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Top 20 Games of 2015: No. 17 - Panthers at Giants

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Final score: Panthers 38, Giants 35

» Full list of the Top 20 Games of 2015

"Two men enter. One man leaves!"

Such are the rules of the infamous Thunderdome from the Mad Max series, but they also applied to our 17th Top Game of 2015. While football is the ultimate team sport, there was one mano-a-mano matchup in Week 15 that the entire world was watching: Josh Norman vs. Odell Beckham Jr.

Two of the game's greats facing off with the Panthers' pursuit of perfection on the line (they entered the contest 13-0). Game on.

While these two certainly put on a show, their battle devolved into something many NFL officials likely cringe when thinking about. Five penalties were called against OBJ and Norman, four of them personal fouls. And there were probably a half dozen other shots that could have been called that weren't.

Both Mike Pereira and Troy Aikman felt Beckham should have been ejected. He was, after all, the aggressor in this game. Norman told Erin Andrews during the pre-game that OBJ seemed "enticing, almost edible." Well, Norman feasted on Beckham's mind for the first three quarters, letting the youngster damn near punch himself out. However, it was Beckham who struck the biggest blow at one of the game's biggest moments.

The Giants had rallied back from a 35-7 deficit to make the game 35-28, and were knocking on the door of the Carolina end zone with 1:55 left in the game. That's when Norman, who had spent the entire game in Beckham's head, got fooled by the feisty wide receiver with a flair for the over-dramatic.

It was fourth-and-5 from the Carolina 14. Game on the line. Beckham faked inside for a slant. Norman bit. That's when the 2014 Offensive Rookie of the Year executed his double move, broke up the sideline and caught the game-tying touchdown pass. He let Norman know, too, by deliberately stepping over him during his celebration. A clutch PAT later and this game was suddenly all tied up.

However, while Norman and Beckham stole most of this show, there was another star waiting in the wings who had something to say about this game.

Cam Newton. You know, the 2015 NFL MVP?

Newton did what he had done all year long -- dodged pressure, threw crisp passes, and scrambled when necessary to move the sticks. He made this two-minute drill look easy, and quickly moved the offense into Graham Gano range for a game-winning field goal.

Thus, the Panthers remained perfect, having survived a furious comeback attempt by Eli Manning and co. Beckham's defeat was made worse when he was suspended for the next game by the NFL. Meanwhile, Norman walked out of this Thunderdome ready for the next battle.

Weirdness

Following the game, reports began to surface of the Panthers players carrying around bats and brandishing them at the Giants players -- particularly Odell Beckham Jr. -- during warmups. The Giants asserted that this is what prompted Beckham's outbursts (yeah, sure, OK), but many were quick to point out how ludicrous that was. The truth? The Panthers did bring out a bat prior to game, as a symbol for teammate Bene Benwikere who had been lost to injury. The bat was intended to symbolize that he was still with the team and be a reminder for the players to "bring the wood" and other such silly motivational catchphrases. So in the end, this was truly much ado about nothing.

Play(er) of the Game

There were a number of noteworthy performances in this contest -- Rashad Jennings rushed for over 100 yards, Luke Kuechly was an animal, Eli Manning diced up a great defense -- but man oh man, was this game an exclamation point for Cam Newton's MVP candidacy. He threw for 340 yards, five touchdowns and tacked on another 100 yards on the ground. He got knocked around a bunch in the pocket, too, but kept soldiering on. All told, Cam accounted for 409 of the team's 480 total yards (taking into account sack yardage lost). The Auburn product also faced two separate two-minute drills, and calmly went a combined 10-of-13 for 109 yards passing with one touchdown, adding in 12 more yards on the ground. Both drives ended in crucial points for the Panthers, too, securing this win and the MVP trophy for Cam.

Historical Symmetry

Panthers at Giants was one of several close calls that New York failed to win during Tom Coughlin's swan song season. It's surprising on some levels that the venerable head coach made it to season 12. Let's just say he was not the revered front man in 2006 that he is in 2016.

Despite leading Big Blue to the playoffs in his second season, much of the grumbling about Coughlin's stern approach to coaching and treating men like boys surfaced after a horrific 23-0 home loss to the Panthers in the 2005 NFC Wild Card game. Coughlin's club was thoroughly dominated by Carolina, leading to a tumultuous 2006 campaign where his approach was widely questioned. In fact, that season is detailed in one of the better sports books since Y2K -- "The GM" by Tom Callahan. Clearly views have changed on Coughlin since the Panthers pasted the Giants in that game a decade ago. Winning a Super Bowl, or two, generally does that for you. -- Elliot Harrison

Why this game is No. 17

The Beckham vs. Norman battle, while headline-worthy and memorable, ends up kind of being a detractor from how great this game was. Aikman and Pereira were right, the refs should have stepped in, but they didn't, and I guess in the end that contributed to the thrilling finish. However, the antics of those two players aren't ultimately enough to take away from the rest of what this game offered. Two top-notch quarterbacks willed their teams down the field with help from big-time defensive plays and role players on offense. The comeback, the drama, and Cam Newton's signature MVP performance were more than enough for this game to find its way onto our list.

Visit NFL Game Center for more highlights and analysis from Panthers at Giants, Week 15.

-- by Alex Gelhar. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexGelhar.

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