Graham Gano's 63-yard field goal gives Panthers needed momentum

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano just wanted to get to the locker room on Sunday to avoid the “swarm’’ of people that rushed him after his game-winning 63-yard field goal.

Then he realized there was a second on the clock and he had to kickoff.

“That was madness," Gano said after tying the NFL record for the longest game-winning kick.

Madness would have been a loss.

Instead, the Panthers pulled out the 33-31 against the New York Giants on Sunday. Carolina needed to get through the first four games with no worse than a 3-1 record to be a legitimate playoff contender and keep pace with the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South with consecutive road games against Washington and Philadelphia coming up.

Mission accomplished.

“A loss would have hurt,’’ nickel back Captain Munnerlyn said. “We had an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter. We’re better than that. We know how to finish games. When we get a team down, finish them. We didn’t do that. Special teams bailed us out.’’

Defensive end Julius Peppers, who always preaches stacking wins, agreed.

“It’s important for us to win games early, win home games especially, so we can put ourselves in a good position when it comes time to make a run for the playoffs,’’ he said. “So today was big for us.’’

It’s even bigger when you look ahead. Carolina will get Pro Bowl outside linebacker Thomas Davis back from a four-game suspension and Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen is on target to return from a foot injury.

Thomas will bring more speed and energy to the defense. Olsen will give Newton his favorite target after a two-interception performance that kept this one in jeopardy until the end.

Outside of left tackle Matt Kalil, set to return from injured reserve after eight games, the Panthers will be as healthy for this key stretch that includes four of the next six games on the road as they could have hoped.

Getting second-year wide receiver Curtis Samuel back on Sunday, after he sat out the first three games following a procedure for an irregular heartbeat, also was big. The second effort he gave on a 25-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter showed he is more than a speedster.

“He may not understand his threshold of greatness,’’ quarterback Cam Newton said of Samuel, whom he calls “Cupid.’’ “Today you saw it. He’s such a fun, exuberant player. We have to get the ball in his hands as much as possible.’’

While this team isn’t as complete as it was in 2015 during a run to Super Bowl 50, it has more than enough pieces to be a factor in the tough NFC. Adding Pro Bowl safety Eric Reid last week during the bye shows just how close management believes this team is to being a contender.

That the Panthers scored 33 points on a day when Newton was far from his best, aside from eight rushes for 29 hard-earned yards and a clutch 17-yard completion on fourth-and-1 that led to another late field goal, speaks volumes.

And it helps to have a clutch kicker in Gano, who set a Carolina franchise record with the game-winner.

“A wise man once told me that a great quarterback is only as good as his kicker,’’ Newton said. “Over the years you see so many quarterbacks get bailed out by kickers. I shouldn’t say bailed out. I’ll just say helped out. Graham put the whole team on his back today.

“Well, on his toe today.’’