CHARLOTTE – One minute it's a chess match, a game of subtle adjustments and countermoves where the savvier strategist seizes the upper hand.
The next minute, someone flips the board from underneath, scatters the pieces and spearheads victory with sheer will.
Few football fans want to watch a chess match. But add athleticism and passion to the playing surface, and you have yourself something worth watching.
"I've been doing a lot of self-scouting outside of football," quarterback Cam Newton said after his athleticism and passion helped spark the Panthers to an important and satisfying 20-17 victory over the rival Atlanta Falcons. "One thing that stuck with me is when the Panthers are emotionless, that's when good things don't happen. So whether you've got to fake it, whether you've got to whatever you've got to do, if we can get Bank of America Stadium with a pulse, that's when we're at our best.
"That's all I was trying to do, just get everybody involved knowing that you're being optimistic about this whole thing, know that we're going to drive, we're going to claw, we're going to keep pounding throughout this whole game until we get the much-needed win."
Newton's determination in the face of disappointment helped turn the tide after the defense's determination – and a next-level chess move by a wily veteran defender – began to shift the momentum.
The Falcons led 10-0 – and frankly the Panthers were fortunate to only be down 10-0 – when the defense made a stand. Atlanta appeared fully in control, and late in the first half threatened to extend its lead, only to run into a brick wall on fourth-and-1 when linebacker Thomas Davis stuffed running back Devonta Freeman at Carolina's 35-yard line.
Given another chance to change the course of the game, Newton and Co. did just that. Two 15-yard Falcons penalties on either side of a Devin Funchess 24-yard catch and run set the stage for Christian McCaffrey's first career rushing touchdown – and the Panthers' first points of the day – on an old-school option play from 4 yards.
Next came a classic chess move, one that completed the momentum shift that carried Carolina close to the finish line.
Earlier in the half, actually twice, Falcons tight end Austin Hooper broke wide open for nice gains. Panthers safety Mike Adams, in his 14th NFL season, took special note of one of the completions because it came at his expense.
"I knew they would come back to that," Adams said. "I told the coaches they were going to come back to that play."
Sure enough, on the second play of the subsequent drive, the Falcons went back to the well. And Adams was ready, picking off a pass intended for Hooper and returning it 40 yards to set up the offense 31 yards from the go-ahead touchdown just before half.
"I just jumped it," Adams said. "Turnovers are huge.
"Definitely the momentum shifted."
The Panthers lost out on a chess move later, but something that almost never happens in championship-level chess but that does factor into even the highest levels of athletic competition – dumb luck – saved the Panthers.
Adams said Julio Jones and the Falcons took note when Adams broke up a pass play earlier with an aggressive move, and they used it against him. Trailing 20-10 midway through the fourth quarter and facing a fourth-and-7 at the Carolina 39, the Falcons decided the timing was right. A double move by Jones that left him wide open, just waiting for Matt Ryan's pass to land in his hands.
Only thing? Jones dropped it.
"Hey, everybody gets a break once in a while, right?" Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "We were fortunate."
In the end, a combination of good fortune, good decision-making and good old grit and determination tilted the chess board – and the scoreboard - in favor of the Panthers.
And best of all for the Panthers, now 6-3, there's no need to go back to the drawing board.
View the top photos from Panthers vs. Falcons by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez and second shooters Andrew Dye and Jamey Price.