CHARLOTTE – Where to begin?
In this case, you have to begin at the end.
That in itself says something about how amazing Sunday's battle between the Panthers and Giants was. In a game that featured a touchdown for Panthers safety Colin Jones and a touchdown pass for Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., we still need to fast-forward past that for the even more compelling conclusion.
I've always been fascinated by the plight of kickers asked to carry the weight of an entire game on their back – or on their toe, as Cam Newton said Sunday.
Graham Gano has walked in those shoes several times, and as is the case with any NFL kicker that's been around nine years, he's delivered a number of times but has come up short some as well. Coming up short literally was a potential concern Sunday, but distance was actually never an issue on a kick that matched the longest game-winner in NFL history – a majestic 63-yarder that gave the Panthers a 33-31 victory.
"Graham is a great kicker. I play with him all the time on Madden," wide receiver Jarius Wright said. "I hit 54, 55-yarders all the time."
But 63-yarders? Wright usually passes on even trying those.
"How far was that? Sixty-three?" wideout Curtis Samuel asked. "That was a big-time kick."
I'm always an optimist when kickers are put in such a spot. Gano proved me right with a perfect 43-yarder the last time the Panthers played the Giants – another epic game late in the magical 2015 season that improved Carolina to 14-0. Same thing early last season on a pure 48-yarder to win at the Patriots.
But there's also the 2016 opener, when I literally stood behind the goalposts when Gano made a 50-yarder in the final seconds against the Broncos – one that didn't count because Denver had called timeout. The one that counted sailed wide left to start off what would be a difficult season with a difficult loss in the Super Bowl rematch.
I also remember a kick midway through the 2014 season against the Falcons, another 63-yarder in the same direction at Bank of America Stadium as Sunday's kick. I remember telling myself that the kick wasn't too big for Gano's big leg – but I never found out because it was blocked.
Many times over the years, I've seen Gano edge out onto the field when the Panthers were in position to try, say, a 55-yard field goal in the middle of the game. Nearly every time, they've instead punted. Sunday, Ron Rivera had little choice, and in the moment I thought about how excited Gano must be about getting such an opportunity.
But according to his holder, that wasn't Gano's mindset.
"If you get too high and your excitement increases and don't take the same mentality that you would on any other kick, that's when stuff starts to not go your way," punter Michael Palardy said. "To see that type of composure that Graham had especially on such a long kick is really, really awesome."
I have no intention of being a Debbie Downer after one of the craziest football games I've witnessed that was won by possibly the most clutch kick after I've seen. But Newton did say after the game that Gano's kick "made a lot of wrongs right." It was the kind of day where had he missed the kick, everyone would have collectively said it shouldn't have come down to that. And they would have been right.
The Giants hadn't reached the 30-point plateau since the final game of the 2015 season. The Panthers defense only sacked Eli Manning once. The defense did put the offense in position to put the game away courtesy of two Mike Adams interceptions, but Newton gave it back with a couple of interceptions of his own around the same time.
Sure those are legitimate concerns about this team, but those are concerns for another day. This is a day for starting with the ending, and for asking if that ending perhaps will be looked back upon as the start of something special.
"A win like that? This is big for the morale of this team," right guard Trai Turner said. "We are going to build off this.
"I couldn't be more proud of this team. Let's keep winning. It feels good to win, no matter how you do it."