CHARLOTTE – In a game rife with intensity, skirmishes and 15 combined penalties, the Carolina Panthers maintained their composure and their lead in a 30-15 win over the St. Louis Rams at Bank of America Stadium.
"It was a physical game," head coach Ron Rivera said after his team improved to 3-3. "I appreciate the fact that our guys hung in there and fought back. I'm very pleased with them in maintaining their composure."
Rivera and the Panthers couldn't have been more pleased with how the game began.
"We were up 7-0 without really doing anything," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "It's like they spotted us seven points from the start."
On the first play of the game, strong safety Quintin Mikell hit Rams quarterback Sam Bradford as he threw, causing Bradford's pass to float high into the air.
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn dove to the ground to secure the interception at midfield. He then got back on his feet and slipped past a host of Rams for a 45-yard touchdown.
"Quintin Mikell made the play," Munnerlyn said. "He hit the quarterback's arm, and it was like a punt return for me. It floated up there, and I was in position to make a move and get in the end zone."
Mikell made another impact play later in the first quarter, with the Rams looking to tie the game on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
Bradford faked a handoff, but Mikell and the Panthers weren't fooled. Bradford tossed a pass under pressure for tight end Jared Cook in the left corner of the end zone. Mikell, who played for the Rams from 2011-12, had Cook blanketed in coverage, and the pass fell incomplete.
"I'm a pretty disciplined player, and (Cook) – he's more of a passing threat than anything. I just played my chances of him releasing, just trying to play smart," Mikell said. "And I have a good feel for the things they try to get you on."
Defensively, Carolina kept the Rams out of the end zone. But the Panthers offense couldn't say the same on the first play of the ensuing drive.
Fullback Mike Tolbert was tackled in the end zone by Rams defensive end Eugene Sims for a safety.
The Panthers' second takeaway in the first quarter allowed them to extend the lead to 10-2 early in the second quarter.
Free safety Mike Mitchell forced Rams wide receiver Tavon Austin to fumble, and Munnerlyn recovered at the Carolina 37. The Panthers then produced a nine-play, 44-yard drive that ended with a 37-yard field by Graham Gano.
Bradford connected with Austin for a 63-yard touchdown on the third play of the Rams' next possession, but the score was wiped out by a tripping penalty on left tackle Jake Long. St. Louis later settled for a 28-yard field goal from Greg Zuerlein.
Carolina responded with an eight-play, 80-yard scoring drive. Wide receiver Ted Ginn recorded a 22-yard catch and run on third-and-11 from the St. Louis 23-yard line before fullback Mike Tolbert powered into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown and a 17-5 halftime lead.
The intensity and edginess was ramped up at the start of the second half.
Quarterback Cam Newton missed one play on the opening drive of the third quarter after absorbing a big hit from defensive end Robert Quinn, a hit that precipitated a massive post-whistle skirmish two plays later, and defensive and end Chris Long was ejected moments later for throwing a punch at guard Chris Scott.
When the dust settled, Tolbert was in position to produce another 1-yard score, but the Rams stopped him twice for no gain.
After the second-down play, Tolbert was flagged for a personal foul, and the 15-yard penalty ultimately forced the Panthers to kick a 31-yard field goal and take a 20-5 lead.
"We can't leave points on the field," Rivera said. "We got a bad penalty and we had to settle for a field goal. That could be the difference."
That penalty loomed, as Bradford connected with wide receiver Brian Quick for 73 yards on the first play of the next St. Louis possession. Two plays later, running back Zac Stacy reeled in a 4-yard touchdown catch, cutting the Panthers' lead to eight.
But Carolina remained composed and responded with a touchdown drive of its own late in the third quarter.
The eight-play, 72-yard drive didn't require a single third down conversion. Wide receiver Steve Smith caught a short pass and made two defenders miss on his way to a 19-yard touchdown. That reception made Smith the 29th member of the 800-catch club, and it gave his team a 27-12 lead.
"It means a great deal to me," Smith said. "It's great and it's a big win for us, and that's all that matters. It would mean a lot less if I got my 800th reception and we lost."
The teams exchanged field goals in the fourth quarter, and Carolina won consecutive games for the first time this season.
"Confidence is increasing. That's what this team has needed," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "We're starting to believe in ourselves."