Final score: Patriots 20, Panthers 24
Considering Bill Belichick and Ron Rivera were a part of two of the better defenses of the last 30 years, the fact that they both led teams that played late '80s style football last November shouldn't be surprising.
Our seventh top game of 2013 was Monday Night Football's top offering, a 24-20 thriller in Carolina between two very good teams. Ron Rivera's Panthers featured an offense that didn't ask the quarterback to make too many plays in the passing game, pounded the run 30 times a game and played a middle linebacker-centric defense.
Hmm. Not asking the quarterback to constantly sling the rock, leaning on the ground attack, and relying on a defense funneled through the Mike linebacker ... sounds a bit like the '85 Bears who had Jim McMahon as the game manager, Walter Payton as the workhorse tailback and Mike Singletary playing the role of the Mike. Rivera was a backup linebacker on that legendary team, and brought that formula with him to Carolina as a head coach.
Meanwhile back in 1985, a few hundred miles away from Chicago, Belichick was cutting his teeth as a young defensive coordinator with the New York Giants. In fact, his team would lose to Rivera's Bears in the playoffs. Yet, the Giants would use a similar strategy to that of the Super Bowl Shufflers during the following season to go14-2 and steamroll their way to a win in Super Bowl XXI. That year, quarterback Phil Simms threw the ball a bit less while Joe Morris rushed for over 1,500 yards. The defense, featuring league MVP Lawrence Taylor, gave up less than 15 points per game.
Back in 2013, the story of Carolina's 24-20 win would center on an apparent pass interference no-call against Rob Gronkowski instead of the previous 59 minutes of excellent football. What I noticed watching this killer Monday Night matchup, was that somehow within the pass happy NFL, teams other than the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers were having success with balanced offenses, and their formula for success at least partially reflected the one-time personality of their head coaches.
Yes, Belichick and the Patriots have Tom Brady, but until he had to start throwing the ball all over the park to bring New England back on a final drive, their mixture was almost 50-50 run-pass, harkening back to Belichick's days with Big Blue. Meanwhile, Cam Newton would make tremendous plays with his legs (making him far more than a game manager) and Rivera's Panthers followed the model of those spunky '85 Bears: 28 passes, 23 runs with Mike linebacker Luke Kuechly making impact plays. Both teams would finish 2013 in the top 10 in rushing attempts.
So the next time you hear announcers gush about the passing game, remember that balance still brings home the bacon.
A couple of defensive minds from the 1980s sure do.
Trailing 24-20, Brady engineered an 11-play, 62-yard drive to set up a final throw from the Carolina 18-yard line with 3 seconds remaining on the clock. He had Gronkowksi over the middle for a moment, but underthrew the ball.
The All-Pro tight end appeared to have a shot of coming back for the ball ... but take another look at Kuechly in coverage. Should a penalty have been called?
When we compared Newton to McMahon earlier, it was not to insinuate they are the same player. The Cam-chise makes things happen on a football field that McMahon couldn't dream of doing. Case in point, Newton's 14-yard gallop on third-and-7 to set up a touchdown pass to Greg Olsen. Without that first down run, the Panthers would have had to punt as they were still in their own territory.
As mentioned, despite the fame of the two quarterbacks -- Brady and Newton -- these offenses were two of the more balanced attacks in the league last season. Take a look at the stat board for more.
Despite both offenses having 300-plus net yards in this game, no player threw for 300 yards, ran for 100 yards, or had 100 receiving yards. This was truly a balanced deal, all the way around. Still, Newton's day was rather impressive ... 209 passing yards, three touchdown passes and 62 rushing yards.
Without this win, the Panthers would have gone into Week 17 with a 10-5 record, the same as the New Orleans Saints. But going beyond that, Carolina's home win over a premier team like the Patriots had to give them confidence they could beat anyone in Charlotte. After all, this club hadn't had a winning record since 2008, and got spanked by the Saints in Week 14. Yet, nobody panicked in the Week 16 rematch, when the club eked out a nail-biter at home.
NFL Network will feature games No. 10 through No. 1 in an all-day marathon from 6 a.m. ET to 10 p.m. ET, Sunday, July 6.
-- by Elliot Harrison. Follow Elliot on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.