ATLANTA - When your postseason fate hangs in the balance and you're not sure which way to turn, here's a plan: unleash the Kraken.
Carolina DE Greg Hardy, who gave himself the highly appropriate nickname "The Kraken" earlier this year, almost singlehandedly rescued the Panthers from the depths of a five-seed playoff road trip next week. In a win-and-get-a-bye game, Hardy sacked Atlanta's Matt Ryan four times in the 21-20 Panthers victory, stomping out the last embers of the Falcons' miserable season and muscling the Panthers into a first-round week off.
Although the Panthers were heavily favored coming into the game, recent history wasn't on their side. Atlanta was riding a five-game home winning streak against Carolina, and the Falcons were motivated both by the usual face-saving and by the fact that this marked the presumed final game of future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez. That was enough to keep the game within one score for much of the afternoon, and in doubt until the final seconds.
For much of their history, the rivalry between the Falcons and Panthers has been as contrived as a reality-show catfight, piggybacking on the residual college-football regional loathing. Falcons-Saints? Yeah, those two fanbases hate each other. Falcons-Panthers? Eh, sure, we'll dance the dance. Why not? There's a desire to win, sure, but rivalry? Let's not get crazy.
Still, Carolina's home turf is close enough to Atlanta that Panther fans could leave their homes Sunday morning, wend through minimal traffic for the game, and be back in time to catch most of the Eagles-Cowboys night game. As a result, plenty of baby blue jerseys dotted the Georgia Dome amongst the home red-and-black.
Early on, though, Carolina gave them little reason to cheer. Cam Newton tried to do everything on the offensive side of the ball, and as usually happens when you multitask, didn't do much of anything very well. Newton had just one completion in his first seven attempts, and his passes sailed high over the heads and hands of his receivers. When Carolina did manage a big play, as with DeAngelo Williams' 59-yard run midway through the second quarter, it often ended in failure or outright disaster; Williams fumbled the ball right at the end of that run.
Still, somewhere along the line, the Panthers began to remember that they stood on the cusp of the NFC South championship, and began playing like it. Well, maybe not like champions, but good enough to win, and sometimes that's all you need.
Even in the game's final seconds, Carolina's position wasn't secure; the Falcons took over with 88 seconds remaining, and began driving down the field with relentless focus. But a ridiculously poor snap that shot past Ryan killed Atlanta's final drive and final chance, and Carolina escaped with a narrow win.
Carolina now gets a week off as a reward, and won't go on the road until the NFC championship, if then. The Panthers have gotten scares the last two weeks but have weathered them both, and now stand as one of the NFC's elites. How much farther they'll travel depends on how quickly they can get their heads on straight in their next playoff game. The Kraken's a nice weapon to have, but you can't count on him every week.