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Wrapping your mind around Sunday's overtime epic

PJ Walker

ATLANTA — There was a lot going on Sunday afternoon, so if you missed even a moment of the Panthers' wild overtime loss to the Falcons, you missed a lot.

So for all the people who didn't get past the missed kicks, the Hail Mary-turned-oh-hell, or the box score, we've got you covered.

Here's a compendium of five things (plus a bonus one which is kind of important) beyond the headlines, which on any other day would have been headlines themselves.

PJ Walker's big day

In the past, quarterback PJ Walker would either make "PJ Walker throws" or "PJ Walker throws," and the only difference was the face you made when you said it.

Sunday, the sad-face part of the meme was the pick-six he threw to Falcons linebacker Lorenzo Carter on a screen pass gone horribly wrong just before halftime. But then a weird thing happened. Walker was really quite good the rest of the way.

Walker was 13-of-21 for 250 yards and the big dramatic touchdown in the second half (119.2 passer rating), and the key was his ability to make plays downfield.

Beyond the 62-yard touchdown to DJ Moore at the end of regulation, he had four other explosive pass plays (20 yards or more) in the second half. For a guy who wasn't really allowed to throw downfield in his first start against the Rams, it was an impressive and eye-opening thing. And it wasn't just Moore, as he found other receivers downfield (including little-used tight end Stephen Sullivan. The Panthers haven't had that kind of diversity in the passing game all year.

Walker's past struggles (two touchdowns and eight interceptions in his first two seasons here) are still a thing, but a lot of those picks came as a relief pitcher. When he's had the entire week to plan to start, he's been decent actually, especially while throwing two touchdown passes and taking care of the ball last week against the Buccaneers.

Interim coach Steve Wilks was asked after the game if he considered replacing Walker at halftime, and his reaction spoke to the belief Walker has created among coaches and teammates during his time here.

"You've got to get into a rhythm," Wilks said. "You've got to have confidence in who you have in there early on, and I wasn't about to pull him that early. I didn't really think about it, to be honest, and as coaches, we've got to continue to put guys in the best positions to be successful, and I thought upfront what we were doing as far as moving the pile and creating a line of scrimmage, we just had to create some balance."

The look on Wilks' face when he said it also made it clear that replacing Walker was never seriously considered. He appears to be their guy (at least until he isn't). And Walker can sense that.

"The support I get from these guys in the locker room is insane," Walker said. "I couldn't ask for a better group. You can just see the fight in all of us. We all feed off each other's energy. If I'm out there playing well, I feel like everybody else got to be out there with a lot of energy and juice and playing well as well, and I think that's the key thing to this team, to continue to get better and continue to grow. It's not a one-man show out there. It's a whole team out there dominating, playing football, playing good football."

Speaking of insane, there was that touchdown. It was really something.

Derrick Brown's continued dominance

Very quietly, defensive tackle Derrick Brown has continued to have a breakout season.

Of course, top-10 picks are expected to do that from day one, but Brown has grown into his position here gradually.

Against the Falcons, he had 12 tackles, half a sack, and a tackle for loss, the kind of numbers you usually only get from ground-covering linebackers or safeties.

It was the most tackles in a game by a Panthers defensive lineman since those stats became available in 2000. His 40 tackles this season are tied for second-most among defensive linemen in the NFL.

He has applied steady pressure up the middle, impacting passing games without getting sacks, and been a stable force against the run. In short, he's played the way you want a top-10 pick to play.

Derrick Brown

Terrace Marshall Jr.'s emergence

Moore's dramatic touchdown will gobble up all the highlight time on television, but wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. had his best game as a pro, with four catches for 87 yards.

Being able to get yards in chunks is the key to practically any good offense, and Marshall had a 39-yarder and a 27-yarder, both of which set up touchdowns.

Marshall is big and can run, but he went quiet last year after a few good performances early. Of course, the Panthers' offense was fundamentally broken last season, so that's not all on him. But he's getting more and more chances now, and he's delivering.

If he continues, he's the complement to Moore they've been looking for in the passing game, and he did it without creating a scene.

Donte Jackson's interception and ankle

There are people on the internet who make fun of Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson for always getting hurt. But here's the thing, he keeps coming back.

Jackson's been dealing with a lingering ankle injury, which caused him to leave, return, and leave again on a cart. But he was on two feet in the locker room, and said he wasn't sure how they'd manage it moving forward.

When he's on the field (which, again, is most of the time), he's making plays. His interception of a Marcus Mariota deep ball early was the kind of thing they needed. With the way Atlanta runs the ball (often and by design), keeping them from shots downfield was significant.

The Falcons eventually caught up in the second half (scoring 21 in the fourth quarter), but Jackson is a solid player opposite Jaycee Horn (who was back after his two-week rib injury absence).

D'Onta Foreman, the new god of fantasy football

Maybe you heard about it, but former Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey became the first running back since Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson to run, catch, and throw a touchdown in the same game in his second game with the 49ers.

His replacement in Carolina got his the old-fashioned way.

With Chuba Hubbard out with an ankle injury, D'Onta Foreman had to deliver, and he did in a big way. Foreman had 26 carries for 118 yards and three touchdowns, offering the kind of balance the Panthers had to have.

"I just played my game," Foreman said. "The line did great moving those guys. I just tried to play my game, be physical, run hard and make those guys have to tackle me. I just felt like we started to wear them down as the game went on. I felt like that was the plan."

The Panthers' offensive line was already a solid one for the first six games, but with Bradley Bozeman replacing Pat Elflein (now on injured reserve), they're actually more of a power-blocking group. Bozeman is a road grader in the middle, and he and Foreman have helped provide some old-school ballast to an offense that's still learning what it wants to be.

Steve Wilks makes an impression

Interim coaches are, by definition, put into unfortunate situations.

But the Panthers showed they're not going to be an easy mark this year, and by pummeling the Buccaneers last week and continuing to come back Sunday against the Falcons, they're creating a new persona.

"I think the guys, . . . we didn't give up; we didn't give up," Wilks said when asked about the positives he saw in the loss. "The guys continued to fight throughout the whole game, particularly same thing in overtime. We, once again, have got to find a way to finish, though, that's the key."

Wilks carries himself with an understated confidence, and that has filtered into this bunch gradually over the last three weeks. If there was any degree of hopelessness after a 1-4 start and a coaching change, you don't feel it now, even though they're 2-6.

While the missed kicks and some other late mistakes kept Sunday from being a celebration, the players in the locker room clearly sense something different right now.

Jackson, the veteran of a young cornerback room and a team captain, was asked what Wilks has shown his new team in his short time in charge.

"That he's got our back," Jackson said simply.

So while the result was not what they wanted, it was something to build on, for sure.

View best in-game photos from Carolina's Week 8 game against the Atlanta Falcons.

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