CHARLOTTE – Special teams are the consistently undervalued third phase.
But on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, seemingly every Panther credited linebacker Jason Williams for the punt block that allowed Carolina to pull away in a 30-20 victory over the New York Jets.
"Our special teams had a big play to lift our team up when we needed it," quarterback Cam Newton said.
Early in the fourth quarter with the Panthers leading 16-13, the Jets lined up to punt from their own 30-yard line.
Williams – a linebacker who was released by Carolina in the final roster cutdown and later brought back in mid-October for his third stint with team – thought there was a chance for a block.
"They were taking their wing and motioning them out to the side that they were punting and then were putting the punt protector in the wing spot. So basically, there was no one left in the backfield anymore," Williams explained. "So if we set our call up right, it was just me against the long snapper one-on-one.
"That's a bad matchup for their long snapper. If I get blocked by a guy with his head down, something is wrong with me."
Williams came straight through the gut and stuffed Ryan Quigley's punt, allowing the Panthers' offense to take over at the Jets' 14-yard line.
"That really kind of sparked us," head coach Ron Rivera said.
Four plays later, fullback Mike Tolbert extended Carolina's lead to 10 with a 1-yard touchdown run.
Prior to that, the Jets had created a surge of their own after denying the Panthers on fourth-and-two deep in New York territory and turning that into a 1-yard touchdown run from defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson in the third quarter. Now, they were suddenly feeling a tight game slipping away.
They completely lost grasp midway through the fourth quarter when quarterback Geno Smith stared down wide receiver Santonio Holmes on third-and-11. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn picked off the pass and returned it for a 41-yard touchdown to give Carolina a 30-13 lead with 8:17 remaining.
"He threw the ball, and I made a play," said Munnerlyn, who now holds the franchise record with five interception returns for touchdowns. "After that, I saw nothing but end zone."
New York tight end Jeff Cumberland added a late 8-yard touchdown reception, but after a tense third quarter, Carolina was able to comfortably close out its 10th win of the season.
"It's very big," Newton said, "and we control our own destiny right now."
With 3:49 to go in the first half, the Panthers and Jets were tied at 6 following a 33-yard field goal from Jets kicker Nick Folk.
The game's first touchdown came on the first play of Carolina's ensuing drive, as running back DeAngelo Williams took a screen pass 72 yards down the sideline.
After sprinting away from linebacker David Harris, Williams ran behind wide receiver Brandon LaFell, whose block on cornerback Dee Milliner allowed Williams to glide into the end zone untouched.
"I knew when I heard the crowd DeAngelo was breaking free, so I just had to make sure I finished," LaFell said. "I don't want the time I let up be the time that DeAngelo's right behind me and my guy makes the (tackle). It was just about finishing on that play."
That explosive score – plus Graham Gano's third field goal with eight seconds left in the second quarter – pushed the Panthers' lead to 16-6 at halftime.
"We scored 10 points within two minutes," tight end Greg Olsen said. "That really gave us comfort coming into halftime."
New York cut the lead to three in a third quarter that included five Carolina penalties for 44 yards, but the fourth quarter belonged to the Panthers, who are once again tied with New Orleans for first place in the NFC South division thanks to the Saints' loss to the St. Louis Rams.
"Some things fell our way that put us in the drivers' seat," Olsen said. "It's a positive day. We beat a good team. We feel pretty good about where we're at right now."
INJURY UPDATES: Newton and defensive end Greg Hardy suffered minor injuries Sunday. Newton injured his toe before halftime and was examined by doctors in the locker room. He returned for the start of the third quarter and finished the game.
"I'll be alright," he said. "Nothing too serious."
Hardy cramped up midway through the fourth quarter but returned to action.
"Thank goodness (it was nothing serious)," Rivera said. "His left calf cramped up pretty good."