CHARLOTTE – Lost in the debate over whether the Panthers should have been penalized on the final play of Monday night's dramatic victory over New England was this: Even if the Patriots had gotten the call, they would still have had to score on the next play to win the game.
That certainly wasn't lost on Carolina's stingy defense.
"I was saying, 'Oh man, they can't call that,' but there was no doubt in my mind that we were going to stop them," Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "I feel like we're one of the best defenses in the league, and we would have gone out there and executed."
Defensive end Charles Johnson took exactly the same tact, moving his mind toward the possibility of having to come up with one more play immediately upon seeing the flag fly.
"Once it happened," Johnson said, "I was just on to the next play."
Fortunately for the Panthers, it didn't come to that. Officials huddled and picked up the flag, determining that linebacker Luke Kuechly's contact with Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in the back of the end zone was irrelevant because the pass was uncatchable.
The only person in position for the ball was rookie safety Robert Lester, who intercepted it to seal the 24-20 victory.
"The explanation makes sense to me, that it happened behind where the ball was intercepted," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "That was the decision. No matter how much people want to talk about it, to rehash it and rehash it, it's not going to change."
Rehash it they have. On SportsCenter following ESPN's game broadcast, the network devoted the first five-plus minutes to that play alone, showing it 14 times before showing any other highlights of the Panthers' impressive victory. And even with the principle Patriots on the play – Gronkowski and quarterback Tom Brady – not pinning blame for the loss on the call, ESPN's 11 a.m. edition of SportsCenter led off with nearly seven minutes of discussion about the call and 12 replays before following with a mere five-play highlight package from the rest of the game.
Rivera readily admitted Monday that if the shoe had been on the other foot, he would have been questioning the call.
And Rivera certainly has walked a mile or two in those shoes.
"We've been on the other end of those calls," Rivera said. "The last two years have been very hard. It's always good every now and then to get something to bounce your way."
As Brady navigated the Patriots from their own 20-yard line into scoring position after gaining possession with just 59 seconds left, Rivera flashed back to the Panthers' loss to Buffalo in Week 2. In that game, the Bills went 80 yards in 1:42 without a timeout and scored the game-winning touchdown with two seconds left. Earlier in the drive, a Colin Jones interception that would have clinched it for the Panthers was nullified by a pass interference call on Kuechly on a pass over the middle that appeared uncatchable.
Rivera also flashed back to Tampa Bay in Week 11 of 2012, when a questionable unnecessary roughness penalty on linebacker Thomas Davis opened the door for a game-tying touchdown in the waning seconds and eventually an overtime victory for the Buccaneers.
He also thought back to losses at Atlanta and Chicago last year, games in which the referees didn't play a major role but where the Panthers defense couldn't close it out.
"We were so close in all those games," Rivera said. "You just hope somebody makes a play."
This time, for the second consecutive week, the Panthers were the ones making the game-winning play.
Unlike Carolina's lone loss in its final six games last season – at Kansas City – and unlike this year's season opener against Seattle, the offense did its job. Unlike the heartbreakers at Atlanta and Chicago last year, the defense did its job.
And, unlike Tampa Bay last year and Buffalo this year, the officials sided with the Panthers' point of view.
"Those can go either way. We've all been around those," Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "I'll say this: 'We thought we knew what they were going to do. That's what they did. We were in position, and the ref made the call he made.'
"Some of those have gone against us in the past. We were fortunate enough to come out on top this time."