Panthers make Monday a magical day

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CHARLOTTE – If you think Mondays are a drag for football fans that belong to the 9-to-5 set, just imagine what they're typically like for pro football players.

But once in a blue moon, a Monday comes along for football fans and players alike that breaks all the rules.

Witness what happened Monday night at Bank of America Stadium.

"Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays – some days I question how much longer I want to do this," Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith said. "But playing a big game like today, this is what you play for. You can't simulate this excitement."

From the hectic hours leading up to Monday night's showdown against the New England Patriots - "Driving here was crazy," head coach Ron Rivera said – all the way until the hair-raising final play, Charlotte was the place to be.

"Man, I wish we had a Monday night game every week," said wide receiver Brandon LaFell, who scored the first touchdown in the Panthers' 24-20 victory. "It was crazy. You're the only show on. Everybody is watching you. You've got to step up and make plays, and we did that as a team tonight."

My job typically requires that I watch the game from the press box, a wonderful vantage to be sure but by necessity a much more sterile setting than what everybody just beyond the somewhat soundproof windows are experiencing.

I often head down to field level for the final minutes to be in position for postgame interviews, and on this night I made my descent as the Panthers' final drive started to pick up steam. I weaved my way through the innards of the stadium and found a spot along the sideline just in time to see quarterback Cam Newton hook up with wide receiver Ted Ginn for a 25-yard touchdown with 59 seconds left that gave the Panthers the lead.

"It was unbelievable. You could cut the tension with a knife," Newton said. "We had a lot of momentum going into the game, and we had the momentum throughout the game. And still when they went up by three points, you kind of had a feeling that something was going to happen."

Unfortunately for the Panthers, leaving 59 seconds on the clock feels like about 58 seconds too long with Tom Brady manning the other huddle. On the Carolina sideline, players whipped the crowd further into a frenzy – they were already in a frenzy – on multiple occasions only to have Brady keep the Patriots breathing.

"Everybody's heart was pumping fast," LaFell said. "But at the end of the day, I've got more confidence in our defense than I've got in Brady. He's not my teammate. These are my teammates, and I've got their back. I knew they were going to have our back and get a stop."

Before every snap during the dramatic finish, I could feel a slight vibration in the turf below me as the crowd reached crescendo. Then came the loudest outburst of them all, when Robert Lester picked off Brady in the end zone with no time left.

The joyous noise lasted for probably three seconds, roughly the same amount of time the Panthers' victory anthem "Sweet Caroline" played before a yellow flag flew into the air.

"They key the music, and I started cheering," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "Then I saw a flag, and I about cried."

Seconds later, though, "Sweet Caroline" rang out again, as officials quickly huddled and picked up the flag for pass interference, determining that the ball was uncatchable.

Excitement ensued. On a Monday of all times.

"It's huge," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "They always have a good team, and it was on Monday Night Football. The whole world was watching, and we did a great job of showcasing that we can be one of the great teams."

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