CHARLOTTE – Just when it looked like the Carolina Panthers would win going away, the Indianapolis Colts refused to go away.
But the Panthers, like they've done all season, somehow found a way, falling behind for the first time all night in overtime before rallying to a pulsating 29-26 victory on Monday Night Football.
After failing to hold onto the 17-point lead they forged midway through the fourth quarter, the Panthers didn't panic and eventually improved to 7-0 for the first time in franchise history on Graham Gano's 52-yard field goal with 5:22 remaining in overtime.
"It wasn't pretty. We know that," quarterback Cam Newton said. "We know have to be better, but at the end of the day we're one of the lucky few who can say we're 7-0."
After the Panthers scored a pair of touchdowns in less than five minutes to take a 23-6 lead into the final 10 minutes, the Colts offense awakened. Quarterback Andrew Luck directed the only two touchdown drives of the night for Indianapolis, which pulled within 23-20 courtesy of a 27-yard pass to wide receiver Andre Johnson with 7:04 left and an 8-yarder to tight end Coby Fleener with 2:27 left.
Indianapolis got the ball back at its 40 with 2:02 left and advanced to the 4-yard line over the course of 16 plays without the benefiit of a timeout, sending it to overtime on the final play on Vinatieri's 24-yard field goal.
"Andrew Luck is a great competitor who has good weapons around him," safety Kurt Coleman said. "They were able to find some open space in the zone and make some plays."
The Colts kept it going with Adam Vinatieri's 50-yard field goal on the first possession of overtime for their first lead of the night, but the Panthers got one chance to respond. They did, tying it on a 42-yarder by Gano.
The Panthers' defense then set up Gano for the game winner. On the second play of Indy's subsequent drive, safety Roman Harper tipped a pass over the middle and linebacker Luke Kuechly secured it at the Indy 39. Kuechly nearly ended the game with an interception in the end zone on the next-to-last play of regulation but couldn't secure the ball.
"I knew I had to catch it," Kuechly said. "I had been close on a couple of others, and I wasn't able to make them. Then that ball that Roman tipped, that was just laid out there for me. I just had to make sure I caught that one."
The offense, which had traveled 57 yards to set up Gano's tying kick in overtime, couldn't muster a first down but did pick up 5 yards on third down to give Gano a shot from 52 yards. Gano, who had missed the extra point when the Panthers claimed a 23-6 lead, calmly buried the kick for his first "walk-off win" in his 45 games with the Panthers.
"My wife was in the stands, and I was just trying to find her because I was real excited about it. I've been waiting a long time to have one of these," Gano said. "I've had a lot of game-tying ones and game-clinching ones, but I haven't had a game winner in a while."
On a rain-soaked night at Bank of America Stadium, defense dominated before a crazy final quarter. The Panthers, leading 10-6 but smarting from a lost fumble at the 1-yard line late in the third quarter, responded to take control before nearly giving it away.
A 79-yard drive produced nothing when Newton, couldn't gather a snap from backup center Fernando Velasco – playing for injured starter Ryan Kalil - in the rain. But the defense forced a three-and-out, wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. returned the punt 18 yards to the Indy 29 and Newton lofted a perfect ball to tight end Greg Olsen for a 27-yard touchdown and a 17-6 lead.
After the teams traded punts, Coleman made his biggest in a long line of big plays, intercepting an overthrown ball and returning it 16 yards to the Indy 30. Three plays later, Newton hit wide receiver Philly Brown streaking across the end zone for a 7-yard score and a 23-6 lead with 10:44 to go.
Just when it seemed like it was over, the Colts mounted their comeback behind Luck.
"He got a little energy, got things rolling," head coach Ron Rivera said. "We played against a very resilient football team that was fighting and scratching as well."
Though the game remained in doubt until the end, the Panthers only trailed after the field goal to open overtime. They dominated the opening minutes thanks to a pair of takeaways and a pair of bold calls on offense. Two of the Colts' first five offensive snaps resulted in turnovers, and Carolina converted them into 10 points.
On Indianapolis' second snap of the game, the snap never got to Luck. Center Jonotthan Harrison, playing in place of injured starter Khaled Holmes, scooted the snap along the wet ground. Harper recovered at the Indy 24, and three plays and three yards later, Gano connected on a 39-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
On the Colts' third play on the ensuing drive, Luck threw into traffic and cornerback Charles Tillman intercepted it, gathering it in at the Indy 37. The Panthers converted a third-and-long to get moving followed by a pair of fourth-and-1 conversions, with Newton keeping for a 2-yard gain from the 14 and then running back Jonathan Stewart fighting for the goal line for a 3-yard score and a 10-0 lead.
"Coach trusting in us to go for it in multiple fourth-down situations, that says a lot," Newton said.
So does how the Panthers didn't fold after the Colts fought back.
"That's who we are. That's what we've been building toward," Olsen said. "We didn't play great. We're not going to throw a parade, but we beat a good team that gave us their best shot in adverse conditions."
View game action photos from Carolina's 29-26 overtime win against Indianapolis.