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.

Panthers win 35-31; Beason clinches it

The Panthers just won an amazing game in Green Bay, as Jon Beason's interception clinched a 35-31 victory. They improve to 9-3 with the victory, keeping pace with Tampa Bay, also 9-3.

Down 31-28 late in the fourth quarter, the Panthers took the lead after Steve Smith hauled in a 54-yard pass from Jake Delhomme to set up DeAngelo Williams' fourth TD of the game. That made it 35-31, Carolina.

Still, Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers was so hot it seemed like he might navigate the Packers to one more TD. Instead, his second throw on the ensuing drive was picked off by Panther LB Jon Beason.

Carolina took over, needing one first down to cinch the game. The Panthers ran Williams three times, making Green Bay burn all of its timeouts, and then punted back to the Packers with 13 seconds to go.

Jason Baker's punt then rolled all the way to the Green Bay 5 with 2 seconds remaining. Green Bay threw one incomplete pass, and it was over -- Carolina had secured one of the most entertaining wins in its history.

Smith makes an UNBELIEVABLE catch

Steve Smith just added another one to his highlight film. Carolina had the ball, trailing 31-28, with first-and-10 on its own 45. On first down, Jake Delhomme heaved one deep down the middle toward Smith, who was double-covered.

Somehow, Smith came up with it. He cut in front of a Packer defender, secured the ball, fell down, then got up and rolled to the 1. This all happened in the snow, which has started to fall hard.

The play was reviewed but upheld. With 1:33 left, Carolina had first down at the Packers' 1. DeAngelo Williams scored again -- his fourth 1-yard TD of the day. Those four TDs set a team rercord.

Still, did Carolina score too fast? Green Bay, now down 35-31 with 1:30 left, will get the ball back with a very hot QB in Aaron Rodgers, with two timeouts remaining.

Green Bay takes 31-28 lead

The Packers have scored again, on a 19-yard Mason Crosby field goal, to take a 31-28 lead with 1:57 left.

The Panthers did, for the first time in awhile, stop Green Bay from getting into the end zone. They stopped two consecutive running plays when Green Bay had second-and-goal from the 1, which helped a little.

Mark Jones, having a wonderful game as a kick returner, took the kickoff back to the Carolina 45. The Panthers have one timeout and 1:48 left. A light snow, mixed with sleet, has started to fall.

Panthers tie game at 28-all

Carolina finally broke out of its second-half offensive funk, as DeAngelo Williams just scored his third TD of the game to tie it at 28-all with 11:10 to go in the fourth quarter.

Carolina had been awful offensively until then, getting outscored 18-0 in the second half. But Mark Jones provided a spark with a 51-yard kickoff return. Then Muhsin Muhammad drew a 14-yard pass interference penalty, and somehow didn't get a penalty himself when he got angry and took a swing at a Green Bay player on the Packers' interception return (negated by the interference penalty).

The big play, though, came on 3rd-and-11 from the Green Bay 37, when Steve Smith did something big. In tight coverage, he went up and got a 36-yard pass to the Packers' 1. It was a good throw by Delhomme, a better catch by Smith. Williams finished it off from there with his third TD.

Now, though, Carolina's defense is going to have to try to stop the Pack. The Panthers have looked horrible on pass defense in their past two drives.

Green Bay takes 28-21 lead

Green Bay has made the Panthers look silly during the second half so far, outscoring them 18-0 to take a 28-21 lead early in the fourth quarter.

The Packers' latest score: a 21-yard pass from Aaron Rodgers to Greg Jennings. As has been usual in the second half, Jennings had a separation of at least 3 yards from the closest Panther defender, Ken Lucas.

Lambeau Field is rocking as it's been all Green Bay in the second half so far. Mark Jones did just return the kickoff to midfield, though, so you can't say Carolina is out of it.

If its defense keeps allowing Packer TD drives on every possession, though -- the past 2 have gone for a thoroughly embarrassing 95 and 76 yards -- they soon will be.

Game tied, 21-all, after 95-yard Packer drive

Green Bay just finished off a 95-yard drive against the Panthers' defense, which has to be embarrassed about allowing the Packers to go the length of the field like that. The TD came on a five-yard pass from Aaron Rodgers to Donald Lee, and that made it 21-19.

With 5:17 to go in the third quarter, the Packers decided to go for two points and tie the game at 21. That worked like a charm, too, as Rodgers threw a pass to a wide-open Greg Jennings, and just like that, the Panthers' 11-point halftime lead had evaporated.

The drive was keyed when Donald Driver, 1-on-1 against newly rich Carolina CB Chris Gamble, burned him for a 46-yard reception. That got Green Bay out of a hole on its own 5.

Carolina ahead 21-13 early in third...

The Packers drove for a 44-yard Mason Crowby field goal on their first drive of the third quarter, a drive keyed by backup Packers' RB Brandon Jackson's 32-yard run. It only took the Packers 63 seconds to complete that march to make it an 8-point game.

Meanwhile, Carolina has FINALLY gotten Steve Smith a little involved in the offense. Delhomme tried to find him deep once, unsuccessfully, but did get him the ball on a short pass early in the third quarter.

21-10 Carolina at halftime...

The Panthers took advantage of a huge mistake by Green Bay center Scott Wells and have taken a 21-10 lead into halftime.

Green Bay had grabbbed some momentum with a TD to cut Carolina's lead to 14-10 and then forcing the Panthers into a quick 3-and-out on offense.

But then Wells threw a shotgun snap well over Rodgers' head. Rodgers tried to pick it up on the run instead of falling on it, and instead Charles Johnson recovered it at the Green Bay 17.

That led to a 4-play drive in which Carolina handed off to workhorse DeAngelo Williams three times, the last time for a 1-yard TD (DeAngelo's second of the game).

Green Bay has been booed several times during this game by disgruntled Lambeau fans -- its punter, Derrick Frost, seems to inspire ire like no one else. So the Panthers take an 11-point lead into the half.

Carolina up 14-10 late in second...

Green Bay just came right back with a TD in what has been an entertaining first half at Lambeau Field.

The Packers mixed the run and pass well to get down inside Carolina's 5. The Panthers stopped them twice, but on third-and-goal from the 6, Aaron Rodgers found Donald Driver for the TD in front of a late-arriving Richard Marshall.

There has been a definite shift in momentum over the past 10 minutes. Lambeau is rocking, and the Packers just made Carolina go 3-and-out. With 2:38 to go in the second quarter, Green Bay has a first-and-10 at its own 37, trailing by 4.

Carolina takes 14-3 lead (assist to Wharton)

We just got something bizarre here in Green Bay as Carolina took a 14-3 lead with 9:43 left in the second quarter on a 1-yard run by Jake Delhomme.

Rookie RB Jonathan Stewart broke through the line on a third-and-1 and looked like he was on his way to a 45-yard TD. But Stewart inexplicably slowed down around the 10, and two Packers caught him. Not only that, Stewart didn't protect the ball and had it knocked out.

It looked like a great play by the Packers (and a terrible play by Stewart, who perhaps had cramped up on the play, because he's not the type to showboat). But then here comes offensive guard Travelle Wharton, hustling 40 yards downfield, and he's the guy who recovers the fumble at the Green Bay 2.

From there, the Panthers got it in the hard way -- a 1-yard run by DeAngelo, a pass interference penalty drawn by Steve Smith and then a Delhomme sweep to the left (where Wharton also had a key block).

So give Wharton his props for this one, and Carolina leads by 11.

Panthers up 7-3 early in 2nd...

Green Bay finally got something going on its fourth drive, moving to Carolina's 14 before getting stopped. The Packers' Mason Crosby hit a 32-yard field goal, and Carolina's early lead has been cut to 7-3.

A couple of early notes:

** Jake Delhomme has not been impressive so far. The early underthrow on the flea flicker robbed the Panthers of a possible TD. And he's also had an overthrow and took a sack on the last Panther drive when he almost seemed to be anticipating the sack before it ever came.

** DeAngelo Williams has been very good so far and looks well on his way to a fifth straight game with 100 yards and a TD. He should get the ball a ton the rest of this one, although we haven't seen Jonathan Stewart yet at all.

** Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers started very poorly, but made some good throws on the last Panther drive and may be heating up.

** Carolina returner Mark Jones has been very good early, as has punter Jason Baker. The Panthers have really been winning the field-position game due to those 2.

For once, a fast Panther start and a 7-0 lead

After having all sorts of problems in the first quarter during the past 4 games, the Panthers have gotten off to a fast start against Green Bay. A DeAngelo Williams TD has Carolina up, 7-0, and Green Bay has had to punt on each of its first three series in the first quarter.

On the game's first play from scrimmage, Carolina went against tendency with a beautiful call. DeAngelo Williams took a handoff, which is Carolina's normal first play, and then pitched it back to Jake Delhomme. All alone in the middle of the field was Muhsin Muhammad. Delhomme underthrew him or it could have been a 70-yard TD. Instead, it was a 44-yard gain -- but Moose fumbled the ball away.

But the Panthers scored a couple of drives later. DeAngelo Williams counted for every yard of a 42-yard march that was set up by Jason Baker's excellent punting and the defense's good play. DeAngelo finally knocked it in from a yard out to give Carolina its 7-0 lead. That's a far cry from the way Carolina began in its 45-28 loss to Atlanta last Sunday, when the Panthers were outgained, 162-0, in the first period.

Snow's coming (but not here yet)

It's possible the Panthers-Packers game at Green Bay will be played here without any snow. Right now, at kickoff, it's 37 degrees outside with a slight wind that drops the temperature to 30. A lot of the players, tough guys that they are, are wearing short sleeves.

Lambeau Field is packed, with most of the fans in green-and-gold outer gear. There is supposed to be 2-5 inches of accumulated snow by nightfall, but whether any of it gets here during the game, or if it only starts afterward, is questionable.

Beuerlein's draw (and Green Bay weather update)

It's about three hours before kickoff in Wisconsin, and where I am, it's still not snowing. But the forecast continues to call for 1-3" of snow today, with a high in the upper 30s and blustery winds that may gust up to 25 mph. Brrr. They'll sell a lot of coffee and hot chocolate at Lambeau Field today, that's for sure.

For thoughts on another memorable game at Lambeau, check out my story on "The Draw" -- Steve Beuerlein's game-winning TD draw on the final play of the Carolina-Green Bay game in 1999, which you can see here.

Two other details I didn't have room for in the story:
** Green Bay coach Ray Rhodes could have ensured it wasn't the last play of the game by calling timeout and giving Brett Favre 30-40 seconds to work with IF the Panthers scored on fourth-and-goal from the 5. Instead, he let the Panthers bleed the clock down to 5 seconds before they called their own final timeout. "We were all in the huddle wondering, 'What is he doing?'" Beuerlein said of Rhodes.

It was a mental mistake, and Rhodes made a number of them that season. That's why Rhodes lasted only one year as the Packers' head coach.

** The Panthers gained only 13 rushing yards in that game, and still won 33-31. They only had 8 before Beuerlein's draw, and even afterward, that set a franchise low at the time.

Weather watch for Green Bay and Panthers

I'm in Wisconsin now and am checking the weather forecast in advance of the Carolina at Green Bay game. The forecast right now is calling for 1-3 inches of snow in Green Bay Sunday, so it's quite likely it will be snowing on Lambeau Field at some point during this game.

Will this affect the game? Absolutely. But sometimes it's hard to know which way it will go. You'd think snow would always mean a 10-6 defensive battle, but I've seen games where it goes totally the other way. If the receivers can get some traction, they know where they're going and the cornerbacks back-pedaling do not -- sometimes that leads to some quick TDs in "weather" games.

Panthers equipment man Jackie Miles is a true pro and knows all the tricks. He's had the Panthers put baby powder in their cleats before for cold-weather games, and of course he's got all the cold-weather paraphernalia you can imagine to pass out before the game.

The Packers are obviously more used to playing in snow than Carolina, so I would think a real heavy snowstorm would definitely help Green Bay. It's going to be cold, for sure, no matter how much it snows -- the game-time temperature will likely be in the 30s, with winds of 10-15 mph.

Friday, November 28, 2008

My Panthers-Packers prediction

** Lambeau Field is a superb place to watch a game, and I’ve been fortunate enough to see two memorable ones there. One was the Panthers’ NFC championship game loss to Brett Favre, Reggie White and Green Bay during the 1996 season – it was unbelievably cold that day. The other was Steve Beuerlein’s “quarterback draw” game (see my Sunday column for a lot more details on that one) in 1999.
Sounds like it may snow Sunday during the game. That’d be fun.

** The Panthers and the Green Bay Packers are both smarting a little after last week – particularly their defenses. I don’t think this game will be 51-45, like you would think if you were only going by last week, but I believe the winning team will need to score at least 24.

** If Steve Smith doesn’t score a touchdown from at least 40 yards out against Green Bay, I’ll be surprised. The Packers’ safeties not only aren’t very good, they’re also banged up. Green Bay’s cornerbacks, on the other hand, are usually excellent (when they’re not facing Drew Brees). So Smith will sometimes be blanketed by cornerbacks Al Harris or Charles Woodson. But when he can shake free of those two, he can definitely beat the Packers’ safeties, and that will spell a TD.

** While the Packers have a fine homefield advantage at Lambeau and Carolina is only 2-3 on the road this season, the 5-6 Packers are also the only team below .500 left on Carolina’s schedule. I think Carolina will have just enough to pull this one out.
My prediction: Carolina 27, Green Bay 22.

Tackling a dream

I hope you saw the story of Justin Weisner's one tackle this season for the Newton-Conover junior varsity -- not because it was well-written, but because Justin's story is so inspiring. Justin has Down syndrome and served as the Newton-Conover water boy and ball boy last season, but what he really wanted was to play.

Thanks to a lot of effort by his family, Newton head coach Nick Bazzle, school administrators, the family doctor and a whole bunch of others, Justin realized that dream. It truly took a village to make that tackle.

Justin will be a senior in 2009 at Newton-Conover -- when he plans to play for the varsity.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Curry for 0??!! Weird!

Stephen Curry continues to amaze, but on Tuesday night it was what he didn't do instead of what he did.

Can you believe Curry actually scored zero points in a 30-point Davidson rout of Loyola (Md.) on Tuesday?

That's right -- the first-team All-American, the one averaging 35 per game, only shot three times and missed all of those. Loyola draped two defenders on Curry all the time, so mostly he just got out of the way, stood off in his corner and let his teammates cream Loyola in 4-on-3 basketball. (Davidson does 4-on-3 drills regularly in practice, so it paid off this time).

I wasn't there, but it sounds like vintage Curry. He really doesn't care if he sets scoring records or not. He likes to win. Most of the time, that means he has to score at least 40 percent of Davidson's points, but not Tuesday.

Oddly, I almost took a couple of my kids to Tuesday's game at Davidson but ultimately couldn't because we had too much going on at home. I hardly ever pay to see any sporting events -- I see so many already for work -- but Curry is one guy I'll pay to see. And that absolutely doesn't change after he scores zero in a game -- in fact, I feel even more strongly about it.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Expecting points in Green Bay

Green Bay and quarterback Aaron Rodgers scored 29 points Monday night -- and lost.

Didn't it seem like tons of NFL teams were putting up 40 or more this past weekend? That wasn't just your imagination -- the NFL actually set a record for most total points scored in a single weekend.

The old record was 788. This past weekend blasted past that mark, with 837 (an average of 52.3 points in the 16 NFL games played). The Panthers and their next opponent Green Bay both did their part to set the record, losing 45-28 and 51-29, respectively.

So logic would say that this week's Carolina game at Green Bay will produce a high-scoring contest, but you never know. Weather can always be a factor at Green Bay, and certainly both defenses' pride has been stung. Nevertheless, I feel like the winning team will probably need at least 24 in this one.

I like seeing the high-scoring games myself, and am OK for the most part with the way the quarterbacks are protected by the NFL to help that cause.

According to the NFL: Games this season are averaging 45.0 points (so a 24-21 game would be right on the average).

If that average holds, it would top last season’s average of 43.4 and also surpass the record average since the 16-game schedule was instituted in 1978 of 43.7 points per game in 1983.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

4 things I couldn't stand in Panthers' 45-28 loss to Atlanta

** Carolina’s defense. How can the Panthers allow 45 points to anyone in the NFL, including an astonishing 28 in the fourth quarter?
That’s absolutely embarrassing. The Panthers had poor tackling, not nearly enough of a pass rush and couldn’t get off the field on third down when it counted.
The defense also allowed Michael Turner to score 4 TDs, including on a critical fourth-and-goal from the 1 late in the fourth quarter and then an “in-your-face” score on another fourth down with 54 seconds to go. And where was Julius Peppers in this game, anyway?

** The Panthers’ punt coverage. After generally being good all season, the Panthers allowed a punt return TD to Atlanta’s Harry Douglas (who had an unbelievable game, see the blog post previous to this one).

** Carolina’s extremely s-l-o-w start. Spotting any good team a 17-0 lead is just asking for it. Atlanta scored on its first 3 possessions – two TDs and a FG – to set the tone for this game. The rest was a long slog back for the Panthers, who got within 17-13 and 24-21 at different points in the second half but just ran out of gas. The Panthers’ offense was actually pretty good after that horrible start – 28 points will win you a game in the NFL most of the time – but not good enough.

** Dropped balls and penalties. Steve Smith had a generally excellent day, but he also dropped two passes. Muhsin Muhammad had a couple of balls he could have come up with but didn’t. And there were others. The Panthers’ red-zone offense could have been a lot better – they had to settle for one John Kasay field goal after a first-and-goal from the 1.

Bottom line: Terrible day for Carolina. I predicted they'd lose, but by a field goal, not by 17. I didn't foresee this sort of meltdown, especially on defense.
The Panthers drop to 8-3 and, while tied with Tampa Bay for first in the NFC South, would lose the tiebreaker at this moment based on an earlier defeat at the hands of the Bucs. Atlanta, 7-4, lurks only a game behind.

Atlanta 38-21 and turn out the lights on this one

Did I mention Atlanta wide receiver-punt returner Harry Douglas already in this blog?

The guy has been absolutely unbelievable. He just returned a punt for a touchdown to put Atlanta up 38-21 and cinch the Falcons victory -- this after scoring Atlanta's first TD and this after setting up another TD with a 69-yard reception.

Douglas is the Falcons' regular punt returner, but he's not used much on offense. He only had 12 catches for 160 yards and no TDs coming into this game. But he's been the Falcons' secret weapon in this one -- absolutely as effective as Steve Smith.

Atlanta 31-21 in rollercoaster 4th quarter

The Falcons just scored -- again! -- in this crazy fourth quarter. Michael Turner's one-yard run on fourth-and-goal from the 1 put Atlanta up 31-21 and will now make it very difficult for Carolina to come back with only 7:16 left in the game.

The Panthers seemed to be about to get the ball back when Atlanta had a third-and-10 deep in its own territory. But Harry Douglas, a virtual unknown who has been hurting the Panthers all day, went 69 yards on a 20-yard pass from Matt Ryan, breaking a couple of poor tackles along the way.

That got Atlanta inside the Panthers' 5, but Carolina stopped the Falcons on three plays. On fourth down, coach Mike Smith made the aggressive call to go for it, knowing that a field goal would only give Atlanta a 27-21 lead and make it a one-possession game.

The Panthers used their first timeout, but it didn't help. Turner, one of the best bruisers in the league, powered over from the left side standing up. It was his third TD of the afternoon and leaves Carolina about one offensive turnover away from this game being over.

24-21 Atlanta -- Panthers are within a FG after Delhomme score

Jake Delhomme just made one of the best and most unlikely scrambles of his life, somehow running it in from 12 yards out (and actually faking out a defender!) as Carolina cut the Falcons lead to 24-19. It was Delhomme's version of the Steve Beuerlein draw at Green Bay a few years back -- totally surprising (although not on the final play of the game).

The Panthers then went for two points with 10:57 to go, trying to get within a field goal of the Falcons. After an Atlanta timeout, the Panthers came out in the same alignment, with three wide receivers and DeAngelo Williams by himself in the background.

Then Delhomme handed it to DeAngelo Williams, who got it over the goal line but also lost the ball. The ruling on the field was that the 2-point conversion was successful. Atlanta coach Mike Smith had the "challenge" red flag in his hand but didn't throw it, so now it's 24-21, Atlanta.
The Panthers went 83 yards on 8 plays on that drive -- they've now scored 18 of their 21 points in the second half as the offense has suddenly ignited.
Steve Smith is having a huge game, with over 160 yards receiving already.

24-13 -- Atlanta extends lead to 11

The Falcons just did something very smart after Carolina cut Atlanta's lead to four points.

Stuck in the offensive doldrums, the Falcons shook it up. They went no-huddle, with Matt Ryan calling out plays at the line, walking around and making all sorts of motions pre-snap, a la Peyton Manning.

It worked very well, as suddenly Atlanta started moving again. The Falcons got to a first-and-goal at the 4 right as the third quarter ended, then had Michael Turner run it in on the first play of the fourth quarter from there. Cornerback Ken Lucas, who missed a tackle on Turner on the play, slapped the artificial turf.

So Carolina, despite generally outplaying Atlanta for most of the second and third quarters, trails by 11 as it enters the fourth.

If Carolina scores a TD early in this quarter, it will almost certainly go for 2, which would allow a field goal to tie it.

17-13 -- Panthers now within 4

Carolina just scored again on John Kasay's 21-yard field goal, as the Panthers have sliced a one-time 17-0 Atlanta lead to 17-13.

With 5:27 left in the third quarter, the momentum has clearly shifted to Carolina, but will it be enough? Spotting Atlanta 17 early, the Panthers have scored the game's last 13 points on two Kasay field goals sandwiched around a DeAngelo Williams scoring run.

This most recent drive was workmanlike: 55 yards on 12 plays, with the big one a draw to DeAngelo that converted a third-and-9. The Panthers then tried another draw to DeAngelo on 3rd-and-6 from the Atlanta 7, but this one was stopped a couple of yards short, which brought Kasay in for the FG.

In any event, this once looked like it would be a rout and now has turned into an actual game.

Panthers score first TD, cut lead to 17-10

The Panthers just had by far their best drive of this game, taking the kickoff and going 80 yards in only 5 plays to cut Atlanta's lead to 17-10.

Steve Smith was the difference, shaking off those 2 first-half drops to sprint 41 yards on a deep ball from Delhomme early in the drive. Then, on 2nd-and-1 from the 27, Delhomme threw to Smith again. It was one of the twosome's favorite plays -- Delhomme purposely throws the ball a little behind Smith, at his back shoulder, on a sideline route.

The play was perfectly executed and Smith went 22 yards to the Atlanta 5. DeAngelo Williams scored on the next play, and suddenly the Panthers are within 7 at 17-10, with 12:21 left in the third quarter.

17-3 at halftime as Moose makes a big mistake

The Panthers looked like they had a chance to cut a little further into Atlanta's lead just now until a big mistake by Muhsin Muhammad.

Carolina had a third-and-6 at the Atlanta 35 with 46 seconds to play before halftime -- plenty of time to do something. Even a Delhomme incompletion would have probably sent out John Kasay for a 52-yard field goal. And indoors from 52, I'd figure Kasay could make it 70 percent of the time.

But then Muhsin Muhammad looked like a rookie. With the Georgia Dome roaring, he left on the wrong snap count and was 5 yards down the field while no one else was moving. Delhomme threw his head up in frustration as the Panthers then had third-and-11 from the 40 (and had 10 seconds run off the clock to boot -- that happens on an offensive penalty inside 2 minutes).

So then Delhomme needed to take a deeper drop, because he needed a longer completion, and instead he was bludgeoned by Atlanta DE John Abraham for a sack.

So your halftime score remains:
Atlanta 17, Carolina 3.

What must Carolina do in the second half? The defense has actually looked OK on the last couple of Falcons drives, but it gave up that quick 17 early. Carolina probably needs at least one more big turnover because its offense looks so suspect to get back into this game.

And Steve Smith can't drop another ball -- he's already had a couple in this game.

Atlanta 17-3: Carolina on the board, but no TD

The best and worst of Steve Smith was just on display in the second quarter here at the Georgia Dome, as Carolina finally got on the board and is now down 17-3 to Atlanta with 5:22 left in the second quarter.

The good news: This won't be a shutout.
The bad news: The Panthers had a first-and-goal from Atlanta's 1 and had to settle for a field goal.

On the drive, the Panthers finally got good field position when Chris Gamble caused a fumble and Charles Godfrey recovered it at the Atlanta 48.

Carolina then started throwing at Steve Smith for the first time all day. He caught one nine-yard pass to set up the Panthers' first first down, then he burned the Falcons for a 31-yarder by getting deep and giving Carolina first-and-goal at the Falcons' 1.

Easy TD, right? Wrong. On first down, Jonathan Stewart failed to get in over the right side. On second down, the Panthers first had a false start and then Delhomme overthrew a well-covered Smith. On third down, Delhomme went to Smith again. The ball was high to get over an Atlanta LB, but I thought it was very catchable. Smith, in the back of the end zone, went up, seemed to be concerned about keeping both his feet in-bounds....
and dropped it.

So Carolina got a score, but not the kind it wanted, and Atlanta still has a two-TD lead.

17-0 Falcons and this is getting nasty quickly...

The Falcons just took a 17-0 lead with 13:20 left in the second quarter. What a whipping they have put on Carolina so far!

Atlanta has scored on each of its 3 possessions -- 2 TDs, 1 FG -- with their offensive trio of stars (Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Michael Turner) totally outplaying Carolina's defense.

Then, on offense, Carolina has yet to make a single first down. No first downs and already down by 17??? Unless Carolina does something spectacular quickly, this is looking like it's going to be a very long day for them. Atlanta outgained Carolina 162-0 -- yes, 162-0 -- in the first quarter.

Falcons up 10-0 early and rolling

The Falcons have come out like a team possessed in this game, gaining at least 70 yards on each of their first 2 drives and taking a quick 10-0 lead.

QB Matt Ryan already looks so much better than he did in Carolina's 24-9 win in late September. He's already led the Falcons to more points in those 2 marches than he did in the entire game, coolly moving the ball to the open receiver.

Carolina has hurt itself by jumping offsides (twice), missing a couple of tackles and not being able to stay with Atlanta's fine WR Roddy White deep. The Falcons also had a great call on third-and-3 from Carolina's 7, when they showed an empty backfield, but then motioned barely-used Harry Douglas into the backfield and pitched him the ball.

Douglas tiptoed in for his first NFL TD and it was 10-0. Carolina has gone 3-and-out on each of its first 2 offensive possessions, with Jake Delhomme throwing an incompletion on one third down and getting sacked on the other.

Atlanta just ran the second punt of Jason Baker back inside the Carolina 40. If the Panthers aren't careful, they're going to get blown out. This game has had all the earmarks of that in its first 11 minutes.

This late starting time is weird...

It's 4:05 p.m. in the Georgia Dome. That's usually when Panthers game end, except when they are on the West Coast.

Not this time. Because the Panthers-Falcons game was moved to TV to draw a wider audience, we're 10 minutes from kickoff. The Dome is loud, there are fireworks going off, there's a 40-yard-long Atlanta Falcons flag fluttering on the field -- it feels like a pretty big game.

I like the Georgia Dome as a venue. Always have. It's underrated as to how loud it can get, too -- Jake Delhomme will have some trouble getting the signals out on third downs here. That always happens.

I remember seeing the Panthers' first-ever real game here in 1995, when they lost to Atlanta in OT (Frank Reich was the QB). And the Olympics. And the Super Bowl. And the Final Four. And the ACC tournament. This place has hosted one huge event after another.

Hopefully today will be another good one. Keep checking back -- I'll be updating the "Scott Says" blog throughout the game. As my fine colleagues have already noted on their "Inside the Panthers" blog, the Falcons will wear all-black today, the Panthers all white and Dwayne Jarrett is active (while D.J. Hackett, who's been quite disappointing is not).

Saturday, November 22, 2008

My Panthers-Falcons prediction

Thoughts entering the 4:15 p.m. Panther-Falcon game at the Georgia Dome Sunday:

** One of Carolina’s most impressive defensive performances of the season so far came against Atlanta. In that 24-9 victory on Sept.28, the Panthers never let the Falcons in the end zone, allowed Michael Turner only 56 rushing yards and gave up just 158 passing to rookie Matt Ryan.

** I think Carolina’s defense will be the biggest key. That performance against Detroit seemed so out of character – to give up 22 points to the Lions?? C’mon. I think Carolina would need to keep Atlanta to 17 or fewer points in this one to win.

** Watch what Atlanta does with Muhsin Muhammad in this game. He had 147 yards receiving in the last game, but the Falcons have retooled their secondary since then and they’ll pay far more attention to him this time.

** If Jake Delhomme has a third straight bad game, then this isn’t just a hiccup. This is an actual trend.

** Atlanta, in third place in the NFC South, really needs this one. Like the Panthers, the Falcons have been far better at home than on the road this season.

My prediction: Atlanta 20, Carolina 17.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Car Wreck 40 Years Ago Helped Davidson Win

You’ve got to love Davidson coach Bob McKillop’s analogies. McKillop doesn’t go in for the “one game at a time” coach-speak. He tells his team stories and draws lessons from them – a much better way to go.

So this week, after No.21 Davidson's four-point loss to No.12 Oklahoma, McKillop told the squad about this wreck he had 40 years ago south of Richmond. He was driving a 1962 VW Beetle from New York to Greenville, N.C., to go to a funeral.

At 4 a.m., near Richmond on Interstate 95, an exhausted McKillop went to sleep while driving. He plowed through a sign, ended up in a ditch but escaped serious injury. It scared him, and altered his driving habits.

From then on, McKillop told his team, whenever he’s tired while driving, he rolls down the window, sticks his arm out there and moves it around. And he turns up the radio and sings. And he reads every billboard on both sides of the road rather than just keeping his eyes straight on the highway.

So how does this translate to basketball? McKillop wanted his team to move more (the arm), talk more (the singing) and look around more to see what’s happening (the billboards). All that happened in Davidson’s impressive 97-70 pounding of Winthrop Friday night.

One other note: Winthrop coach Randy Peele was upset after the game about many things, mostly about the way his own 1-3 team played. But he also mentioned that trying to defend Stephen Curry (30 points, 13 assists) is frustrating, and not just because Curry is so good.

“They don’t let you defend him,” Peele said of the officials. “If there’s any type of physicality, there’s a whistle.”

Peele was also very complimentary of Davidson, Curry and forward Andrew Lovedale in particular. But it sounded like Peele was implying that Curry is getting the “star” calls this year in college basketball that Kobe Bryant or LeBron James gets in the NBA.

How frustrated can Larry Brown get?

Wow. It sure hasn't taken very long for Larry Brown (right) to get frustrated about his Charlotte Bobcats team, has it? Check out this story from Rick Bonnell in today's Observer, where Brown is obviously trying to send yet another message about lack of effort to his starters.

Brown has no interest in the status quo, which is good, because the status quo for the Bobcats is another 30-52 season and a fifth straight year out of the playoffs. Brown is thinking about starting rookies D.J. Augustin (maybe ready) and Alexis Ajinca (definitely NOT ready) tonight against the Hawks. And even if he doesn't do it now, it's obvious he'll do something like that soon.

Brown is a basketball genius and a hall of fame coach, but he's far from perfect (witness the New York Knicks implosion). Even geniuses throw stuff at the wall sometimes and see what sticks, and I get the idea that's what LB is doing with this possible move.

Brown's charge of the first team not providing enough effort? Partly true, partly not.

You can't tell me Gerald Wallace doesn't play hard, for instance. I think this blanket "no effort" charge is really directed more at May -- who has been so deep in Brown's doghouse I'm not sure he will ever get out.

But it's not just May. The Bobcats aren't getting nearly enough production from Emeka Okafor, in particular, and the rest of the starters in general. Charlotte is headed straight toward another disappointing season if something doesn't change. I applaud Brown for trying to figure out something that will work.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Quit whining about Zeller, Tar Heel fans

OK, UNC fans. You’re going to need to have to stop the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the loss of 7-foot freshman center Tyler Zeller.

Yes, Zeller will be a very good college player – someday. You know what he was on this UNC team, though, once everyone gets healthy? About the eighth or ninth man. Yes, Zeller would be valued for his height and the fact he has five fouls to give, but let’s be serious. The Tyler that really matters on this team is Hansbrough.

If you’re rating Zeller’s season-ending broken wrist on a calamity scale of 1-10 – with a 10 being something like a season-ending injury to Hansbrough or Roy Williams quitting in midseason and a 1 being an ankle injury to a walk-on – I’d give the Zeller injury a 4.

Yes, it leaves the Tar Heels a little thin at the post, but c’mon – Hansbrough is the best post player in the country. And have you seen Ed Davis? The 6-10 Davis is a much better rebounder than Zeller right now (he’s averaging a team-high 12 per game), and that’s what the Tar Heels need most in the post. He’ll be the first post player off the bench.

Hansbrough, of course, can do everything -- and he’s close to returning from his shin injury. Deon Thompson, the normal starter at power forward, can score but is an on-and-off rebounder. Davis just needs to rebound and play defense as the Tar Heels’ third big guy.

UNC also can go to a smaller lineup anytime it wants, which is a popular NBA trend, because Danny Green is a jumping bean and can shift to power forward. This squad is still incredibly loaded. Hansbrough will be back soon, Marcus Ginyard not terribly long after that, and it will be even more loaded.

At this point, complaining about Zeller not being around this season is a little unseemly. It’s like complaining that an opulent buffet only has four kinds of dessert instead of five.

So don’t whine. The Tar Heels will be fine – more than fine – without him.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

One Tyler in, another Tyler out for UNC?

North Carolina's Tyler Zeller is consoled by Kentucky's Ramon Harris after Zeller injured his wrist late in Tuesday's game. Harris fouled Zeller on the play. (AP Photo by Gerry Broome)

Some thoughts from Chapel Hill after seeing the Tar Heels play in person for the first time since Kansas put that whipping on them in the 2008 Final Four:

** I think if this game had mattered -- the Tar Heels blew out Kentucky, 77-58 -- UNC would have played Tyler Hansbrough. He is antsy to get in, he is able to dunk in practice and I think he'll play in the Hawaii tournament (starting Monday) if not before. UNC has one more game, at UC-Santa Barbara Friday, and he might even get some time in that one. But they are being really careful and they should be -- Hansbrough passed up millions to return for his senior year, and his legs are his livelihood.

** The other Tyler, freshman center Tyler Zeller, I expect will be out for awhile. It looked like he broke his left wrist late in the game on an attempted dunk when he got fouled and fell hard. No announcement forthcoming on that until Wednesday, probably, but it didn't look good. Losing Zeller won't be a good thing, but realistically, once Hansbrough comes back, the Tar Heels can get by until he returns since freshman Ed Davis has been quite a rebounder underneath so far. Davis looks a bit like Sam Perkins when he's good -- a smooth lefty who's a force under the boards.

** Deon Thompson is obviously stronger than he was last year. Watch how he plays when Hansbrough gets back, though -- Thompson sometimes defers too much to Hansbrough, and it causes him to fade out of games at times.

** Roy Williams doesn't sound like he's going to enjoy a win very much all season to me. Lots of coaches would love to have his problems, but think about this: it's going to be a disappointment everywhere if UNC doesn't win the national championship. That's a pretty difficult road.

** Even in Chapel Hill, in the midst of a big early-season game, Stephen Curry mania was in evidence. There are two TVs in the UNC pressroom -- both usually tuned to the Tar Heel game in progress, of course. On Tuesday night, one TV showed UNC-Kentucky, and the other showed Curry going for a valiant 44 against Oklahoma in the Wildcats' four-point loss.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Is Jake Delhomme hurt?

Is Jake hurt?

That's the question I keep getting today as nervous fans dissect the Panthers' second straight "not-as-impressive-as-it-could-have-been" win over a bad team -- this one over Detroit, 31-22.

For the second straight game, QB Jake Delhomme threw for less than 100 yards Sunday. This time, at least, Delhomme had zero interceptions and completed slightly more than 50 percent of his throws (10 for 19 for 98 yards and one TD). The Raiders game was much, much worse -- he was 7 for 27 with 4 interceptions, and that was undoubtedly the worst game he's ever had here. Carolina (8-2) still won both games.

So is Delhomme hurt? I don't know for sure. But I can tell you this. If he is -- if all those overthrows are the byproduct of overcompensating for a tired arm, or a sore arm, or because he can't get the best grip on the ball or something -- he's not going to tell us.

Jake would be a great neighbor, as I tell groups when I speak to them. He's down to earth, he's got a great family and he's about as close to an open book as you'll get in most respects -- but not in every one. He turns into Coach John (I Will Tell You Nothing And You Will Like It) Fox on just one subject: he downplays or doesn't mention his own injuries.

-For instance, when Delhomme had to have Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow after only 3 games during the 2007 season, he said after the fact it was something of a blessing because his throwing arm had had something wrong with it for years and had been bothering him a lot.

And all of us who cover the Panthers regularly were like, "Huh???" Delhomme had never mentioned that before. Why? He obviously thought it would put him at a competitive disadvantage (and this is common among QBs -- Peyton Manning is among those who practice this sort of gamesmanship, and he's another straight shooter on just about everything else).

So this only my educated guess after being around Delhomme throughout his tenure here, in good times and bad: I think Delhomme is not hurt, at least not seriously. I would be surprised if his arm feels as good as it did in September, but that's normal. A starting pitcher usually won't feel as good in October as he does in April because of normal wear and tear.

Delhomme has thrown the ball too high on occasion for years -- when he misses, that's usually where he misses. I think he's just had one terrible game and another where he made a couple of bad throws, but also was victimized by a couple of drops, and the stats ended up looking worse than they should because all No.17 had to do to beat Detroit was to hand off.

I could be wrong, but that's my guess. Delhomme, of course, will say this week he's not hurt, but that won't mean I'm right. Delhomme will say that until the very day he undergoes another arm operation, when and if that happens. It's just the way he is.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

4 things I liked and 2 I didn't about Carolina's 31-22 win over Detroit

The things I liked most:

** The Panthers’ 8-2 record. Despite this rather unimpressive win over Detroit, the Panthers' record remains quite impressive. At 8-2, the Panthers are still in first place in the NFC South. The Falcons also lost today to Denver, so now Carolina has a two-game edge on the Falcons (6-4) and a one-game edge over Tampa Bay (7-3) going into next Sunday's game at Atlanta.

** The offensive line. The Panthers pounded the ball for most of this game, with running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart both rushing for more than 100 yards. Here’s a shout-out to center Geoff Hangartner, who again replaced injured starter Ryan Kalil and did a nice job. The Panthers ended up with the most rushing yards in team history with 264, averaging a staggering 8.3 yards per carry.

** The sunny side of the stadium. On this nippy day, you saw a lot of fans on the sunny side shedding their jackets, and a lot of fans on the shady side shivering under theirs.

** Charles Godfrey. The Panthers’ rookie free safety took advantage of Lions quarterback Daunte Culpepper’s huge mistake – a fourth-quarter interception thrown directly at Godfrey while Carolina was clinging to a 24-22 lead. Godfrey didn’t score but probably should have. Give him credit, though, for not dropping it, and that pick led to Carolina's clinching TD.

The things I disliked most:

** Jake Delhomme wasn’t as bad as he was last week, but he was inconsistent. Delhomme was actually booed in this game early, after Carolina’s second possession, when he made a bad overthrow on third down.

** The Panthers’ defense. Detroit didn’t have to punt the entire first half, with four scoring drives and two turnovers. Then the Lions had an 8-minute TD drive in the fourth quarter. That shouldn’t happen.

Jon Beason and company did make a crucial stop on the two-point conversion at 24-22, but the officials could have called a facemask on the play (although Fox-TV announcers simply wouldn't let this go -- yeah, we get it, Tony Boselli, you think there was a facemask on the play... could you mention it at least 100 more times?)

31-22 Carolina and that should probably do it

The Lions' Daunte Culpepper has had a really good day for the most part -- until about one minute ago.

Down 24-22, Culpepper got the ball back with five minutes left on his own 14. Culpepper rolled right, was pressured by Tyler Brayton and threw it directly into the hands of Carolina rookie safety Charles Godfrey.

Godfrey, looking as surprised as anyone in the stadium, caught it and ran it back to the 4 (Culpepper made the TD-saving tackle). Didn't matter -- Carolina scored on the next play, as DeAngelo Williams ran it in from 4 yards out. That made it 31-22, Carolina, a two-possession game now with 4:44 to go.

Detroit isn't going to come back from that huge mistake.

24-22 Carolina -- Panthers barely holding on for now

Detroit isn't going away. The Lions just went 70 yards in 15 plays, grinding up 8 minutes of the clock and stuffing it down the throat of Carolina's proud defense on several big plays.

Daunte Culpepper vaulted over the pile from 1 yard out for the TD, which cut Carolina's lead to 24-22 with 6:05 left in the game. But Carolina then stopped the two-point conversion just inches short. On the play, which looked like a designed QB draw, Culpepper had a hole and tried to sprint through it, but Carolina LB Jon Beason and a couple of teammates stuffed him inside the 1.

The Panthers will try to run some clock on their next possession, but they also may need some more points, as Detroit really moved the ball well on that last drive.

Starting the 4th -- Carolina 24, Detroit 16

The game got more boring in the third quarter -- there was only a single field goal to show for the teams' offensive efforts. That one came from John Kasay, who pushed Carolina to a 24-16 lead.

The Panthers made some nice defensive adjustments. Detroit was finally forced to punt in the third quarter, and running back Kevin Smith was shut down after an 86-yard first half. The Panthers even survived a "running into the punter" penalty that gave Detroit a second chance to score on one possession.

So while Carolina's offense was the star of the second quarter, the defense starred in the third. As the 4th quarter opens, Carolina has the ball at midfield and in the midst of another drive. If I'm offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson, I'd run the ball 90 percent of the time in this quarter -- Detroit is obviously wearing down and both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are on their way to 100-yard plus days.

21-16, Panthers, at halftime....

An eventful first half has ended, with the Panthers leading, 21-16, after scoring TDs on their final 3 possessions of the first half.

Detroit has surprised, though, playing a very respectable half for an 0-9 team. Detroit has led by as much as 10 and has moved the ball consistently against the Panthers. Carolina has only averaged allowing 14 points per game, but Detroit already has 16. The Lions haven't had to punt yet -- they've scored 4 times and turned it over twice. Three of Detroit's four scores have been field goals by Jason Hanson, however, while Carolina has cashed in for TDs each time it has had chances.

The Panthers' offensive line is starting to manhandle Detroit's front 7, and I can't see how Carolina will lose this game unless they just start fumbling on every possession. The holes that DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart ran through in the second quarter would have been big enough to accommodate Maake Kemoeatu.

21-13 Panthers -- 3 straight TDs for Carolina offense

Carolina just scored again -- with ease. After being down 10-0, the Panthers have stormed back, scoring TDs on their last 3 possessions.

The Lions' rushing defense suddenly looks awful. Carolina just scored on another long run, this one from Jonathan Stewart on a 22-yard TD. Carolina got the ball back so quickly because Detroit TE Michael Gaines (a former Panther) fumbled the ball away. Gaines was originally ruled to be down, but a smart John Fox challenge got that one overturned.

That got Carolina the ball on Detroit's 42, and it took only 5 plays to score from there.

Panthers take 14-13 lead

Well, that didn't take long.

DeAngelo Williams just broke off a 56-yard TD run and the Panthers are now up, 14-13, with 2:39 left in the second quarter. It's their first lead of the game as they have previously trailed 7-0, 10-0, 10-7 and 13-7.

But the Panthers have now found their offensive rhythm, and it's almost all run-oriented. Jonathan Stewart had several good runs on the 80-yard drive just before Williams' burst. DeAngelo, with that run, looks well on his way to another 100-yard game and, eventually, just the 3rd 1,000-yard rushing season in Carolina's 14-year history. He's so much better than DeShaun Foster I can't believe the Panthers buried Williams on the bench so often in 2007.

Detroit, however, has had more success against Carolina's defense than you'd expect. The Lions got a 56-yard field goal from Jason Hanson to take a 13-7 lead prior to the Williams TD.

Panthers score, now down 10-7

One drive after he got booed by some fans following an overthrow, Jake Delhomme threw a 15-yard TD pass to TE Jeff King. That cut Detroit's lead to 10-7 with 8:19 to go in the second quarter.

The drive really belonged to the Panthers' running game, though. Rookie Jonathan Stewart had a 21-yard run that might have gone for 40 more if he hadn't tripped. Steve Smith had a good gain on a reverse (a play the Panthers should use every game at least once -- they've only run it twice all year).

The Panthers had Detroit expecting the run by the end of the drive, which was why the play-action pass to King was so effective. Carolina ran 6 of the 8 plays on the drive.

Detroit then fumbled the kickoff following that TD, but several Carolina players missed opportunities to cover the ball, and Detroit managed to recover.

It's now 10-0 Lions as the fans grow restless

The 0-9 Lions are now up 10-0 early in the second quarter on Carolina, and the Panther fans aren't real happy about it. A lot of them are probably cold anyway -- especially on the sunny side of the stadium -- and they've had little to cheer about so far.

Jake Delhomme actually got booed by some in the home crowd after Carolina's second series, when he WAY overthrew tight end Dante Rosario on a third-down play. The Panthers didn't get a single first down in the first quarter.

It's almost like the teams switched jerseys early. Detroit has been far more effective running the ball, and just went on a 13-play, 65-yard drive that ended in a Jason Hanson field goal to make it 10-0, Detroit. It looked like the Panthers got a hand on the field goal, but it went in anyway, as Carolina's slo-0-0-0-w start continued.

Detroit 7-0 early as Panthers look a little flat early

This wasn't the way the Panthers wanted to start against the 0-9 Lions. Daunte Culpepper looked like the Daunte from about 2001 on his first drive -- scrambling and firing a 29-yard TD pass to Calvin Johnson to end the Lions' first drive. Johnson was left alone as the Panthers' safeties -- Chris Harris and Charles Godfrey -- either miscommunicated or simply didn't get there. Detroit also converted a fourth-and-1 on the drive when the Panthers jumped offsides.

Carolina then went 3 and out on its first possession, with both of Jake Delhomme's passes falling incomplete. On one, he got drilled as the Lions' Corey Smith beat Jordan Gross around the left side badly.

But the Panthers did just get their first really positive play of the day. Culpepper tried to throw over the deep middle on the first play of the Lions' second possession, and Carolina's Na'il Diggs intercepted it at the Carolina 40.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Panthers-Lions pregame predictions

** The Lions are usually relevant around the NFL exactly once per season – at Thanksgiving. Even though it’s a couple of weeks early, I feel like I should be eating turkey this weekend.

** Could the Panthers actually lose this game? Absolutely. Even though Detroit is 0-9, it’s so far been impossible for a team to go 0-16 in the NFL. The Lions will beat somebody -- they came close to Chicago not long ago. If Jake Delhomme flings the ball around like he’s throwing left-handed again, like he did last week, it might be possible.

** Big day in store for the Panthers' pass rush. Carolina will get ahead, Daunte Culpepper is immobile and -- although Culpepper won't play every snap for Detroit at QB -- there are going to be at least 4-5 sacks for Carolina in this one.

** I don’t think Delhomme will throw the ball that badly for two games in a row. If he does, something’s wrong – especially since Detroit is 31st in the NFL in total defense. My prediction: Delhomme throws three TD passes and Carolina wins, 34-14.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

On Beason, Jerry Jones and UNCC football

3 quick thoughts, all of them football-related:

** Jon Beason is the ideal choice to get the audio version of defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac's calls, which was explained in an Observer story here by David Scott. Beason wears a helmet with a headset in it. He's smart and he never comes off the field -- he's not one of those "two-down linebackers" replaced by a defensive back on 3rd-and-long.

I talked with Beason about this once and asked him what he does if he doesn't understand the call the first time. He said he always taps his helmet -- that's his sign for "I didn't get it." So if you ever see Beason hitting his helmet out there, you know what's happening.

** Jerry Jones said the 5-4 Dallas Cowboys will "absolutely" make the playoffs while talking to reporters this week. Jones better hope Tony Romo is going to be great starting Sunday against Washington when he comes back from that broken pinkie, because there's no way you can say Dallas will "absolutely" do anything right now. The Cowboys, if they make it, will be a wild-card team going on the road to face a division leader in the first round (can you say Carolina? That'd be fun).

This stat stuns me about America's Team, too -- they haven't won a playoff game since the 1996 season. Yes, 1996. They won a wild-card game the week before they came to Carolina and got beat by Dom Capers' team during Year Two for the Panthers. Weird, huh??

** I was glad to see UNCC's trustees officially approve the move for football today. But where all that money's going to come from -- I don't know. The permanent-seat licenses are only going to pay for a fraction of what this baby is going to cost. Somebody mysterious better show up with about a $15 million check one of these years pretty soon, or that on-campus stadium dream is going to remain only that -- a dream.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Tunnel vision: Fox vs. Marinelli

There are certain plusses to covering the Carolina Panthers of the John Fox era. The team is always competitive. Steve Smith is always worth watching.

But on Mondays, when NFL coaches around the league have their "day-after" conferences with the news media, that's not a good time to cover the Panthers. Some very good coaches -- like Mike Holmgren or Jon Gruden, Super Bowl winners both -- conduct long, intelligent, blunt discussions with the media.

Other coaches, like Fox and New England's Bill Belichick, have mastered the art of saying nothing usable in as short a time as possible. That's why Fox's Monday press conference after the 17-6 win over Oakland Sunday was possibly his shortest yet. I timed it, and it was 9 minutes long. Dom Capers' opening statement on Mondays used to take longer than that. In those 9 minutes, about all Fox said was that he was "totally happy" with RB Jonathan Stewart, to which thousands of fantasy-football owners probably replied: "But we aren't!"

Of course, saying nothing is sometimes the best way to go. Check out this odd quote from Detroit coach Rod Marinelli's Monday press conference -- he brings his 0-9 Lions to Charlotte Sunday to play Carolina.

Said Marinelli: “You’re in this dark tunnel and you’ve got no way out. You’re waiting for light, and you see that light, what do you do? What do you do? You start digging and getting out. … I’ve always believed you stay in the tunnel and you keep digging when you expect no light.
"You have the same faith when you expect no light. You have the same belief in what you’re doing when you expect no light. … It’s dark and I’m going to dig through. My shovel is sharp and my pick is sharp and my will is outstanding.”

This led to all sorts of jokes in Detroit about where exactly Marinelli’s will was standing, and whether you could text-message anyone from such a tunnel and so on. My friend Michael Rosenberg, the excellent Detroit Free Press columnist, was responsible for some of the best lines here.

It's not an NFL coach's responsibility to entertain the media, of course. It's his responsibility to win games, and the rest is gravy. If Fox's team keeps winning like this, he's going to have a whole lot more opportunities this season to say nothing, and definitely not to talk about any impending tunnels and the sharpness of his shovel.

Monday, November 10, 2008

More folks starting to notice Panthers...

The evidence comes in dribs and drabs -- I still think Tennessee (9-0) and Carolina (7-2) are the two teams that have the greatest disparity between their record and how good the general public/media thinks they are. Here's a link to the current NFL standings.

And here's something: The Panthers' Nov.23 game at Atlanta has been moved from 1 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. so it can be shown to a wider audience on FOX. Atlanta (6-3) has been a major surprise too and so that game sounds a lot better now than it did over the summer.

I also think the Panthers' game Dec.21 vs. the New York Giants will be moved -- that one's a road game, too. It's currently a 1 p.m. start -- I would think it will go into either the 4:15 p.m. or the 8:30 p.m. slot for TV purposes instead. That game will be huge. It could determine who gets homefield advantage throughout the playoffs and at the very least will have some sort of major playoff implications.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

5 things I liked and 3 I didn't about Panthers' win over Oakland

Despite the worst game I’ve ever seen Jake Delhomme play and the quarterback’s four interceptions, the Panthers ground out a 17-6 win at Oakland Sunday to move to 7-2. Here are the 5 things I most liked about the win and the 3 I liked least:

The 5 best:

1. DeAngelo Williams was outstanding. His 69-yard touchdown run was superb, but so was that big one late in the fourth quarter, when he broke three tackles after an already long day. He ended up with 140 yards.

2. Julius Peppers was fantastic. He made play after play after play, sacking the QB, chasing down runners and once sniffing out a short pass and suddenly changing gears to guard the receiver, forcing a throw out of bounds and a punt.

3. Mark Jones made me rewind. I watched this game from home – we have a crew of three writers at the game in Oakland. When I have to do that, I generally skip all Panther punt and kickoff returns. That’s been my habit ever since Steve Smith stopped returning them regularly. But Jones made me regret that decision Sunday with two superb returns.

4. That 7-2 Carolina record. The ugliness of this game will be a distant memory by December, but the Panthers’ 7-2 start won’t be.

5. Jon Beason. I now am surprised anytime there’s a running play by the opposing team that doesn’t end with No.52 on top of the ballcarrier.

The 3 worst:

1. Delhomme. He was Jeff Lewis bad. He was Randy Fasani bad. He was unbelievably bad – four interceptions, 7-for-27 for 72 yards, constantly throwing too high, just totally out of synch. Even the best starting pitchers get shelled occasionally, and Delhomme picked the right team to have this happen to, since Oakland’s offense is so woeful and couldn't take advantage of his frequent mistakes.

2. Steve Smith. This was partly Delhomme’s fault, of course, but Smith was a total non-factor on the receiving end (1 catch, 9 yards). He did contribute a couple of fine blocks, but that was about it.

3. 20 -- yes 20!!! -- punts. What a snoozefest most of this game was, with neither offense able to move the ball much. It’s a good thing it didn’t start at 1 p.m., so at least most folks could enjoy a lot of a beautiful afternoon in the Carolinas before watching one of the Panthers’ least entertaining wins of the season.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Even more MJ -- on Morrison, Dudley and getting "old"

The 1-on-1, exclusive question and answer session I did with Michael Jordan Friday night for Saturday's Observer can be found here. But several qu0tes from Jordan that I wanted to get in had to be cut due to limited space. You can find those below.

** On his commitment to the franchise (Jordan currently owns a minority stake in the team, would eventually like to be the majority owner and has final say in all personnel decisions. But he has been criticized for not being around often enough as he lives primarily in Chicago:
MJ: I do want people to understand I’m committed to this franchise. I’m committed to Charlotte. I’m invested. I’m putting my money up. They’re not giving me a suite [in Time Warner Cable Arena]. They’re not giving me front-row seats. I’m paying for these things.
If I’m putting my money in it, I believe in it. I’m in the trenches with them [the fans] and I have the belief that this franchise is going to turn itself around.

** On Jared Dudley, who has been starting for the Bobcats this season:
MJ: Ultimately -- I know Jared would never want to take this approach -- I’d love for Jared to be our eighth, 9th, 10th guy. But now he’s starting for us. That’s a little bit out of whack. He’s doing a lot. He’s doing a great job. Don’t get me wrong.

** On former coach Sam Vincent, whom Jordan hired and then fired after only one season:
MJ: We were trying to get an Avery Johnson type of guy. We talked to Larry (Brown). We talked to experienced coaches. And at that time they were not ready to make the move…. Obviously that’s my call and I take the hit on that. I still think Sam is going to be a good coach in the NBA.
Was that the right time? Maybe not.

** On if, at age 45, he still has the itch to play:
MJ: My passion for getting out and playing isn’t as strong as it used to be. I’m coming to grips with saying, ‘You know, my career’s over with. Don’t go out there thinking you can do this or this.’
Now I can talk a good game…. But how many times have you heard old people say they can do this or that? I’m no different.

** On whether he still believes in Adam Morrison, who he took with the No.3 overall pick of the 2006 NBA draft:
MJ: I know a bunch of people say that’s a bad pick for us. I don’t think so yet. It’s too early. Obviously Brandon Roy [the sixth pick from the 2006 draft] looks great. A lot of guys behind him look great…. I’m going to stick with Adam. He has a basketball IQ and a passion for the game. I think he’s going to provide us with something that makes us proud… Now if doesn’t happen that way, obviously we cut our ties and move forward.

Friday, November 7, 2008

More from Jordan's 1-on-1 interview

I spent 30 minutes one-on-one with Michael Jordan Friday night in an exclusive interview for The Charlotte Observer. As always, Jordan is fascinating when you talk to him in person. I'd been pursuing the interview all week, and it got postponed a couple of times, but to his credit, Jordan came through.

The headline to the interview was Jordan saying for the first time publicly that he would "love" to be the majority owner of the Bobcats one day -- Jordan has a minority ownership stake in the team now and has the final say on all basketball-driven decisions, but Bob Johnson is the majority owner.

Jordan would like to buy out Johnson eventually, but MJ also said Johnson (despite rumors to the contrary) was enjoying owning the team right now and wasn't at a point where he would want to sell. I asked a Bobcats spokesman for a comment from Johnson, but the spokesman said later Friday night he was unable to secure one.

I liked this quote from Jordan about his relationship with Johnson, too: "I’ve known Bob for a long time. We’re friends. We’re business associates. I have no problems telling him ‘No.’ I have no problems telling him ‘Shut up.’ I have no problems telling him ‘You’re wrong.’ That’s what friends do. He’s opinionated. I am too. He owns the team -- I totally understand that -- but that doesn’t mean I can’t speak my mind. We have a good relationship."

Jordan also said he was actively pursuing a trade for a "big man," but wouldn't give out details and said that other teams were hesitant to pull the trigger with him right now. He also said Raymond Felton might be playing like he was too worried about his "next" contract -- this was before Felton scored 20 points in Charlotte's 92-89 victory over the New Orleans Hornets Friday night in Charlotte.

Although famously apolitical, Jordan also said he voted for Barack Obama and thought our president-elect would unite the country.

Because Jordan was quite forthcoming on a number of topics, I decided the best way to get more of his quotes into the paper was to run the story as a Q and A rather than a traditional sports column. You will find that Q and A in Saturday's newspaper and linked right here as well.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Can Stephen Curry dunk?

I am working on a big piece on Davidson basketball and the extraordinary place it finds itself in as this season begins: ranked No. 20, embedded in its community like few other programs and boasting a preseason All-American in junior guard Stephen Curry.

Now unless you were in a cave all last March, you know Curry can shoot. He scored 128 points (a 32-per-game average) in Davidson's remarkable NCAA tournament run to the Elite Eight, becoming a national sensation.

But can Steph dunk?

I'm here to tell you he can. I watched most of a very intense Davidson practice Wednesday night, and Curry (listed at 6-3, although I think he's at best 6-2) concluded it with an alley-oop. He didn't throw the pass; he dunked the pass from a teammate. That Curry still had the legs to do that after Bob McKillop had the team sprinting through all sorts of drills was impressive.

"It's my post-practice ritual," Curry said, explaining he does that same dunk after every practice.

Curry -- who is making the switch to point guard from shooting guard this season -- said he actually had two dunks in 2007-08, but that teammates tease him about both because they were so gentle. He hopes to slam a couple home a little more violently this season, and I can vouch that he has the hops to do it.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, the story on Davidson and Curry will be in Sunday's Charlotte Observer.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A baby named for Delhomme (and a Lakers story)

There is something that makes many of us who follow sports want to connect with the athletes that we watch.

It's why autographs are so highly sought, especially when you get one in person -- you know when you look at that piece of paper that the athlete took a few seconds and signed his name, just for you.

I wrote a story in the Nov.5 Charlotte Observer about a Panther fan from Virginia who went further than that -- he named his firstborn son after Jake Delhomme a few weeks ago because of a prayer he offered up to God during the Super Bowl following the 2003 season. Here's where you can find this story, but if you want the short version: suffice it to say that Brian Bernhardt is a happy, sleep-deprived father of a baby named Jake right now, and he still laughingly regrets the gaping loophole he left in that prayer. Delhomme sent the baby an autographed picture, which you can see to the right.

I never was a huge autograph seeker and now don't even have the temptation, since we are barred from getting them as part of our job as sports reporters. But I do know their power. When I was seven years old in 1972, living in Texas, I was a fan of the L.A. Lakers. Back then, I had printed a careful letter to the coach of the 1971-72 Lakers championship team – Bill Sharman -- and my parents sent it to team headquarters in L.A. for me.

Although I hadn’t asked for any autographs in that letter 30 years ago, Sharman personally wrote back from California and enclosed a sheet with all of the team’s signatures – Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich among them.

I loved that sheet of paper for many years -- and then I lost it.

I told that story in a column for The Observer six years ago. Sharman’s son-in-law in Florida somehow saw my column, and he told Sharman about it.

Sharman, who was still a special consultant to the Lakers at that time, dug through his files. He found a picture of that 1971-72 team and signed it. He found a copy of the original set of team autographs, which he Xeroxed for me.

Then Sharman stuffed all that in an envelope and sent it to me along with a note that concluded, “Thanks for bringing back some very nice, exciting memories!”

That's the sort of thing that makes sports special.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Duke football, Cutcliffe and Crazy Towel Guy

Duke coach David Cutcliffe said today there was no way he was going to replace Phil Fulmer as the head coach of Tennessee.

Now this is serious progress. For about the past decade, early November was the time where the Duke head football coach was:

1) Headed straight toward 0-11 and/or:

2) Receiving a dreaded "vote of confidence" from some Duke administrator.

3) Fading into total irrelevance as the Duke basketball season began.

But the Blue Devils deserve serious plaudits this season. Although the ACC standings show that Duke is in last place in the Coastal Division, Duke is a respectable 1-3 in the ACC, nearly beat Wake Forest last week and is 4-4 overall. The Blue Devils may end up being bowl-eligible this season.

So congrats to Cutcliffe -- who has some serious Tennessee connections but apparently isn't going anywhere -- for being able to say something like that today and not making folks break out in gales of laughter.

Incidentally, I have it on very good authority that Duke will end up 7-5 this season. You know who told me?? I'm serious about this -- it was Crazy Towel Guy, the old fella who shakes a towel wildly in the stands at basketball games (and is a major football fan, too).

Crazy Towel Guy (in real life Herb Neubauer, a former Food Lion exec) told me that during last basketball season during an interview. I thought he was, well, crazy. But the Blue Devils might just reach 7-5, so Not-So-Crazy Towel Guy seems like Nostradamus to me right now.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Thoughts on Bobcats' loss to the Pistons

I've just finished watching the Bobcats lose a home game, 101-83, to Detroit. A few impressions:

** As Bobcats' coach Larry Brown said afterward: "They're just better. It shows you how far we have to come." And that's very true.

Even though Detroit was playing without Chauncey Billups (traded earlier in the day) and Allen Iverson (yet to arrive), the Pistons were taller, deeper, smarter and more talented. In games like these, Charlotte desperately needs big scoring nights from both Jason Richardson and Gerald Wallace, but those two shot a combined 5-for-20. Richardson and Wallace, who more than anyone else control the rise and fall of the Bobcats on a night-to-night basis, are the subject of my column in Tuesday's Charlotte Observer.

** I would estimate there were about 5,000 fans in the building at tipoff -- if that. The official number of tickets sold was eventually announced at 11,023 (the Bobcats announced Saturday night as a sellout -- 19,238). So this was a dose of reality after Charlotte's superb opening night at home vs. Miami.

** Two of the largest cheers of the night came when the Bobcats' in-house cameras found former wrestler Ric Flair (who mouthed a "Whoooooo," of course) and current Panther receiver Muhsin Muhammad. Incidentally, that would have been a heckuva wrestling match back about 15 years ago -- Flair vs. the Moose.

** Here's a surprise: Rasheed Wallace got a technical foul for Detroit.

** Go vote, if you haven't already!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

What's that hot breath on Panthers' neck?

That hot breath would be courtesy of Tampa Bay and Atlanta, who both won Sunday to pick up a half-game in the NFL standings on the idle Panthers.

The Panthers would have certainly preferred to take the weekend off and also increase their lead in the division, but it didn't work out that way. They got the NFL-mandated break; they also saw their lead lessen.

Check out the NFC South standings now -- Carolina (6-2) leads Tampa Bay (6-3) by a half-game and Atlanta (5-3) by one game. New Orleans (4-4) isn't out of it, either.

Tampa Bay had a really good chance of losing Sunday. Playing a Kansas City team Carolina had creamed, 34-0, a few weeks ago, the Bucs fell behind 24-3 late in the second quarter. But they made the biggest comeback in team history and won in overtime, 30-27.

Atlanta's path was much easier. The Falcons shut out Oakland -- the Panthers' next opponent -- 24-0. The Falcons held the Raiders to a ridiculously low 77 total yards Sunday. Oakland is one of the worst teams in the NFL at 2-6, but the Raiders got so embarrassed in this one I have no doubt they'll play better on Nov.9 when Carolina travels out to California to take them on.

I certainly expect Carolina to get to 8-2 in the next two weeks, what with Oakland and Detroit (0-8) on the schedule next.

But you never can tell. John Fox likes to say that all the NFL teams are a lot closer to parity than even their records show, and you can be sure he will try to make that point all this week. The Panthers can't afford a false step now, not with the NFC South at one of its strongest peaks in years.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Bobcats actually win a game

And now for something completely different, as the comic troupe Monty Python used to say...

The Bobcats actually won a game Saturday night. I know it happened. I saw it, as did about 15,000 fans (that's just a guess, as the Bobcats announced a sellout crowd of 19,238) at Charlotte's home opener. Here's my column about the opener.

Yes, it was just the Miami Heat they beat. But Charlotte's 100-87 win was a welcome relief to a team that hadn't won a real game since April 16 in the 2007-08 season finale against Philly. Since then, Charlotte had lost eight straight preseason games and the regular-season opener at Cleveland.

Gerald Wallace (34 points) was the most athletic player on the court tonight, and note that Dwyane Wade was out there, too. Jason Richardson was very selective and smart with his shots. Emeka Okafor (18 points, 13 rebounds) also played well, as did Raymond Felton. Those are the Bobcats' Big Four, and they always need at least 3 of them playing well on any given night to have a chance at winning the game.

The Heat is close to a homecoming game for most teams -- Miami was 15-67 last season. Then again, the Bobcats are close to a homecoming game for most teams. Any win was a good one.

It was interesting, also, to see Michael Jordan sitting five feet from the Bobcats' bench -- close enough for Larry Brown to put him in the game if he hadn't been dressed in a sports coat. I think it helps both the Bobcats' team to see MJ while they're playing, and for fans to see him visibly involved. He should do more of that, and he can do it anytime he wants -- Jordan bought the seats right next to the Bobcats' bench.