One Panther Flashback: The night when the lights (and Mike Smith) went out in Georgia

By John Ellis

December 28, 2014: The Atlanta Falcons played host to the surging Carolina Panthers in a most unfathomable wildcard play-in game.

The NFC South was a train wreck all season, littered by a litany of poor coaching, key injuries, and woeful defensive efficiency. Circuitous would best describe the collective journey.

Impressively, the sudden release of legendary wide receiver Steve Smith coupled with the highly disruptive demise and departure of defensive end Greg Hardy didn’t stop Carolina from a 2-0 start. By banging out wins at Tampa and at home against the Lions, Ron Rivera—the reigning AP NFL coach of the year—was now 13-2 over his last 15 games, and it appeared the men of Mint Street had weathered yet another storm.

The good vibes soon dissolved with a home blowout loss in prime time against the Steelers followed by an unrewarding 38-38 tie in Cincinnati. This ignited a two month stretch of winless football in which Carolina posted a reckless -10 turnover differential.

It got ugly. So very ugly. Road massacres at Green Bay, Philadelphia and Minnesota. A gloomy November afternoon carousel of missed opportunities versus Atlanta. A third prime time embarrassment at the hands of New Orleans.

Yet somehow, someway, the stars (and other bad teams) decided to align. A post-Thanksgiving rally thrust one of the worst mid-season teams of 2014 back into the postseason hunt. A malnourished division opened a promising door for the hungry Panthers: run the table in December with an ounce of help from a revolving door of new friends was their only clear path to the playoffs.

The first of three battles in the team’s revised mission plan was a success: a powerful road win delivered with malice over New Orleans, inclusive of a fairly intense bench clearing beef. The victory laid to rest a troubling losing streak while igniting a fire under an entire team’s ass.

Circumstances be damned, many said. Nothing would get in the way from here on out.

Nothing.

What followed was startling news: Newton flipped his truck near Bank of America Stadium, an accident from which he remarkably escaped with moderate but manageable trauma. A blessing that his life was spared, with the hope that his career would continue to thrive.

In comes Derek Anderson, efficiently managing the offense while leading Carolina to a crucial win and the season sweep of Tampa. With tremendous fanfare, Cam returned two weeks later against a stout Cleveland defense, scoring a touchdown on the ground and scoring endless points with 70,000 grateful fans.

Three weeks, one accident, three wins. No problem.

This chain of events set the stage for the perfect storm – an elimination game against the Atlanta Falcons to wrap-up a fascinating regular season

A great pass defense starts with a great pass rush, and this led to a refreshing development in Carolina’s NFCS-clinching win: contributions from their oft-maligned safeties.

Carolina’s defensive front was relentless, collecting a half-dozen sacks and 12 hits on Matt Ryan.

Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson leveling one of the team’s 12 quarterback knockdowns on Matt Ryan.

In a season of few impact plays, safety Roman Harper picked-off Ryan in the second quarter, riding a wall of blockers 31 yards down the sideline, crashing into the pylon with a sea of teammates for his first defensive touchdown in 7 years. Also—turn your attention to the road grading blocking exhibition presented by Luke Kuechly. He’s a football player.

Carolina safety Roman Harper played the best game of his 2014 season, registering six tackles and a defensive touchdown.

A few notables:

  • Of Atlanta’s 11 offensive drives, only one started in Carolina territory.
  • Three of these drives finished with negative yardage.
  • Matt Ryan took 19 snaps in the final quarter, zero from the red zone.
  • 84% of Atlanta’s total offensive snaps were a product of three turnover-shortened drives.

Rivera simply owned Atlanta coach Mike Smith like a dog, forcing three Falcons turnovers for a net gain of 17 points.

Falcons coach Mike Smith was fired moments after the 34-3 home loss to Carolina.

Harper’s score set off a blaze of timely takeaways. In only his second start in place of an injured AJ Klein, linebacker Adarius Glanton got in on the act, flying to the ball to force a Devin Hester fumble—both impressive feats—setting up another Carolina score.

In only his second career start, linebacker Adarius Glanton maintained proper technique off this Matt Ryan play fake, well-positioned to attack Falcons speedster Devon Hester at a proper angle. The forced fumble was returned 32 yards by fellow linebacker Thomas Davis to set up another Carolina touchdown.

One final flash play from lightning quick safety Tre Boston put the lights out in Georgia that night. The 84-yard interception return was the perfect crescendo to Carolina’s improbable NFC South championship.

Boston Marathon: safety Tre Boston’s lengthy pick-six registered as the fourth longest interception return in franchise history.

Final: Carolina 34, Atlanta 3.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera spreading a little holiday cheer.

Rivera finally got his Gatorade bath. The team’s most trusted veterans executed the perfect splash, as CBS captured a breathtaking wave of black and blue–scores of loyal Panthers fans spreading a touch of Carolina class onto Atlanta’s field of shattered dreams.

Never forget this stat: 18 consecutive regular season wins. This is an NFC record—a premium blend from two very different seasons.

This was the story behind a quartet of regular season wins that made that slice of Carolina Panthers history possible.