Sunday November 13th, 2016

Eric Berry first intercepted a Cam Newton pass more than a decade ago in some 7-on-7 tournament that no one really remembers. He did it again a few years later in a regular-season high school game when the two played in Atlanta.

Berry’s latest interception of Newton was his best, though.

In Sunday’s 20–17 Chiefs win, Berry plucked a Newton prayer out of the air at the 42-yard line and began to run. He wanted to go up the sideline, but there were too many Panthers’ offensive linemen waiting for him. He spun once, twice and then started up the other sideline. After watching the first part of Berry’s return on the jumbotron, Newton raced to meet Berry at the pylon, but he was a step too late.

“I’m not sure,” Berry said when asked if he saw Newton. “I was just trying to get to the box.”

That interception with 10 minutes left in the game gave Kansas City its first momentum swing of the game. The Chiefs completed a two-point conversion to draw within three points, and a Kelvin Benjamin fumble at the hands of Marcus Peters in the closing seconds would put Kansas City in position to kick the game-winning field goal as time expired.

Kansas City Chiefs 20, Carolina Panthers 17: Complete box score

Those two plays were the difference in a game that put the 7–2 Chiefs atop the AFC West. This was Kansas City’s fifth straight victory on the backs of their mostly healthy defense—quarterback Alex Smith, who has never been confused for a deep-ball passer, averaged less than 4.7 yards per pass attempt against the Panthers. His 25 completions went 178 yards with no touchdowns and one bad interception.

Sure, the Chiefs were missing Jeremy Maclin (groin) but they still got 91 yards on the ground, which is enough to keep options open in the passing game. He missed two touchdown throws on the day—one to an open Chris Conley in Cover-2 and another high pass to Travis Kelce with pressure in his face.

Nothing, though, was worse than his attempt at two forward passes on the same play. With less than two minutes remaining in the game, Smith had his first attempt batted at the line. His instincts took over and, like most quarterbacks in that situation, he caught his own pass. But then he threw the ball again to Charcandrick West, and only because he was still behind the line of scrimmage was there not a loss of a down on top of the five-yard penalty.

“An incompletion potentially could have been better,” Smith said. “It all happened pretty fast. … I knew once I threw it, it was a penalty. I think every ref threw a flag on the play.”

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If the 1–5 start didn’t sink the Panthers’ playoff hopes, this loss—in a game where their opponent didn’t hold the lead until the final second, no less—likely does it. Carolina can only get 10 wins this season and currently don’t own a tiebreaker against the other three NFC South teams.

The first half was a clinic for the Panthers. They built a 17–3 lead with a healthy run-pass balance and few third-down situations. Newton faced little pressure and had no sacks as Carolina went into the locker room.

But by the end of the third quarter, it was clear something was amiss. The Panthers emerged from a 20-play drive that spanned more than 10 minutes in the third quarter with zero points. Carolina went from its own nine yard line to as deep as the Kansas City 20 before Newton took back-to-back sacks, knocking Carolina out of field-goal range.

“You can’t be up 17–3 at half, come out of halftime and have the ball and go on what felt like the whole quarter drive, have the ball on the 20 and not even attempt a field goal,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “That’s why we lost the game—things like that.”

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With the game tied and less than a minute left, some on the Chiefs sideline assumed the Panthers would run the ball three times, Kansas City would use its three timeouts and potentially have a chance at a punt return and a play or two before overtime. Instead, Newton fired to Benjamin on a slant, and Peters stripped the 6' 5" first-round pick of the ball.

“I took it from him. It was simple,” said Peters, who had three pass breakups and a touchdown allowed on his watch Sunday. “You know how you go to the store and you want something and your momma tells you, you can’t have it?”

Apparently that means you just take it anyway.

Just after the play, Peters ran to the sideline and punted the ball into the stands in celebration. Some Chiefs thought it’d be a 15-yard personal foul penalty, but the refs ruled it simply a five-yard delay of game and kept Kansas City in field-goal range.

“He thinks he can do a lot of things, but he’s not a punter,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “I’m going to go block the next one. That’s what I’m going to do.”

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