CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Panthers are closing out games — and keeping pace atop the NFC.
Carolina (4-1) is coming off back-to-back wins over Detroit and New England in part because of its ability to control the ball on offense in the game’s final minutes. That has left the Panthers tied for the best record in the NFC along with the Packers and Eagles, who they’ll host on Thursday night.
In each of the last two games, the Panthers have built big leads, only to have their defense surrender two fourth quarter touchdowns to allow their opponent back in the game.
But the offense has bailed them out.
On Sunday, the Panthers held on to beat the Lions 27-24 by running off the final 3 minutes, 22 seconds off the clock. A week earlier, the Patriots battled back to tie the game behind two late Tom Brady TD passes before Cam Newton drove the Panthers 36 yards and used all 3 minutes, 6 seconds off the clock to set up Graham Gano’s winning field goal as time expired.
The Eagles will be with third straight division leader the Panthers face.
Panthers tight end Ed Dickson said it’s a “huge” mental boost knowing the offense can put the game away when needed.
“We have the ability to close these teams out,” said Dickson, who had a career-high 175 yards on five catches against the Lions. “You want to finish with the ball in the offense’s hands, kneeling and running the clock out.”
Newton has started to look like a league MVP again the last two games after a rough start to the season.
In the past two games he’s completed 77 percent of his passes (48 of 62) for 671 yards with six touchdown passes and one interception. That’s a drastic improvement over the first three games when he completed 61 percent of his passes with two TDs and four interceptions.
He’s been mentally tough down the stretch of the last two games, including a third-down completion to wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin against the Lions that essentially sealed the victory.
“The biggest thing more so than anything else is just the trust, the trust factor and Cam making decisions,” coach Ron Rivera said. “We gave an option in terms of where he could go with the ball. He saw what he was looking for and Kelvin was the target. And again, it’s just he’s doing some really good things right now and he’s in real good sync with his receivers. They’re running good routes and making plays for us.”
Wide receiver Devin Funchess is one of those players with three TD receptions in the last two games.
“I mean, that’s Panther football,” Funchess said of the final drive. “O-Line toughed it out, running backs toughed it out, Cam (Newton) toughed it out and we just found our way.”
Now the Panthers must turn their attention to an Eagles team that is 4-1 coming back and coming off a dominating 34-7 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.
But Rivera is confident the Panthers are ready for anything with Newton improving following offseason rotator cuff surgery on his right shoulder.
“We went through a rough patch early on with the quarterback because he was still working himself back into football shape,” Rivera said. “He had to get that arm strength back. The shoulder was getting tired quickly because it hadn’t been conditioned the way it needs to when you practice as little as he did at training camp. So now he’s starting to feel better and better and stronger and stronger.”