Midway through the fourth quarter of this Monday Night Football game, the narrative was set. The Carolina Panthers were going to go to 7-0, matching their 2014 win total and establishing themselves as one of the NFL's truly elite teams. And the Colts were going to drop to 3-5 on the season, with a franchise quarterback in Andrew Luck who was completely lost. There was no other way to write it at that point. Going into the fourth quarter, Luck had completed five of 16 passes for 40 yards and two interceptions. And then, in the two drives that followed, the Panthers' defense went reactive, allowing Luck to completely turn things around. Luck completed 12 of 15 passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns, engineering a 17-point comeback and ending regulation with a 24-yard field goal from Adam Vinatieri to tie the game at 23 and send it into OT.
The two clubs traded field goals in overtime, and then, just as quickly as Luck turned things around, he reverted back to his earlier bad throws, aiming for tight end Coby Fleener and watching safety Roman Harper tip the ball to linebacker Luke Kuechly at the Indianapolis 31-yard line. Three plays later, kicker Graham Gano booted a 52-yard field goal to end the game in Carolina's favor, 29-26.
“That was all rush—the rush and Roman Harper,” Kuechly said after the game. “He made a great play on the ball, and I was in the right spot. The defensive line got some pressure, and Roman made a great play. I was just kind of there to grab it.”
It was amazing that the Colts were in it at all, as horribly as they played earlier in the game.
“Andrew Luck and the Colts are a good team,” Kuechly said. “Good players on their offense, and their defense stepped up. But we did what we've done all year—we made plays when we needed to, and we got a win.”
Indeed they did, and with the 6-1 Packers coming to their stadium next Sunday, the Panthers have a legitimate shot to put serious distance between themselves and the rest of the conference. It was a typical Panthers win, muddy and sloppy at times, but powerful and resilient enough to get things done when it mattered.
As for the Colts... well, they showed more fight in this game than they had all season, and there were reasons for encouragement going forward. Even at 3-5, they're still on top in the AFC South, for what it's worth (though that says more about the division than the team). But the problems brought about by the discord between head coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson, and the patchy roster put together under Grigson's supervision, and Luck's clear regression? These problems aren't going to go away anytime soon, and this team must welcome Peyton Manning and the undefeated Broncos, with their fearsome defense, into Lucas Oil Stadium next Sunday. A loss to Manning in Manning's old home, and a bye following that game, could lead to the mass firings that have been rumored for some time.
Three primary takeaways from this game:
1. Don't look now, but Cam Newton is a legitimate MVP-level quarterback
When he came into the NFL in 2011, Newton was a terrific athlete and running quarterback with some potential as a thrower. He had run a very basic “check-with-me” offense at Auburn, and it took some time before he was able to develop into a player conversant with advanced NFL principles. He's been playing at an MVP clip this season even with a depleted receiver corps and an overachieving offensive line, and he was absolutely tremendous for the most part in this contest. The two things that really show up with the 2015 version of Cam Newton? First, he understands how to stay in the pocket and still move around, allowing his receivers to get open and receive optimal throws. Second, he's really nailed the idea of ball placement and trajectory. No longer are Newton's throws all frozen ropes. Now, he understands how to vary his deliveries and find his best open target. Newton finished this game with 16 completions in 35 attempts for 248 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, but there were quite a few drops on great passes, including one ridiculous drop by Ted Ginn in overtime would have ended the game in Carolina's favor sooner. The quarterback position is a stats-driven one, but in Newton's case, there are things he does on the field that go beyond pure numbers.
2. Andrew Luck's late comeback doesn't hide his problems
Luck has been dealing with a bum shoulder for a while, and the story came out this week that the Colts were hiding a serious rib injury from their own injury reports. What the league will do with that after one of its overwrought investigations is anyone's guess, but there's absolutely no question that the Luck we're watching now is not the one we've seen through his NFL career. Luck finished his day with 23 completions in 47 attempts for 231 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions, but just as Newton's stat line hid a lot of positive things, Luck played worse than his numbers would indicate, except on those two late-game drives. He's not helped by an offense designed by Pep Hamilton that features narrow receiver splits and few opportunities for easy openings, but Luck is also frequently throwing late, against formations, and in ways that actually throw his receivers closed. Whether it's injury or mental meltdowns or both, the Colts had better figure this out. They already rely far too much on Luck for their success (and have since he came into the league), leaving far less margin for error than Luck can afford at this point in time.
3. Josh Norman is Carolina's best player on either side of the ball
Once again, Carolina's cornerback proved just about impossible to throw to. Coming into this game, Norman had allowed just 18 catches on 39 targets for 139 yards, one touchdown and four picks. Quarterbacks throwing in his area had compiled a silly-bad 23.4 quarterback rating, by far the worst in the league. And in this game. Norman stuck to Indy's T.Y. Hilton all the way through. Luck desperately needed to connect with his best and fastest receiver, and Norman simply wasn't going to let it happen. Carolina's defense is full of great players, but at this point, Norman is the best of them, and he may very well be the best defensive player in the NFL. The Panthers wouldn't be where they are without him.