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Winning as a team

Posted Nov 26, 2017

All three phases had their share of struggles Sunday but made their share of pivotal plays to extend winning streak to four.

No, it wasn't a complete game from the Panthers' perspective.

It was, however, the definition of a complete effort.

The offense sputtered much of the game. The defense wasn't always on its game. Special teams had something uncharacteristic happen that could have put the game in jeopardy.

But at other times – at key times – each unit changed the game with impactful plays, and the Panthers needed every pivotal play to claim a 35-27 victory at the New York Jets.

"It is big to win ugly," head coach Ron Rivera said. "When you can rely on a big play from your defense or from your special teams, that helps. It really does."

Sunday, the Panthers got big plays from the defense and from special teams, just in the nick of time. The offense bogged down after a decent first half, suffering through a stretch more than one quarter in length that produced just 14 yards on 14 snaps.

The drought started after a 40-yard run by Christian McCaffrey late in the first half set up a short field goal for a 12-3 lead. Before the drought ended, four empty possessions and some hiccups on defense allowed the Jets to forge a 17-12 lead.

The offense awakened again when wide receiver Devin Funchess – the best thing the unit had going Sunday – reeled in a 35-yarder from Cam Newton to get things rolling toward a go-ahead touchdown. Jonathan Stewart's 2-yard score put Carolina back ahead as the third quarter came to a close, but the Panthers felt they had to go for two because of a missed PAT in the first half that hung over the game for a while. When the two-pointer came up millimeters short, a subsequent Jets field goal put them right back on top at 20-18.

But after the offense followed with its fourth three-and-out in five drives, help arrived.

The defense struck first, scoring its first touchdown of the season when defensive end Wes Horton stripped Jets quarterback Josh McCown. Linebacker Luke Kuechly gathered the ball and took off for a 34-yard score and a 26-20 lead (Newton ran in the two-point attempt).

"As hard as they practice, working on takeaways and scooping and scoring, it was good to see us get one," Rivera said.

Next, after the defense came up with its fifth three-and-out of the day, special teams scored its first touchdown of the season when Kaelin Clay spun and then sped to a 60-yard score for a 32-20 lead.

"We've been very close on special teams. I'm just glad that we got one over the top because those guys deserved it," Rivera said.

The offense can't be happy about extended stretches of silence. The defense can't be happy about allowing McCown to throw for three touchdowns and 307 yards. It could have been five touchdowns if not for a dropped touchdown and an overturned one.

Yet, the Panthers should be happy.

Even with too many mistakes and missed opportunities, they're again winners and at 8-3 have a truly big opportunity in front of them – a chance to reclaim first place in the NFC South next Sunday in New Orleans.