goal for New England and a typically productive day from Brady meant that for all the good, the ending could easily have been a bad one. But a third-down penalty on the Patriots, a third-down snag by Funchess and finally a special teams play saved the day.

And what a day it was. What a win it was.

The mojo is back.

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