CHARLOTTE – Everyone loves a good drama, but sometimes you just want to lean back in your easy chair, popcorn in hand, and watch a great performance regardless of genre.
Beginning with the Panthers' last scheduled home date in early October, drama had gotten top billing. But in Carolina's return engagement on the heels of a triple feature fraught with moments of sheer terror, armchair quarterbacks had little drama to dissect Sunday.
They did, however, get to enjoy a virtuoso performance.
"I would say yes, this is our most complete game from start to finish," linebacker Thomas Davis said after a ho-hum victory over the Ravens.
Ho-hum? Not really. Only if you don't like seeing your favorite team hum right along.
"We've been talking about putting a complete game together, and that's a hell of a team we just played," running back Christian McCaffrey said after the Panthers' 36-21 victory. "To do that against them was good."
Since handling the Bengals with relative ease back in Week 3, nothing had been easy for the Panthers aside from their bye in Week 4. The last home game in Week 5 required a 63-yard field goal against the Giants, then Carolina went on the road for back-to-back games and fell into a pair of 17-point holes. They were fortunate enough to create dramatic finishes in those games, falling short against Washington in Week 6 before pulling off the greatest fourth-quarter comeback in franchise history last week in Philadelphia.
With the Ravens and their top-ranked defense coming to town, there wasn't much talk before the game started about putting teams away like there was after the Giants game. There was talk of starting fast, or at least starting with some semblance of speed to avoid having to climb up a steep hill against a relentless defense.
And the Panthers did start fast – sort of.
"We started fast – well, we gave up a touchdown on the first drive," safety Mike Adams said. "But we finally got it together. We buckled down."
The Ravens took the opening kickoff and marched down the field, traveling 75 yards and even overcoming a couple of penalties to grab a 7-0 lead. Carolina's offense stalled near midfield on its opening drive, but then a special teams play got everything rolling.
Michael Palardy launched a punt that landed and bounced just the way you'd want for someone to down it near the goal line, but that certain someone lost his footing. Wide receiver Curtis Samuel was in position to down it but slipped to the ground – only to still manage to secure the ball at the 1-yard line.
"That's one of those things that gives you an opportunity," head coach Ron Rivera said. "That led to our first score."
The Ravens couldn't manage a first down, and the Panthers tied it soon after with a 46-yard drive.
No 17-point deficit this week. For the Panthers at least.
"A lot of talk was about how dominant the Ravens defense was, and understandably so," tight end Greg Olsen said. "Our guys settled down after that first drive and played really well.
"We had some long sustained drives against the best defense in the league statistically."
The Panthers scored on their final four drives of the first half to lead 24-7, and yes, there were dramatic moments along the way. A third-and-9 touchdown to Olsen after the defense's first of three takeaways set Carolina up at the 12. A 99-yard touchdown drive, just the third one in franchise history. A 54-yard field goal on the final play of the half set up by a short pass when the Ravens were on the lookout for a Hail Mary.
Then, it became about avoiding drama. The Panthers knew from past experience – specifically the past two weeks – that a 17-point lead at home isn't for-sure safe.
"It trickles in your mind, the way we won last week, so we had to make sure," left tackle Chris Clark said. "Greg Olsen kept reiterating, 'Find your mojo. Get it back. Let's go. Let's go.' Everyone dug in deep and made sure we finished the game the way we're supposed to."
A fast-ish start and a rock-solid finish hadn't been the story of the 2018 Carolina Panthers before Sunday. It had been the year of the Cardiac Cat, a year when it looked like all nine lives would be needed.
Sunday, though, the claws came out.
"Getting a chance to play against the number one defense? We lick our chops against that," Clark said. "We knew we would get their best punch. We made sure they got our best punch."
View the top ten photos by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez and second shooter Jason Miczek.