CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers waited seven games for their first win of 2023 … and waited five years between fourth-quarter comeback victories.
When it was over, Frank Reich had his first W, Bryce Young had his first game ball after vanquishing his friend and former middle school rival C.J. Stroud and the Panthers had their best rally during David Tepper’s tenure as owner.
The Panthers hadn’t overcome a fourth-quarter deficit to win since 2018, when they erased the Philadelphia Eagles’ 17-0 lead with 21 unanswered points. Cam Newton fired the game-winning, 1-yard score to Greg Olsen with 1:22 left, and Ron Rivera commemorated the win with a T-shirt of Newton kissing the pylon he knocked over celebrating the Olsen touchdown.
Young was a high school junior that fall at Mater Dei outside Los Angeles. Much has happened since. Newton was released, played in New England and later returned to Charlotte. Matt Rhule came and went, as did a handful of vagabond quarterbacks. Wins were scarce, comeback wins even more so.
Fast forward to Sunday, when Young and the Panthers trailed 13-12 when the defense forced a punt by the Houston Texans a little more than halfway through the fourth quarter. The offense took over at its 9, giving Young — who led a legendary, fourth-quarter drive in the Iron Bowl while at Alabama — the chance for his first signature NFL moment.
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“You love opportunities like that,” Young said. “You go in, you have a chance to end the game on your terms, try to go out and take the game, down one. What else would you hope for? It’s why we play the game.”
A deeper look at the Panthers’ 15-play, 86-yard drive, capped by Eddy Pineiro’s 23-yard field goal as time expired in the 15-13 victory.
The possession started with a dropped pass by tight end Hayden Hurst on just his second target of the day, and the third drop by a Panthers’ receiver. But Young found Chuba Hubbard for a 12-yard completion and the Panthers picked up two first downs on a pass interference penalty and an 11-yard reception by rookie wideout Jonathan Mingo.
The Texans’ sixth sack of Young brought up second-and-19 from the Carolina 36 with 4:28 left.
With the pocket again closing in on Young, he took off running off the left side and slid for a 7-yard gain. Linebacker Denzel Perryman hit Young high but referee John Hussey ruled that Young had started his slide late, so Perryman wasn’t penalized with a personal foul.
“It was a scramble. Trying to make a play, make positive yards and try to get down,” Young said. “In the moment, you’ve gotta get up and react for the next play. Everyone’s trying to compete. So I see it from both sides. “
Third-and-12 from the Carolina 43, 3:06 left.
Sensing a blitz from a Houston defense that entered Sunday last in the NFL with nine sacks but among the better pressure teams in the league, Young checked to a quick pass to Adam Thielen, the rookie QB’s overwhelmingly favorite target all season. Thielen took the throw near the line of scrimmage and darted through a couple of defenders for 10 yards to bring up a more manageable fourth down.
“Bryce made a good check, kind of felt their pressure coming and got the ball out quick and try to make a play,” Thielen said. “It was a great call and almost got the first there.”
Fourth-and-2 from the Houston 47, 3:22 left.
With offensive coordinator Thomas Brown calling plays for the first time, the Panthers had been stopped on fourth-and-short during the first half during a disappointing sequence of plays near the goal line. Young had gone to Thielen on fourth-and-goal, but the Texans had good coverage.
But that wasn’t going to stop Young from looking to Thielen again with the game on the line. With Houston showing blitz and in man coverage, the Panthers lined up in trips left. DJ Chark cleared his defender out and Thielen was supposed to run a stick route at five yards. With Jimmie Ward playing press coverage on him, Thielen ran the route at three yards — right into an area where running back Miles Sanders (who had lined up wide) had come on a slant, bringing his defender with him.
Young rifled the ball to Thielen, and Sanders — who appeared to run the wrong route — pulled his hands back when he realized the pass wasn’t intended for him. Young hit Thielen’s outstretched arms, and the 33-year-old went down cradling the ball for a 3-yard catch and conversion.
“It didn’t come out as clean as we anticipated but it didn’t matter. We made the play,” Reich said. “That’s two guys making a play, getting the completion, getting what we needed on a clutch play. Just go to your two guys.”
Added Young: “It was a man look one-on-one and Adam did a great job of creating separation and making a tough catch there. There were a lot of people there. Tough, contested catch with the game on the line — not surprising at all for Adam.”
Thielen credited Young for putting the ball in a “perfect spot” on what was essentially a broken play. “If that ball’s anywhere else, it’s a tougher catch and maybe not completed,” he said. “Just giving me a chance to use my arms, my length and make a catch.”
Third-and-2 from the Houston 22, 1:50 remaining.
The Panthers had done little in the run game, picking up just 21 yards on 16 carries through the first three quarters. But Brown, a former Georgia running back who coached the position with the Los Angeles Rams, knew the Panthers had to keep the ball on the ground to get the Texans to burn their timeouts.
Hubbard, who has supplanted free-agent acquisition Sanders as the No. 1 back, picked up four yards on first- and second-down runs that were reminiscent of the downhill attack the Panthers leaned on with Hubbard and D’Onta Foreman last season after Steve Wilks succeeded Rhule. It helped the Panthers had right guard Austin Corbett, arguably their best lineman, back Sunday for the first time since tearing his ACL in the 2022 finale at New Orleans.
“It’s been 294 days,” an emotional Corbett said. “As little as I told you guys (about the timeline), we knew this was the gold date. We didn’t want to get out hopes, though, just in case.”
The Panthers needed two yards or they risked leaving too much time on the clock for Stroud and the Texans’ offense. On third-and-2, Brown decided to run behind the right side of the line, where Corbett and right tackle Taylor Moton blocked down and tight end Tommy Tremble and Mingo (who had motioned toward the ball) sealed the outside to create a hole.
Hubbard burst through it for 3 yards, forcing the Texans to use their final timeout and all but assuring the game would end on the right foot of Pineiro.
“We struggled running the ball the whole day. We had a few runs here and there. But man, did we need those runs,” Reich said. “(Hubbard) ran hard. He protected the ball. He got what we needed. Thomas did a good job of calling it and sticking with it. It was really clutch. Chuba came up big.”
“That’s just an identity thing. The O-line, that’s what they praise themselves on,” Hubbard said of the physical run game. “We were about that all last year, starting to get back to it now. So it was definitely good to feel it.”
First-and-goal from the Houston 5, three seconds left.
Pineiro initially lined up for the game-winner from 38 yards out. But the distance kept getting shorter as cornerback Tavierre Thomas twice tried to time up the snap and block the kick. The Texans didn’t have much to lose. If Thomas was penalized, he’d at least make Pineiro think about it a little longer.
“I don’t want to impute motives. But you try to just intentionally jump it a few times to see if they can rattle the kicker. When you’re already in tight, they’re willing to just keep doing it and doing it and doing it,” Reich said. “I’m not saying that’s what they were doing but I’ve seen some teams do that. … Eddy did a good job of keeping his cool and was clutch like we knew he would be.”
First-year coach DeMeco Ryans said the Texans were trying to block the kick. “We’re trying to make a stop there (on a) makeable field goal.”
The first time Thomas was called for unnecessary roughness after barreling into holder Johnny Hekker. Then he was whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct, making it a 23-yard try for Pineiro. That’s 10 yards shorter than an extra point, although Pineiro had missed a PAT in the first half after the Panthers’ lone touchdown.
But he’d responded by making two third-quarter field goals, and now had a chance for a third. So while the Texans were trying to get in his head, Pineiro went through his pre-kick routine — three different times.
“The other team was just like, ‘You’re gonna miss it. You’re gonna do this.’ You try to just get away from them,” he said. “I stuck to my routine. I did my prayer. I asked God to please help me and he came through for me.”
“I asked God three different times to help me,” Pineiro added with a big laugh. “Yes, I did.”
When he made the kick, Pineiro jumped on the big shoulders of Hekker, who carried him to midfield, where they were mobbed by his teammates. Rookie linebacker DJ Johnson cramped up during the celebration and had to be carted to the locker room.
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He was there to see Brown, Pineiro and Young get game balls. Linebacker Frankie Luvu gave a ball to Young, who had outdueled Stroud — his friend since their eighth-grade basketball days in southern California — by completing 22-of-31 passes for 235 yards and a touchdown and finishing without a turnover for the second game in a row.
Before the final drive — Thielen couldn’t remember if it was on the sideline or in the huddle — Thielen said Young told his teammates: “Hey guys, this is what we do. We can do this. Let’s go put it on tape.”
It was how Young said it more than what he said that made an impression on Thielen.
“You can say all you want but when you feel the energy and the confidence, it gives you confidence that he’s gonna dish it,” Thielen said. “He’s gonna find us. Just go do your job and see what happens.”
What happened was the Panthers’ first win since Week 18 last season and the first locker-room party since Young and Reich arrived. The scene included trash talk from the kicker, with Pineiro saying: “They were trying their absolute best to try to get in my head. But it didn’t work out for them. So hopefully they have a safe flight back to Houston.”
And it ended with a game ball in Young’s locker.
“You could tell he’d been waiting a long time for that first game ball for his first win. I’m glad he was able to get it now. It was a little long overdue,” Hubbard said. “He deserved it.”
(Top photo of Bryce Young: Grant Halverson / Getty Images)
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