CHARLOTTE – It was wild, it was dramatic and it was just what the Carolina Panthers needed to snap a two-game losing streak.
After falling behind 21-7 to the Chicago Bears in the second quarter, the Panthers came alive by forcing turnovers and scoring touchdowns in the red zone to earn a 31-24 victory at Bank of America Stadium.
"We rediscovered a lot of things," head coach Ron Rivera said. "That was probably the best part."
Following safety Thomas DeCoud's interception of an overthrown pass by Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, Graham Gano converted a 44-yard field goal to tie the game at 24 with 4:29 left in the fourth quarter.
On the first play of the ensuing drive, the Bears handed the ball off to running back Matt Forte who had done it all, rushing for 61 yards and recording 12 catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. But the Panthers got the best of Forte in the game's critical moment.
Cornerback Antoine Cason sized up Forte and stripped the ball, forcing a fumble that defensive tackle Kawann Short recovered at the Bears' 23-yard line.
"When I saw him lower his shoulder to try to run me over, the first thing I thought was to hold my ground," Cason said. "Then, when I saw the ball, it was instinct to get it out."
An 11-yard completion to tight end Greg Olsen on third-and-three set up first-and-goal. On third-and-goal, quarterback Cam Newton faked a handoff to running back Darrin Reaves and fired a 6-yard touchdown to Olsen, who had worked himself open in the slot.
"There wasn't anybody else in the middle of the field," Olsen said. "I knew I had to win. I had to fight though and expect to take a hit and just come down with the ball."
The Bears took over on their 15-yard line with 2:18 remaining and two timeouts. A combined sack by defensive end Mario Addison and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards left Chicago with third-and-21.
After an incompletion, Cutler dropped back on fourth down and was crushed by defensive tackle Kawann Short, who forced a fumble that defensive end Charles Johnson recovered to seal the win. It was Carolina's fourth sack and fourth takeaway of the day.
"It was great to see the pass rush get the chance to cut loose," Rivera said. "To come up with (takeaways) late and for them to be very timely, really helped out."
Said linebacker Luke Kuechly, who finished with a game-high 15 tackles: "It felt how it was supposed to – guys flying around; guys hitting; guys being physical and having fun. That's what we have to keep doing."
The scoring opened with a remarkably peculiar punt return in the first quarter. Wide receiver Philly Brown was interfered with before he fielded the punt and he, along with the ball, fell to the ground. But Brown got up and alertly found the loose ball. He then ran 79 yards down the sideline for a touchdown to give Carolina a 7-0 lead.
"I looked down, and the ball was right there," Brown said. "Jason Williams and a couple other guys made some crazy blocks to spring me."
Cutler and the Bears then rattled off 21 unanswered points.
Chicago turned a Kelvin Benjamin fumble into a 10-yard touchdown pass to Forte three plays later. Newton lost a fumble after being sacked on the ensuing possession, setting up Chicago at the Carolina 13-yard line. Three plays later, Cutler scrambled for a 10-yard touchdown.
After a Panthers' three-and-out, Cutler engineered an 8-play, 68-yard drive that ended with a third-down screen pass to wide receiver Alshon Jeffery against the blitz for a 25-yard touchdown.
Carolina looked poised to answer as they approached the red zone, but Newton's pass was tipped at the line and intercepted by linebacker Lance Briggs.
With 1:55 left in the first half, Bears kicker Robbie Gould – one of the most accurate kickers of all time – trotted on to attempt a 35-yard field goal to extend the lead to 24-7.
But Gould's kick stunningly sailed wide right.
"It's a victory," Kuechly said. "It's a momentum-shifter."
It was perhaps the break that Carolina needed to get back into the game.
"We kind of got in the huddle and said, 'That was our break,'" Olsen said. "We had been waiting for something to bounce our way, and that was it.
"Then we had one of our best drives of the season."
Newton proceeded to engineer a critical two-minute drive. His first three passes were completed for 54 yards, and he later connected with Olsen for a 9-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to seven with 17 seconds left in the first half.
Carolina continued its surge in the third quarter, as running back Chris Ogbonnaya scored a 1-yard touchdown on Carolina's first possession after halftime to tie the game.
"Going down and scoring and being down 21-14, that played a very big role (in the outcome)," Rivera said. "Our guys hung in there.
"It was a great victory for us."