The Panthers are back in prime position in the NFC South.
A week after relinquishing control of the division in a lopsided loss to New Orleans, the Panthers bounced back Sunday, taking care of the New York Jets 30-20 at Bank of America Stadium.
The Panthers (10-4) used a blocked punt by backup linebacker Jason Williams and another interception return for a touchdown by Captain Munnerlyn to pull away in the fourth quarter.
The win means next week’s rematch with the Saints in Charlotte will be for first place and possibly a first-round playoff bye after New Orleans’ 27-16 loss at St. Louis on Sunday to fall to 10-4.
Quarterback Drew Brees picked the Panthers apart for 313 yards and four touchdowns in the Saints’ 31-13 win in the Superdome.
But Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy said next week’s outcome would be different.
“I feel like we’re going to come out this week and win. That’s what we do. We’re going to show up. I have full confidence in my team,” Hardy said. “You know me, I’m going to work my behind off in practice and come out and dominate like I normally do. They should probably be ready for a battle.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera admitted he did a little scoreboard watching Sunday, keeping tabs on the Saints’ score throughout the game.
Several Panthers’ players said they did the same.
“We saw it. I think it’s hard not to, right?” tight end Greg Olsen said. “We knew it would be even harder to swallow losing a game when something like that bounces your way. So it was imperative that we pull this game out, and we did.”
Carolina led 16-13 early in the fourth quarter when the Jets’ Ryan Quigley came out to punt from the New York 30. Williams, whom Rivera called a “special teams maven,” noticed a glitch in the Jets’ protection during film study that would leave him matched 1-on-1 against long snapper Tanner Purdum when the Panthers were in a certain alignment.
“That’s a bad matchup for the long snapper,” Williams said.
Williams beat Purdum, came free up the middle and smothered Quigley’s punt, giving Carolina possession at the Jets’ 14.
“Then things started steamrolling,” Olsen said.
Four plays after Williams’ block, fullback Mike Tolbert barreled in for a 1-yard touchdown run to put the Panthers up 23-13.
On the Jets’ ensuing series, Munnerlyn cut in front of Jets receiver Santonio Holmes – who had called the Panthers’ secondary their “weakest link” last week – on a slant route and picked off rookie quarterback Geno Smith. Munnerlyn regained his footing and raced in for a 41-yard score to put the Panthers up 30-13 with 8:17 remaining.
It was the second pick-six this season for Munnerlyn and fifth of his career, moving him past former safety Mike Minter as the franchise’s all-time leader.
Munnerlyn said he took Holmes’ comments personally and gleefully showed safety Mike Mitchell the stat sheet after the game, which showed Holmes with two catches for 14 yards.
“They played pretty good,” Holmes said the Panthers’ secondary. “They came out with a victory and did what they had to do.”
The Jets (6-8) will be eliminated from the AFC playoff hunt with a Baltimore win on Monday night against Detroit.
Munnerlyn also had two of the four sacks of Smith, whose 21 interceptions are second only to the Giants’ Eli Manning (25). Munnerlyn thought the Panthers might blitz a lot after he saw defensive coordinator Sean McDermott still watching film late Saturday night at the team hotel.
“I think (McDermott) just saw something and he kept watching film,” Munnerlyn said. “He said, ‘This is my life, man. I want to win this game so bad.’ He did a great job of seeing what they didn’t see, their weakness, and he attacked it.”
While Munnerlyn and the Panthers were attacking Smith, quarterback Cam Newton went to work against the Jets’ defense.
After throwing for 160 yards at New Orleans, Newton had surpassed that total by halftime Sunday.
Newton completed 12 of 15 passes for 224 yards in the first half, including a 72-yard touchdown on a screen pass to DeAngelo Williams.
On the touchdown, Newton faked a screen left and threw back right for Williams, who followed the downfield blocks of left guard Travelle Wharton and receiver Brandon LaFell and ran untouched down the sideline.
It was the longest reception of Williams’ career and the Panthers’ second-longest play this season, trailing only LaFell’s 79-yard touchdown catch in a win at Minnesota.
Williams’ score was the only touchdown in a first half in which kickers Graham Gano and the Jets’ Nick Folk combined for five field goals. Gano’s third field goal – from 40 yards – gave the Panthers a 16-6 halftime lead.
The Panthers survived a scare late in the first half when Newton injured his toe at the end of a 7-yard scramble. Newton left for the locker room early and was the last Panthers’ player to come out for the start of the second half.
But Newton did not miss a snap, firing an 11-yard strike to LaFell on his first play of the second half.
While Newton received treatment on the toe after the game, several players watched the end of the Saints’ game on a TV in the training room. That game featured a good ending for the Panthers, as well.
“We control our own destiny once again, which is good for us,” Newton said. “We have to do a great job of preparing this week (so) come game day we’ll be prepared to put on a good performance in BoA.”