CHARLOTTE – As a 10-year veteran who keeps making his way onto NFL rosters by doing the little things, Panthers tight end Ben Hartsock is as prepared as anybody on the field come game day, whether you notice or not.
Sunday against St. Louis, Hartsock put his preparation into action in a noticeable way, gesturing that it was time for Chris Long to go after the Rams defensive end was ejected at the end of prolonged skirmish between the teams.
"I was just signaling to everybody, 'He's outta here,' " Hartsock said. "I was just stirring the pot a little bit. There's a game within the game, and I was trying to get guys to lose their composure because they're known to be a team that can get a little hot under the collar."
Beginning with that moment, the Rams unraveled while the Panthers proved unflappable. And with that, any chance St. Louis had of mounting a rally dissipated.
"I had so much fun during the game because when you feel like you can beat a guy up mentally, there's not much that's more satisfying in this world – aside maybe from putting a guy on his back," Hartsock said following the Panthers' 30-15 victory. "Mentally dominating a guy is pretty fun."
Starting with the skirmish that led to Long's ejection, the teams traded pushes and shoves a countless number of times throughout the remainder of the game. But cooler heads – the ones wearing silver helmets – prevailed as St. Louis was flagged for three more personal fouls before the game was done.
The Panthers fought all right, but they fought for each other.
"We're brothers," safety Mike Mitchell said. "When one of us gets into something, it's not going to be just one of us; it's going to be all of us. But we did a good job today of getting ourselves out of it.
"When we got into it, we were just pulling each other away, keeping each other composed. We were saying, 'We're putting a beating on them. Let's just be smart. Let's not lose any guys for next week and just get through this game.' "
Emotions really began to boil out of halftime when the Panthers, already leading 17-5, mounted a drive. Shortly after they crossed into Rams territory, St. Louis defensive end Robert Quinn penetrated the backfield on a zone-read run play and popped quarterback Cam Newton in the back after he had handed the ball off. The hit, which wasn't flagged, sent Newton slowly to the sideline.
Newton reentered the fray (a good word for it as it turns out) two snaps later. When Quinn and Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross ended up close to Newton after he connected with tight end Greg Olsen for a 12-yard gain, Gross and Quinn exchanged not-so-pleasant pleasantries.
"My job is to protect the quarterback, and I felt like he took a shot at him," Gross said. "It was legal, but I just didn't think that it was the right thing to do."
A wide-scale scrap broke out, and in the mass of humanity, Long threw a punch at right guard Chris Scott.
"He just lost his mind for a minute," Hartsock. "He threw an absolute haymaker. You don't see that very often. That was pretty epic."
Said Long: "Having to watch the game in the locker room was probably the low point in my career. I can't let it happen again."
But it happened again and again to his teammates the rest of the way. Carolina fullback Mike Tolbert was called for a costly personal foul later in the drive that moved the Panthers back from the 1 to the 16 and forced them to settle for a field goal, but the Rams made more mistakes while the Panthers simply made plays from there.
While St. Louis was flagged for three more personal fouls before the day was done, Carolina channeled the aggressiveness the right way.
On this day, it was the winning way.
"Emotions came out, but the thing was who was going to keep their composure," right tackle Byron Bell said. "They had a guy ejected and had to take a couple of guys out to cool off, but we got back to even keel and finished the game off."