Tuesday, December 30, 2008

My top 5 Panthers of 2008

I believe Steve Smith should be the Panthers' MVP for 2008, and my argument is mostly contained in this column.

I would guess, however, that DeAngelo Williams would win a vote among Panther fans if there was a scientific one. Less baggage. Younger. And incredible stats.

It's a good debate, so have at it. But in the meantime, here would be my top 5 candidates for Panther MVP, in order, for 2008:

1. STEVE SMITH. If you keep the debate on the field, where it should stay when deciding something like this, he's been incredibly clutch so many times this season.

2. DeANGELO WILLIAMS. A stunning breakout year for the NFL's leader with 20 TDs.

3. JULIUS PEPPERS. A career high in sacks for Peppers, who is going to get an unfathomable amount of money before too long when his contract is extended.

4. JAKE DELHOMME. Not his best year statistically, but his intangibles (he's a winner with great leadership skills) made a huge difference.

5. JON BEASON. If you think the Panthers' defense has been bad lately despite this Pro Bowl middle linebacker, believe me, you don't ever want to see it without him on the field.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Black Monday -- but not for Panthers

The day after the regular season ends is traditionally called "Black Monday" in the NFL, because that's the day head coaches usually get fired.

Anywhere from 2-5 usually get the axe on that day. I remember wondering -- along with many other folks -- whether Black Monday was going to impact the Panthers last season when John Fox had just gone 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the second season in a row.

Nope. It didn't. Jerry Richardson stayed the course, which was the correct thing to do. I advocated Fox getting another season back then, but I certainly didn't expect he and Carolina would go 12-4 this season. As much as I criticize Fox for his conservative approach, that's one heck of a job by this coaching staff, general manager Marty Hurney, the scouting department and so on.

Meanwhile, the New York Jets fired Eric Mangini, Cleveland fired Romeo Crennel and Detroit got rid of Rod (0-16) Marinelli, all in the past 24 hours. All of those teams will be looking for turnarounds like Atlanta, Baltimore and Miami had this season, each team making the playoffs with rookie head coaches.

NFL stands for "Not For Long," as the old joke goes. But Fox has been here a pretty long time now -- 7 seasons, or exactly as many seasons as Dom Capers and George Seifert put together. You've got to hand it to him for his survival instincts -- and for the team he has right now, which just may be his best yet.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Playoff tickets on sale later this week

Although the Panthers won't know their playoff opponent until next weekend, they will start selling individual tickets for the game much sooner than that. The Panthers' home playoff game will be played Sat., Jan.10th at 8:15 p.m. against either Atlanta, Arizona or Minnesota.

Panthers' ticket guru Phil Youtsey told me in the locker room Sunday that the team had discussed several dates for individual ticket sales. Traditionally, Carolina sets aside 10 percent of the stadium (or about 7,000 tickets) to be sold individually, almost all of those tickets being in the upper deck. PSL holders will get roughly the other 90 percent of the stadium.

The only thing Youtsey could say for sure was that individual tickets WON'T go on sale Monday. More likely, it will be later in the week -- maybe Thursday (that's New Year's Day, so more people would be home and could try to get them). And you better be ready with a quick computer mouse or cell phone when it happens -- I would guess those 7,000 or so tickets will sell out in less than 30 minutes.

Who will Carolina's home playoff opponent be?

My guess is the Minnesota Vikings, who beat Carolina 20-10 earlier this season in Minneapolis. The Vikings clinched the No.3 seed today. So if Minnesota wins its playoff game, that will definitely be the Panthers' foe, as the No.1 seeded N.Y. Giants get the benefit of playing the lowest-seeded team left after the first playoff weekend (either No.4 Arizona or No.5 Atlanta).

5 things I liked (and 2 I didn't) about Panthers' win

So Carolina has officially made it into the playoffs as the No.2 seed, which means they have earned their first playoff bye since the 1996 season. By the time Carolina enters the playoff fray in two weeks, on Sat., Jan.10 with an 8:15 p.m. game at Bank of America Stadium, the field of potential Super Bowl contenders will have been cut to 8.

Carolina will next play either Arizona, Atlanta or Minnesota depending on how the first round of the playoffs shake out. John Kasay's 42-yard field goal with 0:01 remaining was the difference in yet another heart-pounder for the Panthers.

Here are the 5 things I liked the most (and the 2 I liked least) about this win:

1. Steve Smith. He called that 39-yard catch just regular "chaos," and for No.89, I guess it is. But that 39-yarder on the last drive, which changed the game's momentum in a heartbeat, was a beauty.

2. DeAngelo Williams. He ran for 178 yards (although only 35 in the second half) to finish with the Panthers' first-ever 1,500-yard season. Then, in the locker room he unveiled a new website called www.NamesWeCanBelieveIn.com, which says that he and Jonathan Stewart will heretofore be known as "Double Trouble." Well, that's not that original, but DeAngelo gets some slack after this incredible 20-TD, shoulda-been-a-Pro-Bowler season

3. John Kasay. A 42-yarder to win it, after a false start penalty AND missing a 41-yarder earlier? The Panthers' ageless kicker really needed that one, and he got it.

4. Drew Brees. Normally, I list only Panther positives in this part of the blog. But it was a pleasure watching the New Orleans QB Sunday, in the same way it's a pleasure watching LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. What a player.

5. The first-round bye. This makes it easier for everybody wearing Panther blue. The Panthers will get healthier in the trenches, where they suddenly have several nagging injuries.


1. 21 fourth-quarter points. I mean, c'mon, I know Brees is good, but that was ridiculous. The Saints scored on three straight drives in the fourth quarter as Carolina's pass defense looked non-existent (Brees finished with 386 yards).

2. Carolina getting off the gas. John Fox tried to bleed the clock for much of the second half after getting a 30-10 lead -- i.e., punting instead of letting Kasay try a 55-yard field goal indoors, which is well within his range. It almost bit him, but Smith and Kasay bailed the Panthers' coach out.

Carolina wins 33-31 in a thriller

The Carolina Panthers just clinched the No.2 NFC playoff seed, a first-round bye and a home playoff game either Jan.10 or 11 by winning a 33-31 thriller at New Orleans.

Carolina lost all of a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter, as New Orleans stormed back with 21 fourth-quarter points to take a 31-30 lead.

But then Steve Smith out-jumped two Saints for a huge 39-yard completion that could have just as easily been intercepted. Jake Delhomme hit Muhsin Muhammad with another key completion and John Kasay lined up for a 42-yard field goal to win it with 0:01 remaining. It was good -- Kasay had missed from 41 yards earlier in the game and ended the game 4-for-5.

The final drive was for 57 yards and one of the most important comebacks Delhomme has ever led. Smith's catch has to be the play of the game.

Kasay had a chance to win the New York Giants game, too, at the end of regulation, but just missed from 50 yards out. Kasay then kicked the ball out of bounds and Drew Brees had one final chance from his own 40, but Brees threw an incompletion -- also falling short of Dan Marino's single-season record by only 16 yards -- and Carolina was victorious.

The Panthers won't know their home playoff opponent until after the games of Jan.3 and 4 are played.

Saints 31-30 late in fourth quarter

The New Orleans Saints have absolutely made mincemeat of Carolina's defense in the past few minutes and now have taken a 31-30 lead in a whale of a game at the Superdome.

Carolina once led 30-10 in the third quarter. Now, the Panthers have given up three straight TDs, Drew Brees has 386 yards passing and the Panthers are down, 31-30.

It's been an amazing turnaround. Now Jake Delhomme is coming out on the field with 3:06 to go, one timeout and a first-and-10 on his own 18.

30-24 Carolina: Sweaty palms all around

The Panthers just saw their lead sliced into once again by Drew Brees, who is just having a sensational game. On fourth-and-2 from the Carolina 9, Brees rolled right and found Lance Moore for the touchdown.

Now, with 5:28 to go, Carolina is clinging to a 6-point lead. In another part of the country, Atlanta and St. Louis are locked in a 24-24 battle, but Carolina can't worry about that now. The Panthers need to make some first downs. DeAngelo Williams, who had 143 rushing yards in the first half, has only had about 20 in the second so far.

30-17 Carolina: Saints close the margin

New Orleans just scored its second TD of the afternoon, slicing Carolina's margin to 13 points with 14:48 left in the fourth quarter.

This was a Drew Brees drive all the way. Carolina blitzed him and tried to rattle him, but it just didn't work this time. Brees was on target for the entire march, which ended on an easy throw to Robert Meachem for the 7-yard TD on a wide receiver screen.

With it now a 2-possession game, the Panthers will try to work the clock and score again. Carolina has scored on 5 of 7 drives so far -- the only exceptions being when the clock ran out in the first half and when John Kasay just missed a 41-yard FG.

Brees has 240 yards passing so far -- he needs 402 to beat Dan Marino's all-time record for a season of 5,084 yards, set back in 1984.

Kasay finally misses: Still 30-10 Carolina

Panther kicker John Kasay just missed from 41 yards, leaving Carolina with a 30-10 lead with 3:22 left in the third quarter.

That miss broke Kasay's string of 30 field goals in a row from under 50 yards -- it had been the longest active streak in the NFL. Still, Carolina knocked a lot of time off the clock on the drive.

The Panthers have had some offensive line issues today injury-wise. Jeff Otah has an injured toe and may not return. Geoff Hangartner, the starter at RG, went out with an ankle injury and Jeremy (Dom Perignon) Bridges has played some in his place.

30-10 Carolina: 2nd half starts well

Jonathan Stewart just scored from 2 yards out for Carolina, giving the Panthers a 30-10 lead early in the third quarter. While Stewart got the TD -- and did a nice dance with DeAngelo Williams afterward -- Steve Smith set it up. Smith caught a 54-yard pass in traffic to get the ball inside the 10 for Carolina.

The Panthers' offense has now scored on five of its six possessions. On the sixth, the clock ran out to end the first half.

Julius Peppers wrecked New Orleans' first drive of the second half right before Carolina's first third-quarter possession, sacking Drew Brees on a 3rd-and-10. I like the way the Panthers are blitzing so much today, making Brees make some more hurried decisions.

One surprise: the Panthers let Smith return the punt that followed Peppers' sack. We're not sure why -- Mark Jones looks OK on the sideline -- but that's a risk Carolina generally likes to stay away from. I don't think they should do that anymore -- just send someone else out there and let him do only fair catches.

23-10 Carolina at half: Saints get first TD

The New Orleans Saints just caught a break and took full advantage of it, and the result was a 26-yard pass from Drew Brees to Marques Colston that sliced Carolina's lead to 23-10.

A couple of plays earlier, Colston had caught a pass and then fumbled it away when Nate Salley tipped it out. Carolina's Richard Marshall had recovered, and it looked like the Panthers would go into halftime up by 20.

But there was an official review of the play, and the on-field ruling was overturned. Colston was instead deemed to never have control of the ball, so it just became an incomplete pass.

That became key when Colston scored, outleaping safety Charles Godfrey on a very nice play for the Saints TD.

Carolina then ran the clock out and went into halftime up, 23-10.

23-3 Carolina: Two TDs in six seconds!!

The Carolina Panthers just took a 20-point lead over New Orleans, converting a New Orleans Saints turnover into an 8-yard TD pass from Jake Delhomme to Muhsin Muhammad.

Then, on the ensuing kickoff, Carolina got a gift TD when Carolina's Landon Johnson stripped the ball and Dante Wesley took it on a perfect bounce and scored. Just like that, it was 23-3. The two TDs came only six seconds apart.

The first Panther TD was set up by Chris Harris's interception of a Drew Brees pass (and to think I was just ripping Harris for never holding onto the ball in a previous post). It was Harris's first interception of the season, and he ran it back 16 yards to the New Orleans 29.

From there, for three plays it was the DeAngelo Williams show. No.34 ran the ball three times, including a third-and-2 run for 13 yards to the New Orleans eight.

Then, on first-and-goal, Delhomme faked a handoff to Jonathan Stewart and threw a bullet over the middle to Muhsin Muhammad. That made it 16-3 with 3:09 left in the first half.

Then came Wesley's TD on a Skyler Green fumble. On the next kickoff, Green stayed in the end zone with the ball, generating some applause from burned Saints fans.

Carolina 9-3: 3 drives, 3 Kasay FGs

Like last week against the N.Y. Giants, the Panthers have scored on each of their first 3 drives. Unlike last week, all the scores are FGs (vs. the Giants, they were all TDs).

On the third drive, Jake Delhomme finally got untracked, throwing a 28-yard pass to Muhsin Muhammad and a 25-yarder to Steve Smith. But again, when in scoring range, the Panthers bogged down. This time, Delhomme tried to thread one in to Dante Rosario about at the Saints' 5, but the ball got jarred loose.

John Kasay's third FG, a 34-yarder, made it 9-3, Carolina. Still, the way the Saints moved the ball last time, that's far from a safe lead.

6-3 Carolina: Saints on the board

New Orleans' second drive was a lot more successful than its first, but we're still looking for the game's first TD.

Mainly on Drew Brees' arm, the Saints got it down to third-and-goal from the Carolina 3. From there, the Saints crowd yelled "Deuce! Deuce!" They wanted one of their favorites, Deuce McAllister, to get a chance to ram it in.

Instead, McAllister stayed on the sideline and Brees threw a poor pass at his TE. Panther safety Charles Godfrey had a great chance to intercept it at about knee level, but he dropped it (I'd be guessing here, but I think the Panthers must have dropped a dozen potential interceptions this season, with Godfrey and Chris Harris the primary culprits).

From there, the Saints kicked a chip shot field goal, and it was 6-3, Carolina.

6-0 Carolina: Kasay hits another FG

The Panthers' second drive ended up the same way as their first: DeAngelo Williams starred and John Kasay hit a FG.

Carolina has now had two time-consuming drives -- but no TDs. Williams has 81 yards rushing, and it's just the first quarter. Carolina has dominated the first quarter so far, but a 6-0 lead is dangerous against a New Orleans team with Drew Brees at QB.

Carolina up 3-0 early

The Panthers jumped ahead first, 3-0, on a run-oriented drive to open the game. The majority of Carolina’s yardage came from usual suspect DeAngelo Williams, who carried four times for 40 yards on the march.

However, Williams came out of the game twice during the march – apparently, he was tired or had an equipment problem – and the Panthers didn’t do so well when he wasn’t in there. A false start on wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad turned a third-and-12 into a third-and-17 from the New Orleans 34, and from there John Fox played it safe, ran a draw to DeAngelo for six yards and took the points. In that case, I would have done the same thing -- Jake Delhomme wasn't throwing the ball particularly well on that first drive, and third-and-17 is tough against anybody.

John Kasay’s 46-yard FG made it 3-0, Carolina. It was Kasay’s 28th straight field goal from under 50 yards – the longest active streak in the NFL. (Kasay's miss that would have beaten the New York Giants last week was from 50).

Getting you ready for Panthers-Saints

I'm in New Orleans on a Sunday morning, having just gotten back from a jog down Bourbon Street. As Jimmy Buffett once wrote, there's a fine line between Saturday night and Sunday morning, and in New Orleans that line is almost blurred away entirely. You wouldn't believe how many bars are open at 8 a.m. here.

In any case, if you're wanting to get primed for today's HUGE Panthers-Saints game, here are 4 articles I'd recommend reading:

1) New Orleans injury issues. You think the Saints feel sorry for the Panthers, who had the exact same defensive starting 11 for 14 weeks in a row? No chance. Reggie Bush and Jeremy Shockey won't play today, and judging from this story in the New Orleans paper, I don't think RB Pierre Thomas will either. That will leave over-the-hill Deuce McAllister and Mike Bell as the primary ball carriers. Drew Brees is really going to have to air it out.

2) Here's a nice story from The Observer's Ron Green Jr. about Panthers team owner Jerry Richardson, who is awaiting a heart transplant. If you're not familiar with the way Richardson treats people, this is really required reading.

3) Here's my column from Sunday's Observer -- my take on today is that if the Panthers don't win this one and secure a first-round bye, there's no way this team is going to the Super Bowl.

4) Here's the main Saints story from today's New Orleans Times-Picayune, as the Saints lament their 8-7 season and talk about how much they want to spoil Carolina's chance to win the NFC South.

Friday, December 26, 2008

My Panthers-Saints prediction

** The way to beat the Saints is to smash them in the mouth. New Orleans has a reputation as one of the league’s finesse teams – a squad that would rather throw over you than run through you.

** The Panthers play the game the other way, sometimes to their own detriment (i.e., Steve Smith didn’t catch a single pass after the first half in the overtime loss to the Giants and was hardly ever thrown to -- that's ridiculous). On Sunday, though, a steady diet of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart will be just what Carolina needs, because you don’t want New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees on the field too often.

** Brees won’t set the NFL record for single-season passing yardage Sunday, breaking Dan Marino’s 24-year-old record of 5,084 yards. He needs 402 to get it, and he won’t have Reggie Bush (who’s on injured reserve) on the field to help him. I’m going to pencil in Brees for at least 317 vs. the Panthers, though, so he’ll become the second guy to ever go over 5,000 in a season. That’s still something.

** The Panthers absolutely must blitz more in this game than they usually do. Give Brees time and you may as well forget it. Thomas Davis, the Panthers’ best blitzer, needs to have a good game.

** The economic downturn has obviously affected tourism in New Orleans. I’ve been down to The Big Easy several times to cover sporting events during the holidays, and it’s often difficult to secure a hotel room for less than $150. This time, a room in a nice hotel could be had for $65.

** After picking the Panthers’ outcome correctly for six weeks in a row, I misfired on the Giants-Panthers game last week. I’ll try to get back on the horse with this one: Carolina 31, New Orleans 24.

A win would guarantee Carolina the No.2 playoff seed in the NFC, a first-round bye and a home playoff game -- I think all that is going to happen. As I've mentioned on this blog earlier, though (see the previous post), if Carolina doesn't win this game, I don't think this team is good enough to advance from a wild-card slot to the Super Bowl. So this one is enormous -- with no win here, you can kiss the Panthers' Super Bowl chances goodbye.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Lose Sunday? No Super Bowl

OK, technically the above headline isn’t true for the Carolina Panthers.

If they lose at New Orleans Sunday, they would remain in the playoffs as the No.5 seed in the NFC. They could conceivably make one of those Football Tours Across America like the 2007 N.Y. Giants did, winning one road game after another (in Carolina’s case, the most likely scenario would be that they would have to win at Arizona, at Atlanta and at the New York Giants, in that order).

But you know what? I don’t think this Carolina team could do that. In fact, I’m sure of it. This team is not quite that hot. It’s not that good on the road (3-4 this season). The Panthers are just not ready to have to win three straight road games just to get to the Feb.1 Super Bowl in Tampa. Carolina might win one road game. Maybe even two. But not three. That road is like I-77 at 5 p.m. right after a tanker full of vegetables overturns.

So that’s why Sunday’s 1 p.m. game vs. New Orleans is HUGE for Carolina. Win that one, and you’re on a new stretch of I-485 at 5 a.m. No bumps. Little traffic. Unless you run out of gas or have major car trouble, you’ve got a great chance of getting there. Carolina would have a No.2 seed then and only have to win two playoff games – with at least the first one at home on either Jan.10 or 11 – to make the Super Bowl.

So I’m going to go ahead and call this one right now: If the Panthers win Sunday at New Orleans, all things are still possible. But.... if they lose Sunday? Yes, they’ll be a playoff team. But no, they won’t make the Super Bowl.

Monday, December 22, 2008

UPDATED Panther playoff picture

Two or five.

Those are the only two NFC playoff seeds remaining that Carolina can be. And they're not bad numbers -- not No.1, as Carolina would have been had John Kasay's 50-yarder gone in, but not terrible, either.

Here's the deal for Carolina: Sunday's game at New Orleans (out of the race, but still a dangerous spoiler) is now huge. If the Panthers win at New Orleans (8-7), they will be the No.2 seed and get all the good stuff that goes with that -- a first-round playoff bye and a home playoff game Jan.10 or 11 against a foe to be determined.

That No.2 seed would also happen if Carolina (11-4) loses but Atlanta (10-5) also loses to St. Louis. But that's not going to happen, I don't think -- St. Louis (2-13) is awful.

So here's the No.5 seed scenario for the Panthers: Carolina loses Sunday at New Orleans to finish 11-5. Atlanta wins. At 11-5, Atlanta wins the relevant tiebreaker (better conference record) and, thus, the NFC South.

In that case, the Panthers play a week earlier in the playoffs. They would likely go to Arizona in a first-round game to face the Cardinals either Jan.3 or 4. Then they would face a much tougher road to the Super Bowl -- three games to get there instead of two -- and might well have to go to both Atlanta and back to Giants Stadium to make it.

5 things I didn't like about Panthers' loss

The New York Giants’ 34-28 overtime win over Carolina was an absolutely tremendous game if you didn’t care who won. Since most of you did, though, let me list what I thought were the biggest problems in the Panthers’ first loss of December. I’ll do the 5 by the numbers this time:

301 – That’s the number of rushing yards the Giants put up on Carolina – not a franchise worst for the Panthers, although it seemed like it. The Giants basically did to the Panthers what Carolina did to Tampa Bay in that Monday night game. Don’t blame that all on the absence of Maake Kemoeatu, either. Derrick Ward had 215 yards rushing – the most the Panthers have ever given up to a single back. That’s ridiculous.
Why did it happen? You won't learn much more from John Fox's postgame press conference, where he explained those 301 yards by saying: "It's hard to say without looking at tape. I don't think we executed as well as we could."
Oh, OK -- now I get it.

0 – Number of catches that Steve Smith had in the second half and overtime. Plus, Smith had a key (and correct) holding penalty in the fourth quarter.

0 – Touches DeAngelo Williams got in overtime (the Panthers had one possession, which was three-and-out). You’ve absolutely got to go with your No.1 back there, especially given that he’s already scored FOUR touchdowns.

50 – Total passing yards for the Panthers in the second half and in overtime.

3 – Runs in a row by DeAngelo with Carolina facing a first down from the New York Giants’ 40 with 1:11 left in regulation. Yes, that's a Carolina strength. But not even one pass to try and get John Kasay closer than 50 yards for that game-winner? I know Kasay came close to making it, but c’mon.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Giants win, 34-28

The New York Giants just steamrolled the Carolina defense in overtime on an 87-yard drive to end the game in overtime with a 34-28 victory.

The Panthers' defense really let them down at the end of this one, allowing backup New York Giants' RB Derrick Ward to rush for an astounding 216 yards -- including a 51-yarder in overtime that broke the game open. The Giants went 87 yards in six plays on the big overtime drive, which came after both teams went 3-and-out on their first overtime possession (and after John Kasay missed a 50-yard field goal at the end of regulation that would have won it).

The Panthers now must beat New Orleans Sunday to be assured of the No.2 seed in the NFC East and a first-round playoff bye.

The Giants have clinched the No.1 seed and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. These two teams could very well meet again on Jan.18 in the NFC title game -- they showed tonight they are the class of the NFC in what was an absolutely thrilling game that undoubtedly drew huge ratings -- but also broke a lot of Panther fans' hearts.

And we go to overtime....

Carolina kicker John Kasay just missed a 50-yard field goal that would have won the game for the Panthers. With a crosswind in the stadium, Kasay's kick was long enough but drifted slightly left. It was only his second miss of the season -- if he had made it, the Panthers would have clinched homefield advantage for Carolina.

Instead, it's 28-28 in this taut game, and the crowd is extremely loud here in New Jersey.

The Panthers called "heads" on the coin toss, but it came up tails. The Giants will receive the overtime kickoff.

Game tied 28-all with 3:21 left

The New York Giants just showed why they were Super Bowl champions last year with a big-time touchdown and two-point conversion to tie the game at 28-all with 3:21 left.

The Giants scored their touchdown with 3:21 left on Brandon Jacobs' 1-yard run, which came after Ken Lucas had a pass interference penalty. The Panthers had several chances to stop New York during the drive, but Eli Manning converted every time.

On the two-point play, Lucas got burned again, as Manning hit a cutting Domenik Hixon in front of Lucas for the successful conversion.

The Panthers do have the wind at their backs. When they get the ball back, they will have slightly more than three minutes left and all their timeouts. But if they don't make a first down or two, the Giants will also have a chance to win this game in regulation. If no one scores, we'll be going to overtime.

DeAngelo's 4th TD puts Panthers up 28-20

The Touchdown Machine is rolling again. DeAngelo Williams just scored his fourth TD of the game, a 30-yard burst, to quiet the Giants Stadium crowd and put Carolina ahead, 28-20, with 12:50 left in the fourth quarter.

It was good timing for the Panthers, who had done nothing offensively in the third quarter. It was also Williams' NFL-leading 20th TD of the year.

It wouldn't have happened except for the fact the Panthers converted a key third-and-10 from midfield on the play before. Behind excellent protection, QB Jake Delhomme fit the ball in a tight window to WR Dwayne Jarrett, who held on for a 20-yard gain.

On the next play, as the Giants defense reeled a little, Williams scored again. There's still a lot of time left, but that was a very big one.

Panthers lead shaved to 21-20 entering 4th

The New York Giants scored first in the second half -- they just got a 4-yard scoring pass from Eli Manning to tight end Kevin Boss.

Interestingly, with 59 seconds left in the third quarter, Giants coach Tom Coughlin decided not to go for a tying two-point conversion. Instead, he had John Carney boot the extra point, and that made it 21-20. If it had been me, I would have gone for the two-pointer. But Coughlin did win a Super Bowl last season.

The stadium is very loud now and the occasional snowball and iceball are coming out of the stands. As I mentioned in a previous blog, this could be a dangerous situation if the Giants lose or have a controversial call go against them, especially for anyone not protected with a helmet (i.e. referees and coaches).

The Panthers quieted the crowd a little with a first down just as the third quarter ended. They will start the fourth quarter at midfield with a first-and-10, hoping to restart an offense that didn't do anything at all in the third quarter.

Panthers up 21-13 at half (and a snowball warning)

Carolina goes into halftime with an 8-point lead, with three DeAngelo Williams TDs providing the margin so far. Williams now has an NFL-high 19 TDs this season.

The Giants sliced Carolina's lead from 21-10 to 21-13 with a 35-yard John Carney FG with less than a minute left. Jon Beason had a chance to make an interception to end that drive, but dropped a ball that was first deflected by Julius Peppers.

Still, the half has gone very well for the Panthers, who would have gladly taken an 8-point lead halfway through the game if someone had offered it. Both teams have scored on 3 drives in the first half, but Carolina has been able to punch it into the end zone every time and the Giants only once -- that's the difference.

Incidentally, there could be a dangerous situation here. Although there's no snow on the field because of the tarp that covered it, there's snow all over the stands. A few angry fans have tossed snowballs so far onto the field when angry at a perceived injustice by game officials -- once, after Steve Smith's "overturned-on-review" replay, there were enough snowballs that several Panthers put on parkas on the sideline for protection.

If there was a huge controversial call in this game that didn't favor the Giants, everybody better duck and cover.

3 TDs for DeAngelo: 21-10 for Panthers

Three possessions, 3 TDs for the Panthers' offense -- and No.34 has every one of them.

Carolina now leads the Giants 21-10 with 4:45 left in the second quarter. DeAngelo Williams' third TD was a 1-yarder, and came after Carolina already appeared to have scored once.

But the Giants challenged the on-field ruling of Steve Smith scoring on a short pass from the 3. Smith's right knee was shown to be down on the replay and the ball was re-spotted at the 1-yard line.

Although Williams scored the TD, the big play was an incredible 60-yard pass from Delhomme to Muhsin Muhammad. Muhammad made a double move on cornerback Aaron Ross and got very open, but Delhomme was late and a little short on his ball delivery.

Ross had a great chance for the interception, but the ball went right through his hands. Muhammad caught it at his waist and finished the 60-yard play inside the Giants' 10, and Carolina hammered it in from there.

Again: the report on Jonathan Stewart if you missed it in the last blog... He has a head injury and his return is questionable. They have not mentioned the word "concussion" in the pressbox yet, but certainly that's a strong possibility.

14-10 Panthers: Carolina's offense is red hot

So much for this being an extremely low-scoring games: There have been 4 drives in the game so far, and every one of them have netted points. It's now 14-10, Carolina, with 8:12 left in the second quarter, as DeAngelo Williams just scored his second TD of the game.

The Panthers got a scare on their second possession when rookie RB Jonathan Stewart went out on a 7-yard gain to the Giants' 30, causing an official timeout. However, Stewart walked off the field under his own power during the timeout (but has yet to return). Stewart was shaken up with a head injury, though, and his return to the game is questionable.

DeAngelo did another one of his signature across-the-field cutbacks on the next play after Stewart left, going 16 yards after starting right and going all the way back left.

Then came Delhomme to Steve Smith yet again for 10 yards to the Giants' 3. On first down, DeAngelo was stuffed for minus-2. But on the next play, DeAngelo followed great blocks from Jordan Gross and Muhsin Muhammad for his second TD of the game.

DeAngelo now has 18 TDs this season to lead the NFL. It seems somewhat laughable now that Stewart was supposed to score most of Carolina's rushing TDs this season -- remember, he was originally supposed to be the Panthers' designated short-yardage back.

Jacobs scores: 10-7 Giants

The Panthers' defense is having trouble. It has now allowed scores on each of its first two drives, much like it did last week against Denver.

Brandon Jacobs just bulled in for the Giants from 2 yards out, giving the Giants a 10-7 lead. Carolina's defense is having so much difficulty getting off the field that we're early into the second quarter and the Panthers have only had the ball once.

On the Giants' drive, Carolina's soft zone defense allowed The Other Steve Smith (the slower New York version, who's still pretty darn good) to catch 3 key passes. The Giants' drive was methodical -- they went 74 yards in 13 plays, taking up 7 minutes and 38 seconds.

Those are the kinds of drives that wear down defenses and win games. The Panthers got a lot better against Denver last week after giving up 10 early points to the Broncos, too -- they better start doing the same thing here.

DeAngelo scores: 7-3 Panthers

Carolina stormed right back on its first possession, scoring on a 13-yard TD burst by DeAngelo (Should Have Made the Pro Bowl) Williams for an early 7-3 lead with 6:16 still left in the first quarter.

The Panthers' drive came up all sevens: 77 yards in seven plays. Steve Smith made the biggest play, going 35 yards on a beautiful deep throw from Jake Delhomme that got the ball down to the Giants' 11. Smith also had a short screen pass from Delhomme that went for 23 yards on a third-and-3 and actually was deemed a run, since the ball was thrown backwards.

On the TD, Williams burst straight up the middle and was practically untouched. It was about as auspicious start as the Panthers' offense -- which has scored at least 28 points in the past 5 games -- could have hoped for.

3-0 Giants early in 1st quarter

The Giants showed this isn't going to be easy for Carolina on their first drive, taking an early lead on a 32-yard field goal by John Carney.

The big play on the drive came when Eli Manning fired a 40-yard pass to WR Domenik Hixon, who beat Chris Gamble and Chris Harris on the play. Charles Johnson had a chance for the sack on the play, but Manning stepped up and showed why he won a Super Bowl last year -- by making that sort of play.

From there, though, Carolina's defense stiffened. Giants RB Brandon Jacobs is playing but was only modestly effective on the drive. The Giants stalled at Carolina's 14 to bring on Carney, and it's New York 3, Carolina 0, with the Panthers' offense going onto the field for the first time.

Giants field and playoff update

The field here in "New Joisey" doesn't look like it's going to be an issue at all tonight. I'm here in the press box at Giants Stadium, and the field looks practically pristine. It was obviously covered through all the snow, because players are running and throwing on it with no problems.

It is very c-c-c-c-o-o-ld outside, though (and clear, and windy). It is so windy, in fact, that I just saw John Kasay miss a practice field goal, banging the ball off the upright from 17 yards away. The temperature is currently 33 degrees.

If any of your friends are here, I hope they bundled up. Many of the seats are absolutely encrusted with snow, meaning when the fans actually arrive (it's 90 percent empty at the moment, as most people are still tailgating in front of fires outside) they will first have to scrape a layer of snow off the place they plan to sit. Ouch.

Meanwhile, what happened to Tampa Bay (9-6)?
The Bucs have now lost 3 in a row after today's 17-point loss to San Diego and are in danger of missing the playoffs entirely. Their entire season seemed to go south when they got that Monday Night whipping from the Panthers. Atlanta (now 10-5), on the other hand, is playing very well and now has clinched a playoff spot. The Falcons are also still alive for the NFC South title IF Carolina (currently 11-3) loses tonight.

No snow tonight for Panthers-Giants

Hi, everyone. I'm here in lovely Newark, New Jersey, seven hours before kickoff, and the weather headline is that it's not going to be as bad as it could be.

Although there's snow everywhere you look here, it looks like it's going to be clear, cold and windy tonight for Panthers-Giants, which kicks off at 8:15 p.m.
The weather.com forecast for East Rutherford, N.J., where the Giants actually play, shows as of now that it's going to be around 27 degrees at kickoff, with no precipitation in the forecast during the game. The field should be relatively dry, which should help a speedster like Steve Smith (who points out he went to school in Utah and often has his best games in cold weather anyway).

Although this game is undoubtedly huge, a bit of the pressure is off the Panthers. They are now guaranteed a spot in the playoffs even if they go 0-2 in their final two games -- that became clear when Dallas lost Saturday night to Baltimore. They aren't guaranteed a home game or a first-round bye or anything else yet, however, so they can improve their standing greatly by winning here tonight or, as a consolation prize, Dec.28 in New Orleans.

On a personal note, I flew up to New Jersey Sunday morning from Charlotte and only had a flight delay of 20 minutes.

Other flights to the Northeast were running a couple of hours behind schedule, but I hope I have already served my time in travel purgatory on my return trip from Green Bay after Carolina's pulsating win there. A 10-hour flight delay gave me lots of time to learn all about Chicago's O'Hare airport, which at least had a six-foot high mockup of the Statue of Liberty made entirely of Legos. After studying it closely, I still only had nine hours and 58 minutes to kill.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Why I'm picking the Panthers

On a week-to-week basis, the NFL reverses field as much as Deion Sanders used to on punt returns. It’s inherently unpredictable, which is part of the reason they can keep on building more giant casinos in Las Vegas.

In any big game, you can make a case for both teams.

** The Giants’ case this week would be: New York has been embarrassed two weeks in a row. The Giants will be highly motivated. They will be playing at home. They will likely have running back Brandon Jacobs on the field again, and he’s bigger than a lot of defensive linemen. They know they can clinch homefield advantage with the victory (as can Carolina, as both teams are 11-3). They know how to play in Giants Stadium, especially in wicked weather. Tom Coughlin is going to make their lives miserable if they don’t win this one. And they are the defending Super Bowl champions.

** The Panthers’ case would be: Carolina is 2-0 the past two weeks in big games, while the Giants are 0-2. Carolina has scored at least 28 points in the past five games, while in the past two the Giants scored only one garbage-time touchdown. DeAngelo Williams is the league’s hottest back. Eli Manning got sacked eight times last week, and when Plaxico Burress shot himself in the thigh, he also shot the Giants’ offense in the foot. John Fox knows how to win at Giants Stadium, even in the sort of bad weather that is expected tonight.

** I don’t pretend to know what will happen Sunday night, but I will tell you this: I’ve picked the Panthers’ outcome correctly the past six weeks in a row.
So here’s my shot at seven straight.

Carolina 13, New York 10.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

On Slingin' Sammy, Felton and Vinny

A few random thoughts on the news of the day:

** The Panthers owe Vinny Testaverde a BIG assist on getting DeAngelo Williams in better shape. I thought Testaverde's quotes in Thursday's story by Charles Chandler were extremely interesting. They made you go "Oh, OK, now I get it -- this is partly why DeAngelo is having a breakout season."

Here's what Vinny said: "When I got there last year, it was the first game at Arizona, I handed the ball off to him, he'd run 10 or 12 yards and put his hand up to come out of the game. After a few weeks, I said, ‘You have all the ability to be a great running back, but you need to get in shape and you need not to want to come out of the game.'”

** I was sorry to hear of the passing of "Slingin' Sammy" Baugh, the former Washington Redskins star QB (and punter) who died this week at the age of 94. Baugh was the owner of one of the great nicknames in sports. I remember sitting in Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice's living room for an interview before Choo Choo also passed away. Justice had played alongside Baugh for the Redskins and had great respect for the man's talent.

** So the Bobcats are thinking about shipping Raymond Felton to Golden State for either Brandan Wright or Anthony Randolph? That's interesting -- but not unexpected. I'm lukewarm on the idea.

In my interview with Michael Jordan earlier this season, I realized that MJ really has mixed feelings about Felton as a long-term point guard for Charlotte. It looks like it is a matter of time before D.J. Augustin becomes the full-time point guard for the Bobcats -- he's having a great rookie season. But this is a deal to be made very carefully, and the Bobcats may be able to get someone better. Like NFL teams with two running backs, it's wise to have 2 point guards to get through the rigors of an 82-game season.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Panther playoff UPDATE

This is the NFL's official version of Carolina's playoff situation for this week, released today. My guess: The Panthers will already have qualified for a playoff spot before they ever play the Giants for homefield advantage and the No.1 seed in the NFC Sunday night.

To get a playoff spot -- and it's amazing that with 11 wins Carolina still doesn't have one locked up yet -- Carolina EITHER needs to win or needs EITHER Dallas, Atlanta OR Tampa Bay to LOSE this weekend.

The Cowboys play Baltimore Saturday night. Atlanta plays Minnesota Sunday at 4:15. Tampa Bay plays San Diego at 1 p.m. Sunday. None of those will be easy -- I doubt very much all three teams will win.


Carolina clinches NFC South title with:
1) CAR win or tie OR
2) TB loss or tie + ATL loss or tie.

Carolina clinches a first-round bye with:
• CAR win or tie.

Carolina clinches homefield advantage throughout NFC playoffs with:
• CAR win.

Carolina clinches a playoff spot with:
1) DAL loss or tie OR
2) ATL loss or tie OR
3) TB loss or tie.

Kasay, DeAngelo robbed in voting

Pro Bowl voting is never exact, but John Kasay and DeAngelo Williams deserved to make the NFC team just announced today but didn't. (To see full lists of the teams, click here).

The Panthers did get OT Jordan Gross and DE Julius Peppers in as starters and WR Steve Smith and LB Jon Beason as reserves (Beason and Smith probably deserved to start, too, but that doesn't really matter -- you either go or you don't. Everyone plays about the same amount once you get there).

Williams leads the league in TDs and has been the best back in the NFL for the past month. But Williams also had the misfortune of being in a back-heavy conference -- Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, Atlanta's Michael Turner and Washington's Clinton Portis had very strong cases as well. All of them have rushed for at least 100 more yards than DeAngelo (who has 1,229). I would have picked DeAngelo over Portis in a reserve spot because DeAngelo has had such a strong second half of the year and the Redskins -- as well as Portis -- have been fading.

When I talked to Williams about this Sunday night, he seemed almost resigned to not making it. He also said the vote was a "popularity contest," which is somewhat true (especially the fact that the fans vote counts for 1/3 -- that may have pushed Portis ahead of DeAngelo). Williams also said he didn't care about the results as long as the team does well.

As for Kasay, I think he's had the best year for a kicker in the NFL, bar none. Making 24-of-25, never missing from under 50 yards -- that's amazing. But the Giants' John Carney got it instead. And believe me, Kasay cares about this even less than DeAngelo. His life is centered around God, family and team. He honestly cares nothing about individual awards.

They're not the only ones in the NFL who got robbed, of course. Many NFL teams would be able to think of someone on their roster who could have made it but didn't. Atlanta DE John Abraham didn't make it, for instance, and I think he definitely should have.

As for Peppers, Smith, Gross and Beason, they are all deserving. At least the Panthers (11-3) got a reasonable number of Pro Bowlers in this very special year they are having -- four is a lot better than the zero they had in 2007.

And you never know with DeAngelo. He's the first alternate. So if only one of those backs gets hurt -- and that's always very possible at that position -- he could be a late addition to Honolulu. (Not Kasay, though -- kickers only get hurt about once in a blue moon).

DeAngelo "doesn't care" about Pro Bowl

I was talking with Panther RB DeAngelo Williams Sunday in preparation for this column on the Panthers' Pro Bowl chances.

Williams said he "doesn't care" whether he makes the Pro Bowl or not. And while I'm sure that's not entirely true, I have admired the way all season Williams has never spoken of his own goals and only of the team's. In a 1,200-yard, 16-TD breakout year, it would have been easy for DeAngelo to become egocentric or to remind people that he sat on the bench WAY too often behind DeShaun Foster in his first two seasons here. He hasn't.

It's interesting that in our online poll, asking fans which Panther deserves the Pro Bowl the most, Williams is the current leader (as of 10:30 a.m. while I'm writing this) even over Steve Smith. I'm also surprised at how low Julius Peppers' numbers are in that poll. Check it out here.

I'll post again later today after the Pro Bowl results are announced (they officially come out at 4 p.m., although it's possible some names will leak earlier).

Monday, December 15, 2008

Does CBS owe Panthers an apology?

Thanks to a number of alert readers and TV viewers of the Panthers-Broncos game who first pointed this out to me, I reviewed the final minute of the first half of the game Monday morning and came to this conclusion: CBS really whiffed in its coverage of that part of the game.

CBS’s announcers were so intent on talk-talk-talk that they TOTALLY MISSED the fact that the official added seven seconds to the play clock, changing it from 10 seconds to 17 seconds.

Then the CBS analysts basically accused the Panthers of cheating – of “unbelievable home cooking,” as CBS's Dan Fouts proclaimed -- to allow Carolina time to kick a field goal at the end of the half.

This was completely incorrect. It took CBS at least 15 minutes to explain its error, and even then the explanation came off as half-hearted and pretty weak.

OK, let’s back up a second. Here’s what happened: Carolina led 17-10 when Denver got the ball at its own 18 with 30 seconds to go.

The Broncos had a pass for no gain on first down, then called timeout with 17 seconds to go. The clock ran down to 10 seconds, but the official clearly stated over his microphone that seven seconds were going to be added because that’s when Shanahan asked for the timeout (conceivably, an advantage to Denver at that point).

Shanahan then, inexplicably, had the Broncos run the ball. What’s the point of the timeout if you’re going to run? To make matters worse for Denver, Selvin Young fumbled after a huge hit by Carolina’s Charles Godfrey and Carolina’s Tyler Brayton recovered with 0:07 to go.

In the CBS three-man announcing booth, analysts Fouts and Randy Cross kept interrupting each other, so intent were they to say: “The clock didn’t run! The clock didn’t run!”

They had totally missed the fact that the clock had already been reset to 17 seconds and did, in fact, run for the entire play (for 10 seconds in all).

Play-by-play man Dick Enberg missed all that, too. Fouts and Cross kept egging each other along on how awful this is and what a shame it is to have a clock “not run until the fumble." That’s when Fouts (jokingly?) accused the Panthers of “unbelievable home cooking,” as if some shadowy Panther figure was managing the clock somewhere deep in Jerry Richardson’s box.

Even the replay – shown a couple of times and clearly showing the clock counting down from 17 to 7 seconds – seemed to totally befuddle the CBS crew. It’s one of those moments where thousands of Panther fans had to be screaming at their TV screens: “You idiots!”

Carolina, meanwhile, kicked a field goal and went up 20-10 after the fumble. It was a huge sequence of events, giving Carolina a two-possession lead and lots of momentum just before halftime.

After the halftime break, the announcers came back before the third quarter and Enberg explained the situation. He told it like it basically was – I’ve always liked Enberg’s style – as to how the clock was reset from 10 to 17 seconds by the officials.

BUT THEN Fouts and Cross make no mention of the incident at all – they just started talking about Steve Smith.

A stand-up guy at that point would have said: “Look, I apologize for implying the Panthers somehow influenced the clock at the end of the first half. We were wrong. We just didn’t notice that the officials had put seven seconds back ono the clock. Sorry about that. It was our mistake." And then they could have just moved along.

Instead, Fouts and Cross just acted like their previous comments never happened, like no one noticed them at all.

Well, believe me, lots of people noticed them. This isn’t a huge deal or anything. But it always irritates me when TV guys make a mistake, and then either barely make mention of it or ignore it altogether.

Just say when you messed up, guys. It’s not that hard.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

UPDATED NFC playoff picture

Here's how it looks in the NFC after ALL of Sunday's results, including the Panthers' big 30-10 win over Denver and Dallas' 20-8 victory over the suddenly slumping Giants. It's now for sure that Carolina and the Giants will play for the No.1 NFC playoff seed and homefield advantage Sunday, Dec.21 at 8:15 p.m. in Giants Stadium on NBC.

But if the season ended today, these would be your 1-6 seeds in the NFC. Seeds 1-4 would host at least one playoff game as division winners. Seeds 1 and 2 also would get a first-round bye and would play their first playoff games the weekend of Jan.10-11.

1. New York Giants (11-3)
2. CAROLINA (11-3)
3. Minnesota (9-5)
4. Arizona (8-6)
5. Dallas (9-5)
6. Tampa Bay (9-5)

OUT of the playoffs at the moment but still on the bubble: Atlanta (9-5), Philadelphia (7-5-1) and Chicago (8-6)

If the Panthers beat the Giants, they will be the No.1 NFC seed (which Carolina has never been before), can rest their key starters against New Orleans AND the road to the Super Bowl will go through Charlotte.

Carolina needs just one win to take the NFC South in its final two games, no matter what the Falcons and Bucs do. And even if the Panthers lose to the Giants, a win at New Orleans Dec.28 would clinch the Panthers the No.2 NFC playoff seed, a first-round playoff bye and a home playoff game.

6 things I liked most about Carolina's win

The 11-3 Panthers just took a two-game lead in the NFC South with only two games left in the regular season on another successful Sunday with their 30-10 win over Denver. Although still not officially guaranteed a playoff spot, they are all but in and have a very good chance at a first-round playoff bye.

In fact, if they can beat the New York Giants Sunday night, they will be guaranteed the No.1 seed in the NFC and TWO home playoff games (that is, if they win their first one).

So here are the 6 things I liked the most Sunday:

** Jerry Richardson was back. Although he's now on a heart transplant waiting list, Richardson was in his owner's box as usual, with the windows open as usual, wrapped under a football blanket.

** DeAngelo Williams’ cutback run. That 56-yard TD was one of the sweetest you’re ever going to see. DeAngelo started left, looked like he was going to come back way right and then burst up the middle, going over 1,200 rushing yards for the season during the play.

** Steve Smith. On the Panthers’ first drive, Smith caught three passes for 66 yards, the last for a touchdown. No.89 had another huge game with 165 receiving yards and that TD.

** Carolina’s defense (second quarter onward): The Panthers gave up 10 points on Denver’s first two drives, then played much, much better. They actually got pressure on Jay Cutler – who hadn’t been sacked for the previous three games. Thomas Davis ended that streak with a third-quarter sack on a blitz. DE Tyler Brayton, S Charles Godfrey and DE Charles Johnson -- not exactly the defense's top stars -- all had a couple of nice plays.

** John Kasay. If he doesn’t make the Pro Bowl this season, he should. The ageless one is now 24-for-25 this season on field goals – a 96 percent success rate. His only miss in all of 2008 came from 58 yards. He hit three more Sunday.

** The crowd. The Panthers have treated their fans right all season – they finish the regular season 8-0 at home – and the fans returned the favor. On a blustery day that got downright cold once the sun went down, the fans were loud and proud.

And those fans will get another chance to be even louder. Nothing is certain yet, but I’d say there’s now about a 90 percent chance Carolina will host a playoff game the weekend of Jan.10 and 11.

And it could be TWO home playoff games IF Carolina can beat the New York Giants on the road in a huge game next Sunday, Dec.21st. With the Giants' loss to Dallas Sunday night, both teams are 11-3, and the one that wins on Dec.21 will be able to rest its starters in the final week of the regular season and gear up for the playoffs.

30-10 Carolina: the value of Kasay

John Kasay is really having a Pro Bowl year for Carolina. He has now made 24 of 25 FGs this season, and his only miss was from 58 yards. All year long. He's made every extra point, too. The guy has been amazing.

Kasay has now gone 3-for-3 in this game, as Carolina has a 30-10 lead and is just trying to run out the clock about midway through the fourth quarter.

Still 27-10 as 4th quarter begins

Carolina will take a 17-point lead into the fourth quarter, as the only scoring in the third was DeAngelo Williams' 56-yard TD run.

Denver kicker Matt Prater missed a 47-yard FG toward the end of the quarter that could have gotten it down to a two-possession game. John Fox practically ran out to midfield after that one, he was so excited about the miss.

Just goes to show how important a good kicker is -- John Kasay has only missed one all year, while Prater has missed 7 times in the past 7 games.

One injury note: Panther defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu has an ankle injury and won't return.

27-10 Carolina: There goes DeAngelo

The Panthers didn't run the ball worth a darn in the first half. But that just changed -- DeAngelo Williams just turned a sweet cutback into a 56-yard TD run and a 27-10 Carolina lead.

In the first half, Carolina rushed for only 24 yards in 12 carries -- a far cry from the franchise-record 299 they had against Tampa Bay Monday night. Williams had just 8 carries for 17 yards and had been thoroughly bottled up.

But Carolina just had one of those Tampa Bay-esque drives, taking only 4 plays to go 80 yards on their first possession of the third quarter.

On the TD, Williams started left, saw nothing, cut back, looked like he was maybe going to go way outside right and then instead saw a seam straight up the middle and burst through. Four Broncos were in pursuit, but none came close.

It was Williams' 16th TD of the season. He already has a team-record 14 rushing TDs this season and has now gone over the 1,200-yard mark.

Halftime: 20-10 Carolina (and a playoff update)

Carolina's defense has steadily improved in this game. The Broncos have had the ball six times, scoring a TD on their first, a field goal on their second and then not scoring at all their last four possessions.

Not only that, Denver has turned the ball over twice, the 2nd time on a costly fumble by RB Selvin Young just before the end of the first half (caused by safety Charles Godfrey, who has had a couple of huge hits so far).

Carolina recovered with less than 10 seconds to go and that led to John Kasay's second FG of the afternoon, from 45 yards.

That makes it Carolina, 20-10, at halftime. After being down 7-0 and 10-7, Carolina has assumed some control of the game.

A playoff note: Atlanta's win over Tampa Bay earlier today means both the Falcons and Tampa Bay are 9-5.

A Carolina win would push the Panthers to 11-3 -- a two-game lead with only two games left in the regular season. That would greatly increase the likelihood of the Panthers hosting a home playoff game by winning the NFC South.

Carolina can't clinch the division today, though, but could clinch a playoff spot if the Panthers win and Dallas loses Sunday night.

17-10 Carolina: Panthers take 1st lead

The Panthers' Jonathan Stewart just waltzed in standing up from 2 yards out as Carolina took a 17-10 lead over Denver with 6:29 left in the second quarter.

It was good news for the Panthers that Stewart wasn't hurt -- he had left the game after a hard hit. And it also showcased the Panthers' first successful running of this late afternoon -- Carolina had rushed for only 9 yards in the first quarter.

The big play, though, was another pass. Jake Delhomme found Steve Smith down the middle for a 38-yard completion in the middle of the drive. Delhomme has already thrown for 155 yards, and Smith has 120 of them.

10-10 at end of 1st quarter: Gamble pickoff sets up a FG

The Panthers have tied the game at 10-all thanks to Chris Gamble's interception of a Jay Cutler pass.

That was the first time the Panthers have stopped Denver in 3 possessions. Chris Harris tipped the pass and then Gamble performed his own juggling act, tipping the ball a half-dozen times before picking it off.

With the ball inside Denver's 30, Carolina had a great chance to score. However, the Panther offense then misfired, with a Delhomme pass batted away on third down. John Kasay's 39-yard field goal tied the game at 10 just before the first quarter ended.

One possible injury note: Jonathan Stewart got hit just above the knee and clutched it in obvious pain. He hasn't returned.

10-7 Denver: 2 drives, 10 points for Broncos

Denver looks like a team that is going to be very difficult to stop all day. The Panthers finally did so on Denver's 2nd drive, but not until the Broncos had reached inside the Panthers' 25. A 43-yard field goal from Matt Prater makes it 10-7, Denver, with 3:37 left in the first quarter.

Denver is such a pass-first team that on third-and-1 from the Carolina 22, the Broncos lined up in the shotgun and threw a wide receiver screen. The Panthers smothered that one to force the field goal -- one of the few times they've done anything positive on defense in the first quarter.

7-7: Delhomme to Smith (over and over)

The Panthers came right back on their own first drive in this game, scoring on Jake Delhomme's 15-yard TD pass to Steve Smith. That was one of three times Nos.17 and 89 linked up on the drive -- the others were for 24 and 27 yards.

It's no secret the Broncos are a fantastic offensive team and a very challenged defensive one, so this may be a game like Panthers-Packers earlier this season (35-31). I picked Carolina to win, 30-24, and now I'm thinking that may be too low for both teams.

We haven't played even 7 minutes, and it's 7-7.

7-0 Denver: Broncos score on 1st drive

What may well be a shootout is ON. Denver just took the ball the length of the field to score on a 7-yard pass from QB Jay Cutler to RB P.J. Pope.

The Broncos, if you haven't been paying too much attention, are spectacular offensively and bad defensively. They are a barnburner waiting to happen.

2 notable things about Denver's first drive:

1) It almost was short-circuited early when the Panthers' Na'il Diggs got to Cutler unblocked on a blitz and apparently sacked him, causing a fumble. Jon Beason ran it back to the Denver 20. But Denver coach Mike Shanahan challenged the play, believing it to be an incompletion by Cutler, and sure enough replays showed that Cutler's arm was moving forward.

2) Denver did all its damage without its best receiver, Brandan Marshall, catching a single pass. Cutler just lined up in the shotgun, one play after the next, and picked the Panthers apart. It wasn't a good series for the Carolina defense at all.

Friday, December 12, 2008

My Panthers-Bronco prediction

After picking the Panthers correctly each of the past five weeks -- I am sort of the anti-Sorensen in this respect -- the pressure is on. Here are my thoughts on Sunday's Denver-Carolina game, with the pick at the bottom.

** Denver is nothing if not entertaining. The Broncos can score from anywhere – and also give up scores from anywhere. Only four teams in the league give up more than the 25.8 points per game that the Broncos allow.

** Underestimating Denver would be a huge mistake. QB Jay Cutler has one of the strongest arms you’ll see. And watch No.15. WR Brandon Marshall is Denver’s version of Steve Smith and once caught 18 passes in a single game this season.

** Incidentally, there are only two active NFL players with the last name of Marshall – Brandon and Panthers’ nickel CB Richard Marshall. They should face off at least a few times today as part of the Panthers’ – wait for it – Marshall Plan.

** Look for a relatively high-scoring game that will make the NFL glad it moved this game to a later start. Denver’s defense is ranked 28th overall. I’d be surprised if DeAngelo Williams doesn’t have yet another 100-yard game with at least one TD, and Jonathan Stewart may join him on those plateaus, too.

** This could be a “trap” game for the Panthers, who are coming off a short week and face a game with huge playoff implications Dec.21 at the New York Giants. But I think Carolina will take advantage of Denver's weak defense just enough. My prediction: Carolina 30, Denver 24.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The perils of nicknames

I've got to weigh in on this "Smash and Dash" nickname story. If you haven't been paying attention, Panther RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have been christened "Smash and Dash" by some as a backfield combo, but Tennessee's LenDale White says -- and is apparently correct -- that he came up with this for The Titans' backfield combo.

DeAngelo knows this, by the way, and mentioned it late Monday night when an online reporter was trying to get him to expound on the "Smash and Dash" nickname. "I think the Titans may use that," Williams said. He said Wednesday that fans could choose the new nickname and so The Observer is running a poll with some of the "finalists" Williams picked (you can vote here).

Anyway, nicknames are fun, and fans LOVE to try and come up with them -- check the "Inside the Panthers" blog for the dozens, maybe hundreds of suggestions.

But here's the problem -- nicknames can also set you up for a fall. I asked fans for suggestions for a Panther defense nickname prior to the 2006 season. I got more than 4,000 votes -- the top two vote-getters were "Southern Discomfort" and "Black and Blue Wrecking Crew."

You know what nickname I ultimately picked as the winner of the contest, though? No nickname at all. That defense wasn't good enough to deserve a nickname (and the current version isn't either).

Now Stewart and Williams just might be. The choice I like the most among those suggested so far is "Hit and Run." It's simple. Easy to say and remember. "Fast and Furious" wouldn't be bad, either. Of the ones in our poll, I'd pick "Boom and Zoom."

But a nickname gets opposing teams' attention, too -- you can bet on that. I think it's one reason why there are fewer of them around these days -- NFL players and teams don't embrace them with the fervor that they used to in the '70s, when Mean Joe Greene, the Steel Curtain, the Doomsday Defense, the Purple People Eaters, etc., rolled off everyone's tongue.

Bottom line: I think it's fine for Williams and Stewart to have a nickname if they want one. And if they want fans to choose it, more power to them. But nicknames are tricky -- they better be careful what they wish for.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How can Richardson need a new heart?

How can Jerry Richardson need a new heart? That seems impossible – and unfair.

Richardson, 72, has been put on a heart transplant waiting list. But the Panthers founder and owner has long had one of the biggest hearts in the Carolinas. He has given untold millions of people joy by spearheading the drive to bring the NFL here. The Carolina Panthers were his before he shared them with all of us – his enormous, unlikely vision.

I’ve heard hundreds of stories about Richardson over the years. Almost all of them relate to his Everyman touch.

Richardson was driving around in his golf cart and stopped at a fan’s tailgate party to shoot the breeze: that’s a common one. Or someone was in the hospital and who appeared out of nowhere at their bedside? Richardson. Or Richardson would invite a player to his home for good food and fatherly advice (and, sometimes, a stern talking-to).

Most people still call him “Mr. Richardson” – even staff members who have known him for years. The former NFL player cuts an intimidating figure. He looks like a “Mister.” Some veteran Panther players who have known him for years dare to call him “The Big Cat.”

Richardson also has one of the most infectious laughs I’ve ever heard – an absolute cackle that makes me grin just to think about it.

Maybe Richardson’s heart has begun to wear out because he has used it so much. My prayers go out to him.

And a warning to his doctors: When you find a new heart for the Big Cat, it better be the XXXL model.

I like "The Big Trade"

So here it finally is: an actual blockbuster trade for the Charlotte Bobcats.

The Bobcats just shook up their season by trading their best scorer, shooting guard Jason Richardson, to Phoenix for big man Boris Diaw and defensive specialist Raja Bell. (Phoenix also gets Jared Dudley and a second-round pick and Charlotte gets rookie point guard Sean Singletary).

Do I like it? Yes, I do.

The Bobcats lose a lot of scoring. But they gain defense and rebounding, which are their two biggest flaws.

Look, it wasn't working this season for the Bobcats. Again. They are now 7-15 after Tuesday night's loss to New Orleans and absolutely weren't going to make the playoffs with the current configuration.

Of the Bobcats' two best players -- Richardson and forward Gerald Wallace -- I'd rather them have traded Richardson. I think Wallace does more for them than Richardson did – he’s a better defender, more athletic and more versatile.

I also think Adam Morrison and Matt Carroll can shoulder some of the scoring load that Richardson leaves behind. This team had too many jump shooters and has had for a long time, and Richardson was the only one of those bombers who could bring a decent price elsewhere.

Bell is just the sort of defense-first player -- he's made the NBA's All-Defensive squad twice -- that Larry Brown wants. He can also shoot threes very well, although he's not as pure a scorer as Richardson.

Diaw has been coming off the bench for Phoenix behind all-star Amare Stoudemire, but it's hard to imagine he won't start in front of Sean May here. (He has been described as a poor man's Rasheed Wallace, without as much talent or as many technicals, either).

Michael Jordan and Rod Higgins had to do something to put some sizzle into this Charlotte season. This isn't the best trade ever made. But it's far from the worst. And it will certainly make this season – and these Bobcats -- more interesting.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Panthers can make playoffs Sunday...

And here's how, according to the NFL's official playoff scenarios:

Carolina clinches a playoff spot with:

1) CAR win + DAL loss or tie OR
2) CAR win or tie + ATL loss or tie OR
3) CAR tie + DAL loss + PHI loss or tie OR
4) ATL loss + DAL loss + WAS loss or tie OR
5) ATL loss + DAL loss + CHI loss or tie OR
6) ATL loss + PHI loss + WAS loss or tie + CHI loss or tie.

So this could most easily happen if Carolina beats Denver at 4:15 p.m. Sunday AND either Dallas loses to the Giants Sunday night OR Atlanta loses to Tampa Bay at 1 p.m.

Either way, it could be some immediate gratification Sunday for Carolina fans.

Hoover calls MNF crowd best he's ever seen

Panther FB Brad Hoover has been around ever since 2000, when he was an undrafted rookie out of Western Carolina. He's been a mainstay in the Panther locker room ever since. Hoover is very intelligent despite having to basically run into a garage door 50-60 times a game -- that's what another former Panther fullback equated his job to, since they usually run into linebackers full-speed for a living.

So I put a good bit of his stock in most of Hoover's answers, including the one when I asked him after Carolina's 38-23 win over Tampa Bay what he thought of the sellout "Monday Night Football" crowd at Bank of America Stadium that had witnessed it.

Said Hoover: "It was probably the best I’ve ever seen in our stadium. We’ve had some decent games here, but as far as being into the game, it was packed full. The atmosphere was just electric. We’re doing well, the fans are all over them [Tampa] – you couldn’t ask for a better scenario. This was like a playoff-atmosphere game."

Panther QB Jake Delhomme didn't go quite that far, but said the crowd compared to the one for the Dallas home playoff game following the 2003 season and the Monday night season opener against Green Bay in 2004. "There's just something electric about night games," Delhomme said.

5 things I liked about Panthers' win over Tampa Bay

There was a lot to like about Carolina’s 38-23 win over Tampa Bay in Charlotte on “Monday Night Football,” which gave Carolina (10-3) the NFC South lead by one game with three to play. Here were my favorite 5 things:

** A franchise-record 299 total rushing yards. And it would have been 300 if Jake Delhomme hadn’t done the “victory kneel” on the game’s final two plays for minus-1 yard each time. DeAngelo Williams (franchise-record 186 rushing yards) and Jonathan Stewart (115) were the biggest stars of this game with 2 TDs apiece. But the offensive line and FB Brad Hoover all get assists for the best rushing day in franchise history.

** The likelihood of a playoff home game. It’s been a long time since there’s been a playoff game in Charlotte – since the 2003 season. This win made it a lot more likely. If the playoffs began today, Carolina would be the No.2 seed with a first-round bye to boot. And if Carolina wins all 3 of its remaining games – a very difficult task given the schedule – it would pass the New York Giants and become the NFC’s No.1 seed.

** The Panthers’ four-play, 90-yard drive in the fourth quarter, which was entirely on the ground and broke Tampa Bay’s will. It went like this: DeAngelo for 41 yards; Stewart for 3; Stewart for 30; DeAngelo for 16 and a TD. Amazing.

** Julius Peppers and Jon Beason. In a spotty defensive performance -- has anyone covered Antonio Bryant yet?? -- the Panthers’ two biggest defensive stars both made their presence felt. Peppers got to Jeff Garcia for 1.5 sacks and also blocked an extra point, and Beason made a key goal-line stop and recovered an onside kick.

** The crowd. Loud, rowdy and inspired, it was the best atmosphere in Charlotte at least since that home playoff game vs. Dallas in 2003, and some Carolina players said it even topped that one.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Panthers win 38-23; take over 1st place

The Panthers just pulled off a huge win on “Monday Night Football,” whipping rival Tampa Bay 38-23 to take over first place in the NFC South

Now, all seems possible for Carolina. If the Panthers (10-3) sweep their last three regular-season games, they will hold home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

If the season ended today, Carolina would be the No.2 seed, trailing the New York Giants (11-2). Those two teams meet Sunday, Dec.21 at Giants Stadium. Carolina first plays Denver Sunday at home and then closes the regular season on the road at New Orleans Dec.28.

The Panthers won this game by imposing their will on Tampa Bay’s proud defense. Both Carolina RBs went well over 100 yards, as both DeAngelo Williams (186 rushing yards) and rookie Jonathan Stewart (115) scored two TDs and averaged more than seven yards per carry.

Tampa Bay had only allowed one rushing TD all season before giving up an embarrassing four rushing TDs Monday night before a loud and rowdy crowd announced at 74,113.

This was undoubtedly one of the best nights in franchise history for Carolina. The Panthers never trailed but were tied at 3-all, 10-all and 17-all before a 21-point fourth quarter by the Panthers put the game out of reach.

31-23 Carolina: Tampa Bay scores late

Tampa Bay just pulled within eight points of the Panthers with 2:29 to go on a spectacular one-handed catch by WR Antonio Bryant.

Bryant has been Tampa Bay's best player all night and now has an even 200 yards receiving. He made a 15-yard catch of a Jeff Garcia bullet with his left hand only. It was amazing.

Then Julius Peppers blocked the extra point and Jon Beason recovered the onsides kick. If Carolina can make just one first down on offense -- and likely, even if the Panthers can't -- this game is over.

31-17 Carolina: Smash and Dash football

This was an absolutely shocking drive for the Panthers:
Four plays, 90 yards. All on the ground.

Carolina is simply taking apart Tampa Bay's defense, as its running back tandem of Jonathan "Smash" Stewart and DeAngelo "Dash" Williams accounted for all 90 of the yards. Williams scored the TD this time -- he's got 144 rushing yards now -- and Stewart has 115.

It's been a remarkable performance, really, by those 2 backs and the Panthers' offensive line. Unless the Panthers' defense totally collapses, Carolina is going to win this one.

24-17 Carolina: Stewart scores again

Tampa Bay only allowed 1 rushing TD all season until tonight. But the Panthers have just netted their second rushing TD of the game, both by Jonathan Stewart.

Stewart just knocked it in from 4 yards out and Carolina took a 24-17 lead with 13:21left in the fourth quarter. The Panthers have had just a great performance so far in this game from their offensive line -- both Stewart and DeAngelo Williams have more than 80 yards rushing so far.

17-all -- suddenly, it's a track meet

After only one TD in the first half, we've now seen 3 of them in the first 12 minutes of the third quarter.

The latest came from Cadillac Williams, who just knocked one in for Tampa Bay to tie the game at 17-all. That came after yet another long throw from Jeff Garcia to Antonio Bryant, who has just been killing Carolina so far (7 receptions, 171 yards).

Carolina has yet to trail in this game, but the Panthers are in dangerous territory. If it weren't so cold, a lot of Panther fans in this sold-out stadium would be sweating it out right now.

The Bucs have scored TDs on each of their last 2 drives, and no one in Carolina's secondary seems to be able to cover Bryant so far.

17-10 Carolina as Steve Smith scores

The Panthers quickly recovered from their missteps to allow Tampa Bay to tie the game at 10-all. A 6-play, 73-yard drive just ended with Jake Delhomme throwing a 38-yard rainbow to Steve Smith for a TD.

I said in the pregame on WCNC that Smith would need to score at least once for the Panthers to win this game, and who knows, he may need to score twice. But it's nice for Carolina that their biggest offensive threats -- Smith, their two RBs and Muhsin Muhammad -- are all having at least decent games so far.

It's 17-10, Carolina, with 8 minutes still to go in the third quarter. Already, in the first 7 minutes of the second half, we've had more points (14) than we had in the entire first half (13).

10-10: Delhomme interception, Tampa Bay TD

Early in the 3rd quarter, Jake Delhomme threw his 2nd interception of this game. That makes it 5 interceptions for Jake in two games vs. Tampa and zero TDs so far. This one came on an acrobatic catch by Tampa's Jermaine Phillips.

Moments later, Jeff Garcia hit Antonio Bryant with a 50-yard TD pass, as Ken Lucas got burned twice on the play (and also committed a penalty). Lucas got beaten on the catch, then had a clear shot at the tackle and whiffed again.

It's 10-10 early in the third quarter.

Panthers up 10-3 due to running game

The Panthers just put up only the 2nd rushing TD Tampa Bay has allowed all season, with rookie Jonathan Stewart going in standing up from 2 yards out.

The TD was set up by DeAngelo Williams' stunning 40-yard run, in which he broke a couple of tackles up the middle. Almost as big was Williams' 3rd-down conversion in which he broke the tackle of Derrick Brooks, the legendary Tampa Bay LB, to grab the first down.

Already, Carolina has scored more points than it did in that 27-3 fiasco of a loss to the Bucs Oct.12. It's obvious that RT Jeff Otah and C Ryan Kalil -- neither of whom played in that game -- are making a difference.

In that one, Carolina rushed for only 40 yards total. DeAngelo got that in one carry in this game.

Minter's prediction

I was on a pregame TV show with Mike Minter, the former Panther safety. The show was hosted by our news partner, Channel 36, and Minter was far better on it than I was, of course. He always did know how to talk into a camera.

Anyway, Minter thought this would be a fairly low-scoring game, and predicted the Panthers would win it, 20-10.

3-3 midway through 2nd quarter

This game has been a major defensive battle so far. Carolina scored on a field goal on its first possession that was set up by two Jake Delhomme passes to Muhsin Muhammad.

After that, both teams' defenses played well. Tampa Bay's Matt Bryant banged a 39-yard field goal attempt off the upright and it was no good. Carolina missed a scoring opportunity when Ronde Barber jumped a throw to Dante Rosario and made a nice interception of Delhomme.

Then came Garcia's great throw down the left sideline to Antonio Bryant, who sped by first Ken Lucas and then Richard Marshall for 52 yards down to the Panther 3. (This was on a drive in which Carolina had two great chances for turnovers -- Na'il Diggs dropped an interception and then an early whistle short-circuited an apparent forced fumble by Chris Harris).

Carolina stopped Tampa Bay on first and second down, which set up third-and-goal from the 2. Garcia had all day on a play-action pass, but the Panthers had great coverage, and Tampa Bay was forced to settle for the field goal.

With 6:38 left in the second quarter, it's 3-all.

UPDATED NFC playoff picture entering tonight's game

Sunday's results really couldn't have gone any better for the Panthers -- or Tampa Bay -- entering tonight's huge Monday Night Football game.

One of these teams will have four losses by about 11:30 p.m. Monday, but that team's chances to be the No.5 seed in the playoffs (rather than fall out of them entirely) got better Sunday due to practically every NFC wild-card contender losing. Dallas lost to Pittsburgh, Atlanta lost to New Orleans and Washington lost to Baltimore.

PLUS, the New York Giants got upset by Philly. That means that the WINNER tonight has a shot at the No.1 seed and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs (with Carolina likely needing to upset the Giants on the road Dec.21 to make that happen).

If you're really thinking positive, Carolina now CONTROLS its own destiny -- 4 straight wins, including tonight, and the Panthers would lock up the No.1 seed. That's not going to happen, but you're welcome to dream.

But all of those losses Sunday will give some cushion to tonight's loser, which will still be a game ahead in the wild-card race with three to go. Here are the current NFL standings. Check my charts out below to see how it will look Tuesday morning if the Panthers WIN and if they LOSE tonight:


1. NY Giants 11-2
2. CAROLINA 10-3 (and with a chance for homefield advantage if Panthers could beat the Giants Dec.21)
3. Minnesota 8-5
4. Arizona 8-5 (has clinched division and no worse than a No.4 spot; could move to No.3 with win over Vikings next Sunday)
5. TAMPA BAY 9-4
6. DALLAS (6-4 conference record slightly better than Atlanta's 5-4, so 8-5 Falcons would be out at the moment, along with all the 7-win teams)


1. NY Giants 11-2
2. Tampa Bay 10-3
3. Minnesota 8-5
4. Arizona 8-5
5. CAROLINA 9-4 (Panthers probably wouldn't have any home playoff games in this scenario -- too much ground to make up on Tampa Bay)
6. DALLAS 8-5

So, obviously, this game has gotten even a little more important due to the results of the past 24 hours.

My Panthers-Bucs prediction

I've managed to pick the Panthers correctly the past 4 weeks in a row in the newspaper and on this blog. Here's what I think will happen Monday night.

** There are bitter rivalries and healthy rivalries, and I’d like to think this one is the latter. It seemed more bitter when Warren Sapp and Kris Jenkins were around to fuel the fire. But guys like Jake Delhomme, Ronde Barber, Derrick Brooks and Jeff Garcia -- they understand what the NFL is all about, and they understand how special a game like this can be in prime time.

** It’s nice to have a meaningful game like this to talk about on a Monday in December – far preferable to talking about how your 401(k) has turned into a 101(k) or how far behind you are on your Christmas shopping.

** Remember that Tampa Bay blocked a Jason Baker punt in the first game this season, and that sent the whole thing spiraling downhill for Carolina in that 27-3 Panther loss. Watch for the Bucs to go after another one.

** Delhomme generally plays well against Tampa Bay, which is why that 24-point loss the first time around was such a surprise. He will rebound tonight in front of the home crowd. But Garcia has always given the Panthers trouble – mobile quarterbacks often seem to befuddle this team.

** Steve Smith and DeAngelo Williams both have to have big games tonight for Carolina to pull this one out. I think they will.
My prediction: Carolina 24, Tampa Bay 21.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

LeBron on Curry's NBA prospects

LeBron James had a long day in Charlotte Saturday, going to the Davidson-N.C. State game at 12 noon in Time Warner Cable Arena and then leading his Cleveland Cavaliers to an easy 20-point win over the Charlotte Bobcats in a 7 p.m. tipoff. James scored 25 in that one despite sitting out the entire fourth quarter as the Cavs coasted to victory.

You can see the blog post directly below this one for more details on James' exuberant cheering for his friend Curry -- who had 44 points during Davidson's 72-67 win over N.C. State. But it was interesting to hear what James had to say about Curry's NBA prospects Saturday.

LeBron compared Curry to a couple of NBA all stars -- one current, one retired -- when asked to evaluate his game.

"Steph is a guy who can create for himself and also for others with his passing ability," LeBron said. "He’s like a Rip Hamilton in our league. He never stops moving. Those types of players, it’s hard to guard them, no matter how big you are. Guys in the NBA don’t want to continue to chase guys like that. That’s why you see Rip is so successful, and Reggie Miller before Rip, and you see Steph and the success he’s had so far."

Curry has said he won't decide on whether to return to Davidson for his senior year until after this season ends. The junior point guard currently leads the nation in scoring with 31.3 points per game.

Charlotte Bobcats coach Larry Brown said the fact that Curry got James out of the hotel to come watch Curry play was "testimony" to how dazzling Curry really is. Brown said he also watched every minute of the Davidson-N.C. State game and complimented Davidson on how well-coached the team is.

Why didn't LeBron just stay in his hotel and watch the game on TV? Said LeBron of Curry: “He’s one of those players that will get somebody out to go watch. For him to continue to have success at that school – I’m not taking anything away from that school but their team isn’t the best – he makes those guys play hard. They compete in every game they’re in, even against some teams that people say they shouldn’t beat. I can relate to that.”

Curry, LeBron and an amazing day

Stephen Curry and LeBron James are buddies, which makes what is happening in uptown Charlotte today all the sweeter.

LeBron just got finished watching from the front row in Time Warner Cable Arena as Curry poured in 44 points to carry Davidson to a 72-67 win over N.C. State. He came to the game despite the fact he played last night and will play tonight, too, against Charlotte with his Cleveland Cavaliers at 7 p.m. (Curry plans to be there for that one, he says).

LeBron befriended Curry last year in the NCAA tourney run, obviously recognizing in Curry some of the extraordinary skills that LeBron owns himself. The two mainly keep in touch with text messages these days. Curry said after the game that LeBron sent him a complimentary text after he scored zero against Loyola, standing in the corner on most offensive possessions to draw a double-team and allowing Davidson to win by 30.

LeBron's text said winning was all that mattered, Curry said, and complimented the Davidson star on his unselfishness. Curry said he watches LeBron on TV and texts him after some games, too, but that his texts are more along the line of "Sick Dunk!"

LeBron also texted Curry Saturday morning, wishing him luck, but didn't tell Steph he was coming to the Davidson-State game. LeBron said afterward he only decided to come at 11:30 a.m. -- tipoff was at noon. "Being in my position, I can kinda do things like that," LeBron said, laughing. "I didn’t want to do that, I didn’t want to pull that string, but I had to.... And I got a decent seat, too."

James said the time commitment was well worth it and called Curry's game "spectacular."

Against N.C. State, Curry took 33 shots because that was the best way for Davidson to win (he made 15). N.C. State played him so closely on defense he often drove past defenders and then threw up crazy-looking bank shots. In the second half, LeBron would invariably hold a finger or fist aloft on every Curry shot, then slam it down when the ball dropped.

LeBron's biggest reaction came when Curry hit a 37-foot three-pointer that basically cinched the game for Davidson, but he also got up out of his seat several other times in celebration of Curry baskets. It was an entertaining sideshow -- LeBron as Superfan. After Curry's 37-footer (that number is an estimate from Coach Bob McKillop), Curry came walking back and pointing at LeBron in celebration.

It was quite a moment in an arena filled with red -- both the State and Davidson versions -- and in a game that felt like an NCAA tournament contest all the way through.

The only downside for Curry Saturday: he missed three free throws, usually about a month's worth for him. He laughingly blamed that on another one of his Superfans -- his Mom Sonya. Curry said she kept yelling to him "Stay on the line!", believing he was drifting back while taking free throws, and that psyched him out.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Take Gruden with LOTS of salt

Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden has praised the Panthers to excess, but don't let the talk fool you.

If you ever need a good publicity agent, try to hire Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden.

Anything Gruden says right before a game with another team must be taken not only with a grain of salt, but with a salt-shaker full of it. Gruden is one of the best coaches I've ever seen at publicly building up his foes just before trying to beat the stuffing out of them.

Latest case in point: Gruden has said this week that Panther WR Steve Smith reminds him of Freddy Krueger (on the field only) and that Panther LB Jon Beason is a "buzz saw."

But Gruden does this every time these two teams play. I feel like Jimmy Buffett in "Margaritaville" every time I hear him talk about the Panthers, because I'm always searching for my lost shaker of salt to pour on whatever Gruden says. He has previously also said Jake Delhomme, Julius Peppers and John Kasay give him nightmares. (Gruden's dreams must be a nasty and very strange place -- a nightmare starring John Kasay? What would he do, kick footballs at you?). Gruden has also claimed previously that Carolina CBs Ken Lucas, Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall are as good as any trio in the NFL.

I'm sure the next time the teams play Gruden will be comparing punter Jason Baker to Jason in "Friday the 13th" because he can slice a pooch punt so nicely.

This is just Gruden's way. Not that he doesn't respect the Panthers and it's all a farce; it's just waaaaay overdone. Listen to Gruden and you'd believe the Panthers lead this all-time series 16-0; in fact, it's just 9-7, Panthers.

I think Gruden mostly does it to motivate his own guys, who get tired of hearing about all the Panthers' supposed Pro Bowlers (Carolina actually had zero Pro Bowlers in 2007) and then try to go out and beat Carolina 27-3 or something.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mark Jones: NFC special-teamer of week

The Panthers got a bit of good news Wednesday -- kick returner Mark Jones was named the NFC's Special Teams Player of the Week for his performance against Green Bay.

Jones averaged 38.8 yards on four kickoff returns against the Packers, repeatedly setting the Panthers up with great field position in their 35-31 win. The most important return was the 45-yarder with 1:57 to go, which set up Carolina's game-winning TD drive. Coach John Fox told the team in the huddle at the conclusion of Wednesday's practice, resulting in applause and shouts for Jones.

That Wednesday Panther practice was an abbreviated, low-impact affair, as the team has an extra practice day to get ready for Monday night's home game against Tampa Bay. I think it's the most significant regular-season home game in Panther history, as I've written in this column.

After practice, Fox was asked what Carolina needed to do differently this time around after losing 27-3 to Tampa on Oct.12. "Oh, just about everything," the coach said.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Tampa game among most significant ever for Panthers

Hi, everyone. I'm glad to be home in Charlotte. I got stranded in Wisconsin and then O'Hare airport in Chicago following the Green Bay game, and didn't actually get back into my own house until the wee hours Tuesday morning.

Anyway, I'm writing a column for Wednesday's Charlotte Observer on how the Tampa Bay-Carolina game stacks up in terms of significance for all home games in Carolina's 14-year football history (there have been slightly more than 100 of them altogether).

Now take into account, this list is only about HOME games (so no Super Bowl, no road playoff games). And it's not a list of Carolina's best wins ever. It's a list of their most SIGNIFICANT home games ever -- the ones that meant the most, either at the time or in retrospect.

Here's my top five chart, which will run in Wednesday's paper, along with a few honorable mentions, which won't:

Here's my take on the 5 most significant home games in the Carolina Panthers’ 14-season history:

1) DALLAS -- Jan.4, 1997. It’s never as good as the first time. Carolina’s first-ever home playoff game was a 26-17 win over a Dallas team that included the Fab Four of Michael Irvin, Deion Sanders, Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman.
2) DALLAS – Jan.3, 2004. The Panthers began their run to the Super Bowl with a 29-10 whipping of the Cowboys; Steve Smith set the tone with a 70-yard reception on Panthers’ first pass.
3) TAMPA BAY, Dec.8, 2008 – Coming this Monday night, a December home game under the lights, with two 9-3 teams and bitter rivals fighting for NFC South superiority. Extremely significant no matter how it turns out.
4) PITTSBURGH -- Dec.22, 1996. Chad Cota’s end-zone interception -- which was hard to see from any vantage point -- clinched 12-4 season and Carolina’s first division title.
5) NEW ORLEANS -- Jan.2, 2005. Panthers would have made 2004playoffs with win after 1-7 start to season, but stunk it up in a 21-18 loss to the Saints.

My 2 honorable mentions: Carolina's first-ever home win in Oct.1995, when Sam Mills returned Bubby Brister's shovel pass for a TD in a 26-15 victory at Clemson and Carolina's 23-7 win over San Francisco in 1996, which came during the 49ers' heyday and showed everyone the Panthers would be a force that season.

Now remember, this list can include both wins and losses (see No.5). I'm sure I'm forgetting some other big home games -- tell me if you remember any or disagree with anything on this list.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Updated NFC playoff picture

So after today's results, this is how the NFC playoff picture would look if the season ended today instead of 4 weeks from now:

1. NY Giants (11-1, homefield advantage throughout playoffs)
2. Tampa Bay (9-3, wins tiebreaker with Carolina due to head-to-head victory)
3. Minnesota (7-5, has better conference record than Arizona)
4. Arizona (7-5, plays Minnesota Dec.14 in game that may determine some seeding)
5. Carolina (9-3, would have no home playoff games in this scenario)
6. Atlanta (8-4, edges Dallas -- also 8-4 -- with better NFC winning pct. at moment for the second wild-card spot -- .625 to .600)

First-round matchups: Carolina at Arizona (the Panthers edged the Cardinals at home this season); Atlanta at Minnesota. The Giants and Tampa Bay would have a first-round bye.

This makes me realize even more how important the Monday night, Dec.8 game in Charlotte is for Tampa Bay and Carolina. If the Panthers win on MNF, they suddenly vault into that No.2 spot -- at least temporarily.

If they lose to Tampa again, though, that's basically like being 2 games down with 3 to play -- Tampa Bay's going to win the NFC South at that point barring a total collapse, and Carolina will be mostly playing for a wild card.

5 things I liked about Panthers' 35-31 win over Green Bay

1. It was incredibly entertaining. When offenses go up and down the field like that, defensive coordinators grimace. But fans -- and sportswriters -- love it. It helped that the snow mostly held off. It is now snowing extremely hard in Green Bay and Lambeau Field is covered with white as I write this, truly looking like a frozen tundra. But there was little snow until the game ended.

2. The Panthers' red zone success. The Panthers made five trips inside Green Bay's 20 and scored on every one of them -- all of them 1-yard TDs (a team-record four by DeAngelo Williams). "Getting 7s rather than 3s when we were down there was the difference in the game," QB Jake Delhomme said.

3. Carolina's goal-line stand. The Panthers' defense was picked apart by Aaron Rodgers (298 passing yards) for most of the second half, but came up with the goods late in the fourth quarter by stopping the Packers twice at the 1 on second-and-goal and third-and-goal. Then Green Bay decided to kick the field goal -- a decision now roundly being second-guessed -- to go up 31-28 with 1:57 to go. (Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said: "To go up three points with two minutes left at home, I was confident in that position, that's why I kicked it.") That led to...

4. Steve Smith. What an amazing catch. He actually seemed to catch the back end of the ball on that 54-yard grab, yet held on to set up the Panthers' go-ahead TD.

5. Mark Jones. The Panthers' kick returner was extremely efficient, giving Carolina the equivalent of a couple of free first downs on several of his runbacks.