Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Panthers-Saints prediction

Some thoughts entering the Panthers' final game of the season, which is Sunday at 1 p.m. against New Orleans:

-- Now this is weird. The New Orleans Saints (13-2) are the No.1 seed in the NFC entering the playoffs. The Carolina Panthers are 7-8 and out of the playoffs. And yet, Carolina is the team that’s on fire entering this one and the Saints are cold. If New Orleans loses Sunday, the Saints will enter the playoffs with a three-game losing streak.

-- I have thought several times this week of what Panther linebacker Jon Beason said after Carolina dropped to 5-8 with a loss to New England. Beason said the Panthers would have to be “perfect” the rest of the way just to be “average.” Very true – an average NFL record would be 8-8 – and very prophetic. Carolina has outscored its last two foes 67-16 and played two remarkably complete games while doing so. It’s just too bad that it has happened so late.

-- Here’s an interesting thought: If Matt Moore had started the entire season, what would Carolina’s record be right now?

-- New Orleans would be foolish to play QB Drew Brees much – if at all – Sunday. Expect to see Mark (He’s Still in the NFL?!) Brunell quarterback the Saints for most of the afternoon.

-- I love what Moore has done the past two games, but he’ll have his hands full when throwing against the Saints. Without Steve Smith (broken forearm), Moore is going to have to really fire some balls into tight windows, because no other Panther receiver can regularly get much separation.

-- Did you know the Panthers are 12-0 all-time when Jonathan Stewart carries the ball 15 times or more?

-- I’ve backed myself into a corner on this prediction. A month ago I said I wouldn’t pick Carolina to win a game again.

Since then, the Panthers have rebounded, and they’ll have the advantage Sunday of playing at home against a Saints team that will be playing a lot of second-stringers so as to stay healthy for the playoffs. Still, I’m a man of my word.
My prediction: New Orleans 19, Carolina 18.

(And now the stats: The good news is my prediction before the season began that Carolina would finish 7-9 and out of the playoffs is going to be close. The bad news is that on a game-by-game basis in this blog this season I'm only 8-7 choosing Panthers' outcomes -- a flipped coin could have done just as well).

The 10 most fascinating...

Hi, guys:

Happy New Year! If you haven't checked out my column on the 10 most fascinating sports figures of the Carolinas over the past decade, here it is.

Also, if you'd rather just look at those guys then read about them, here's a photo gallery of the 10 along with some brief comments from me.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Did Panthers get jobbed on Pro Bowl?

Four quick thoughts on the Carolina Panthers and the Pro Bowl -- the Panthers got DE Julius Peppers in as a starter and RB DeAngelo Williams in as a reserve on this year's team.

1) I'm not crying a river for LB Jon Beason not making it this season. He's been very consistent and occasionally spectacular, yes, but inside linebacker is pretty loaded in the NFC. You could not only could make a case for Beason as getting snubbed, but just as much if not more so for Washington's London Fletcher (as my friend Clark Judge of CBS Sportsline does here).

2) DeAngelo Williams, a first-time Pro Bowler, deserved to make it, but this should be his second berth in the game, not his first. DeAngelo actually had a better season in 2008, when he became the most egregious Pro Bowl snub I can remember (Clinton Portis got in over DeAngelo, which was ridiculous).

3) If Jonathan Stewart started and Williams was his backup, then Stewart would be celebrating a Pro Bowl spot right now, not his buddy No.34. Stewart, as we've seen in the past two weeks, is just as good when featured in the lead role as Williams (and, in certain situations, even better). In fact, I think right now the Panthers have two of the best 10 backs in the NFL on their roster. Double Trouble, indeed.

4) So Julius Peppers got an additional $1.5 million -- on top of the $1 million per game he's already earning this season -- because he made the Pro Bowl. Geez, that's CEO money, isn't it? Wouldn't you like to just get Peppers' bonus one year -- not his salary, but just his bonus? In any case, that's the way the contract was worded -- not Peppers' fault, although for $1 million a game I would expect a guy to make the Pro Bowl and not pay him extra to do so.

While early in the year I wouldn't have put Peppers on the Pro Bowl team -- he was playing like he didn't want to get hurt or get his uniform dirty back around the time of the Dallas game in late September -- he absolutely deserved this spot. Peppers has had 10.5 sacks and some absolutely monumental games this season (Arizona, Minnesota) and there's no better DE in the NFC except, possibly, Minnesota's Jared Allen.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Bring back Fox -- yes, I'm serious

I know this won't win me any popularity contests, but my column today advocates bringing back John Fox as the coach of the Panthers for the 2010 season.

I know Fox has made some errors -- not switching quarterbacks early enough this year, for instance -- but all in all I think the good outweighs the bad. I won't go into my reasoning here, as I did so in the column and you can read it there if you like, but I will tell you I've been debating this topic internally for some time and finally have come to this conclusion. See what you think.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

5 things I liked in Panthers' 41-9 win

I'm in the press box at New Jersey, still having some trouble digesting Carolina's remarkably easy 41-9 victory over the New York Giants -- one of the most complete games the Panthers have ever played in their 15-year history.

Here's the 5 things I liked most in this win:

1. Jonathan Stewart. The second half of Double Trouble went for a franchise-record 206 yards rushing. No.28 was unbelievable, bouncing off tacklers and running through them. He had a 52-yard run, a 29-yard scoring run and ended the day at 1,008 yards for the season, joining teammate DeAngelo Williams (who missed this game due to his ankle) in going over that barrier.

2. The offensive line. Still playing with two new tackles to replace Jeff Otah and Jordan Gross, the Panthers were startlingly good once again. Kudos to 5 guys who won't be mentioned enough: Travelle Wharton, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Ryan Kalil, Keydrick Vincent and Geoff Schwartz.

3. Matt Moore. For the second straight week, he had 3 TDs, zero interceptions and a QB rating of over 120. Moore is now 5-2 as a starter for Carolina. This guy has earned a real shot at the 2010 starting job.

4. Ball-hawking D. The Panthers caused four turnovers (and committed zero). Chris Harris gets one in every game now.

5. Steve Smith. I feel sorry for Smith, who ended his 2009 season with a 27-yard scoring catch on which he broke his left forearm. (No chance he plays against New Orleans, of course). Smith ended it with 982 yards receiving, breaking his string of four straight 1,000-yard seasons. Smith told me after the game he will have surgery Monday on his left forearm and that "my offseason starts now."

Hoover scores; Carolina leads 41-9

The Panthers haven't looked better than this in a long, long time -- they just scored again and are creaming the New York Giants, 41-9, midway through the fourth quarter.

Jonathan Stewart just broke through for an unbelievable 52-yard run in which he shed several tackles before being hauled down at the 1. Brad Hoover then knocked it in, as Carolina took a 41-9 lead with 9:41 left in the fourth quarter.

Stewart is flirting with the 200-yard mark for this game and the 1,000-yard mark for this season.

A week after being the NFC Offensive Player of the Week against Minnesota, Stewart looks like gold once again (DeAngelo Williams is once again out due to injury). He may set the single-game Panthers record today as well -- the previous high was 186 for DeAngelo Williams, and Stewart by unofficial count is already into the 190s.

34-9 Panthers as Giants finally score

The Giants finally got a touchdown with 11:59 left in the fourth quarter -- Eli Manning hit Steve Smith for a 2-yard TD.

That means both Steve Smiths have now scored in this game (the Panthers' version is in the locker room with a left arm injury -- it could be serious. It looked like he was holding his left wrist when he left the field after scoring on a 27-yard TD. He has now been declared out for the rest of the game, and I'd be surprised if he plays in the season finale against New Orleans, either. That's just a guess)).

The Giants botched the extra point, never getting the kick off after a problem on the snap or hold.

The Panthers' Matt Moore has been excellent all afternoon, throwing three TD passes for the second game in a row. Carolina has already tied its season high in points (it also scored 34 against Arizona).

34-3 Carolina to begin 4th

The Panthers just keep pouring it on. If you're counting, after a 28-yard John Kasay field goal, they now have had seven possessions and it's gone like this: 4 TDs, 2 FGs and one punt.

This last, 63-yard, 11-play drive was accomplished without Steve Smith. The workhorse was Jonathan Stewart, who is well over 100 yards already and likely on his way to another career high. Carolina frequently played with only one wide receiver during the drive, usually using an extra tight end in place of Smith.

So it's now 34-3, Carolina, at the end of the third quarter. About all the Giants can hope for is to salvage some measure of respect by at least scoring a touchdown or two before this one ends.

No doubt that Carolina will improve to 7-8 after this game and the Giants -- who so badly needed this one in the playoff race -- will fall to 8-7.

31-3 Panthers; Smith hurt

Carolina just scored again early in the third quarter on a 27-yard TD pass from the sizzling hot Matt Moore to Steve Smith, but the play came with a cost.

Smith took a couple of hard hits in the end zone, and he didn't celebrate the TD much at all. Instead, he was in obvious pain and appeared to be holding his wrist. He was driven off the field shortly after that and has apparently gone for X-rays. It has officially been announced as a "left arm injury" with Smith's return described as questionable, but I'd be stunned if he came back, given the score.

In the meantime, there's no longer any question who's going to win this game -- only the score is in question. The Panthers' 31-3 lead is no fluke, as they are dominating the Giants (just as they did the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday) in every aspect. The Giants did finally get on the board with a 40-yard field goal midway through the third quarter, which earned a derisive Bronx cheer from the Giants fans.

Carolina took the opening drive of the second half and went 71 yards in only four plays. Besides the TD, Jonathan Stewart had a 30-yard run on the drive. We'll keep you updated on Steve Smith's injury.

24-0 Panthers -- no that's not a misprint

Carolina is absolutely shocking the New York Giants here in New Jersey. The Panthers scored on their first four possessions - the latest a two-yard TD pass from Matt Moore to tight end Jeff King.

(UPDATE: Carolina finally didn't score on possession No.5, offering up its first punt of the game. The Giants got the ball one last time, couldn't get it in the end zone, either, and so it's 24-0, Carolina, at halftime. The Panthers have caused three first-half turnovers. Let's just say that video tribute to Giants Stadium at halftime isn't going over that well right now -- the fans aren't in the mood).

The Panthers' third TD was set up when cornerback Richard Marshall jumped on a slant route and intercepted Eli Manning. That gave Carolina the ball on the Giants' 29. The Panthers converted a third-and-11 with a short pass to Mike Goodson, then soon thereafter were in the end zone again.

Weird, isn't it?

Where was this Panther team for the past 3 months?

17-0 as Panthers can do no wrong

Carolina just scored -- again -- and it's now 17-0, Panthers, with 5:40 still left in the second quarter.

This time the Panthers scored on a 22-yard touchdown pass from Matt Moore to Muhsin Muhammad. Muhammad beat his guy deep on the play, and Moore laid the ball in there perfectly for the TD. It was Moose's first TD of the year.

Now the boo birds are REALLY out at Giants Stadium. Carolina has scored on all 3 possessions. The Giants have had the ball 3 times, too, and come away with zilch.

This, of course, was the Panthers team we expected to show up about 3 months ago -- the one that whipped Minnesota a week ago and currently is pummeling the Giants, who are another possible playoff team.

10-0 Panthers early in 2nd quarter

The boos are raining down on the home team in Giants Stadium here in East Rutherford, N.J., as Carolina's Jonathan Stewart just ran 29 yards for a TD and Carolina took a 10-0 lead.

The Panthers have scored on both of their first two drives. Stewart already has 48 yards rushing, and there is still 10:37 left in the second quarter.

Carolina's second drive was keyed by some very good blocking, along with Stewart and Steve Smith. Smith broke a tackle to pick up a key third down. Then, a few plays later on Stewart's TD run, he threw a big downfield block to help spring Stewart for the final 10 yards.

This is the last game the Giants will ever play in Giants Stadium (which opened in 1976). So far, the Panthers are spoiling the farewell party.

Panthers take early 3-0 lead

Carolina has found the scoreboard first at Giants Stadium, taking a 3-0 lead on a 38-yard field goal by John Kasay late in the first quarter.

The first quarter was basically consumed by one long drive apiece by each team. The Giants went first, moving the ball with a succession of short passes down to Carolina's 20. But then, following a long third-down conversion play, the Giants' Mario Manningham fumbled the ball after a reception just inside the 20. The Panthers' Jon Beason caused it and James Anderson recovered it.

Then came Carolina's turn. The Panthers ground out a 61-yard, 15-play drive. The big play was a 27-yard strike to Muhsin Muhammad from Matt Moore, and Moore also made a couple of key third-down conversions (one on a scramble). However, Carolina faltered right around the Giants' 20, which led to Kasay's field goal.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Panthers-Giants prediction

Before we get to this week's prediction, here's a holiday treat if you're in the mood: My spoof of the "Twas the Night Before Christmas" poem.

Now... a few notes on Sunday's Panthers-Giants game.

-- I generally get depressed on the day after Christmas anyway. This year I went ahead and assured it by scheduling myself to fly into Newark, N.J., on Dec.26. Let’s just say Newark is not quite McAdenville.

-- What a game this was in 2008. Do you remember? Just like now, it came in the 15th game of the season, in New Jersey. The Panthers and the New York Giants were both 11-3 coming in, and the game would be played for homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

DeAngelo Williams scored four touchdowns in that one. If Jimmy Hoffa is really buried in one of the Giants’ end zones, it was amazing DeAngelo didn’t find him that day. Some belligerent Giants fans started heaving snowballs at each other and at the field early when it wasn’t going their way. But then Carolina’s run defense disintegrated, John Kasay couldn’t connect on a 50-yard field goal at the end of regulation that would have won it and the Giants ran over the Panthers in overtime, 34-28.

Now the Giants are 8-6. Carolina is 6-8. New York is just trying to eke out a wild-card spot, while Carolina’s players and coaches are just trying to hold onto their jobs.

-- I underestimated Matt Moore last week against Minnesota. I never expected Moore to throw for 299 yards and outplay Brett Favre, but he did. That was the best NFL game Moore has ever played, but this will be a sterner test – on the road and in the cold, where Moore didn’t fare well two weeks ago against New England.

-- I was sorry to see Jake Delhomme put on injured reserve – what a bitter end to the worst season he’s had as a starter. I do still expect Delhomme to be here in 2010 in some fashion – the Panthers owe him so much money they may as well keep him around and let him compete for the job. Comebacks have been made from a lot worse situations than the one in which Delhomme sits right now.

-- The Panthers continue to be difficult to predict this season. What sort of NFL team loses to Buffalo and the New York Jets and beats Arizona and Minnesota? I think Eli Manning is too hot for the Panthers to stop in this one.

My prediction: New York Giants 24, Carolina 17.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

NBC and Favre: Too cozy?

Hello, everyone:

I'm actually off for most of this week but can't stand not checking in with the wonderful "Scott Says" readers at least once before Christmas. First, I want to wish you all Happy Holidays -- I appreciate so much the fact that you make "Scott Says" one of the most-read blogs on, week after week (with the best comments, too).

Secondly, I wanted to follow up on something I posted last week, asking if any reader would be willing to make a list of what NBC announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth (2 of the best in the business) said about Brett Favre and if it struck you as over-the-top praise, etc.

Joseph K. of Florence, S.C., did exactly that and sent it to me. Below, I'm running Joseph's e-mail to me in full (with his permission).

One interesting note first: NBC really missed the fact that Favre and Minnesota coach Brad Childress verbally fought on the sidelines about whether Favre should stay in the game once it was out of reach and Carolina's victory was assured. (Favre revealed this postgame, igniting a firestorm in Minnesota).

Now, to Joseph's e-mail:



Last Friday you asked readers to keep a count for you on Sunday of the different positive adjectives NBC's announcers used to describe Favre. I didn't hear many, so I tracked the good, the bad, and the ugly. (Some are descriptive phrases, rather than lone adjectives - sorry, I hate to conform.) All in all, I felt the announcers were pretty objective. Here's what I heard, in the order I heard it:

1. "Okay"
2. "National joke" (referring to his return from retirement)
3. "Not so good tonight"
4. "Ageless"
5. "Living legend"
6. "Older"
7. "Nimble as he ever was"
8. "Almost perfect"
9. "Amazing"
10. "No stranger to 4th Quarter comebacks"
11. "Not the same when it is not play-action"
12. "Wants someone to block Julius Peppers"
13. "Very lucky"
14. "Poor decision"
15. "Sometimes Brett can lock onto a receiver"

And my personal favorite,

16. "Prefers not to see Julius Peppers any time soon"

You do a great job, Scott - I look forward to your comment on the Panthers each week. Hope you and yours have a safe and Merry Christmas,

- Joseph K.
Florence, South Carolina


Thanks again, Joseph. And Merry Christmas to you as well. If anyone else has comments about NBC's coverage of the Panthers game Sunday, feel free to leave them below. Otherwise, I'll be back on this blog before too long with my prediction of the Panthers-Giants outcome Sunday.

Monday, December 21, 2009

5 things I liked in Panthers' win over Vikings

All right, here we go -- the traditional "5 things" post about the Panthers' stunning 26-7 win over the Minnesota Vikings Sunday night in Charlotte:

1) Julius Peppers. Oh my gracious, Peppers was good. So good, in fact, the Vikings pulled offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie out of the game, he was getting beaten so badly by Peppers. Peppers only had one sack but was constantly disruptive, even getting in Brett Favre's face when the Panthers were only rushing three men. NBC's Cris Collinsworth decreed that the Panthers should pay Peppers $2 million per game (not his current $1 million per) if he plays like that.

2) Matt Moore. C'mon, this guy outplayed Brett Favre? Unbelievably, he did (and thus became the subject of my column in Monday's newspaper). I never would have forecast Moore to go for a 123.2 QB rating against the Vikings. Three TDs. 299 passing yards. Really hard to believe stuff. He had a running game to play off of -- that was big -- but still. Best game of Moore's young career, for sure, and now he's 4-2 as a starter for Carolina.

3) Jonathan Stewart. It was "Single Trouble" again, as DeAngelo Williams had to leave the game early with an ankle injury after only 13 rushing yards. But here came Stewart with 109 -- the first 100-yard game against the Vikes in the past 37. He was bruising, tough and scored twice (once on a pass).

4) John Fox and the coaching staff. Talk about trying hard to keep your jobs -- a superb game plan yielded a great result. I was all set in this space to rip Fox for not going for the 52-yard field goal at the end of the first half, but given the fact Carolina beat an 11-2 team by 19 points, I don't have the heart.

5) Steve Smith. He had a huge game at the right time -- 157 receiving yards, or more than half of Moore's total. His best catch of the day didn't even count -- a sliding grab in the end zone nullified by a holding penalty -- but he came right back with a 42-yard TD pass. Great yards after catch, too. Looked like Steve Smith, the 2008 version, once again.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Vikes lead 7-6 at halftime

Carolina just botched a shot at leading the game on the last play of the first half.

The Panthers had had a decent drive and gotten to 4th-and-2 from the Vikings' 29. They sent John Kasay out for a 47-yard field-goal attempt with 0:04 remaining.

But then, here came some of the Panthers' nastiness. They got called for a false start -- on undrafted rookie Garry Williams, in for blocking purposes -- which would have made it a 52-yard field goal.

That, decided coach John Fox, was too far. Kasay had already had an extra point blocked in this game and Fox was obviously concerned about the ol' blocked punt-runback play, which must happen at least, oh, twice a year in the NFL.

So instead, he sent Matt Moore back out to throw a Hail Mary, which was incomplete, and so Carolina still trails 7-6 at the half.

Fox's decision here -- questioned by Cris Collinsworth on TV -- was downright weird. Does he suddenly not trust Kasay's leg? (Kasay has had troubles from 50-yard plus this season). But it's not like the Vikings would get the ball back if he missed -- only the block would have hurt Carolina.

Anyway, Matt Moore actually had a pretty good half for Carolina -- he has avoided all mistakes -- but the Panthers are still down 7-6.

Vikes lead Panthers 7-6

Minnesota made sure Carolina's 6-0 lead didn't last long -- the Vikings just scored on a 4-yard Adrian Peterson run to take a 7-6 lead with 5:01 to go in the second quarter.

Minnesota only had to go 41 yards on the drive after Carolina had a three-and-out deep in its own territory. But the sequence could have gone differently. On fourth-and-3, the Vikings appeared to jump offside on a Carolina punt. That would have given the Panthers a first down.

Instead, a false start was called on Dan Connor, Carolina punted and Brett Favre quickly got something going for the first time all night. Favre drove the Vikes smartly downfield and, on the TD, Peterson ran right through Carolina's Chris Harris and then shucked off Richard Marshall, too, to score standing up.

Ryan Longwell made the extra point -- Carolina had its XP blocked -- which is why it's not a tie game right now.

6-0 Panthers as "Hoov" scores

The Panthers just finished a very impressive drive -- a 71-yard march that took 15 plays and consumed eight minutes.

Carolina leads 6-0 -- John Kasay's extra point was blocked. It was the first extra point Kasay had missed for any reason since 2005.

Still, a lead is a lead. Brad Hoover finished the drive off with a 1-yard pass from Matt Moore off a play fake, drawing calls of "Hoov, Hoov!"

Moore, after 3 straight 3-and-out drives, led the Panthers briskly on this one. He hit a couple of passes to Steve Smith, one to Muhsin Muhammad and Jonathan Stewart ran well, too.

6 possessions, 0 points

We're nearly to end of the first quarter and have yet to get our first score in the Panthers-Vikings game. It's 0-0, as Carolina's defense is playing very well and hasn't allowed Brett Favre any points in his first three possessions. The third one ended with Vikings K Ryan Longwell missing a 39-yard field goal.

Carolina already has 2 sacks of Favre and also a good pressure of him as well (sacks by James Anderson and Everette Brown, pressure by Julius Peppers).

The Panthers went 3-and-out each of their first 3 possessions and have finally made a first down on their fourth. Matt Moore has looked totally overmatched so far against the Vikings D, but the Panthers' defense is keeping Carolina deadlocked.

Also, it's a very good crowd for a cold December night in Charlotte -- not a lot of empty seats at all.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A coach you've never heard of (but should know)

Coach Sean Schultz and his son Ben on a bad hair day a few years back (Photo courtesy of Schultz family)

That guy in the picture above -- you probably have never met him or heard of him. His name is Sean Schultz, and I devote a very long column to him and a baseball team he coached in Sunday's Charlotte Observer.

Schultz died at age 40 on Sept.14, of a massive heart attack, while pitching batting practice to his team of 9-year-olds in the Myers Park Trinity Little League in Charlotte.

Coach Sean had a wife and a 9-year-old son on that team. I found out about his story in small bits. First, my wife saw Schultz's well-written obituary in our newspaper (it turned out his wife Kaaren had written it).

My wife pointed this obituary out to me. The first thing that struck me -- besides the fact that Schultz was close to my age and that he coached youth sports as I do -- was that the funeral was scheduled for 1:23 p.m.

Why 1:23?? I thought. What a strange time to start a funeral.

Well, there was a story behind that time (1-2-3 had been a code for Sean and his wife that meant "I love you"). And there turned out to be a whole lot more to Sean Schultz, who was the sort of coach in youth sports that all of us want our kids to have.

In any case, the story of Sean Schultz's life, death and the gifts that he passed along before he died constitutes quite a tale.

I'm sure I didn't tell it as well as it could have been told, but it was a pleasure to work on. And I thank the Schultz family -- especially Kaaren and Ben Schultz -- for trusting me enough to tell it.

Friday, December 18, 2009

My Panthers-Vikings prediction

Thanks to the Brett Favre factor, this one will be played under the lights at Bank of America Stadium. That doesn’t mean this game is going to be ready for prime time, however.

-- If you’re not busy, keep a count for me Sunday on the different positive adjectives that NBC's announcers use to describe Favre. I mean it. Make a list and then e-mail it to me at I’ve got the over-under at about 30.

-- Matt Moore makes his third straight start today for Carolina. What we’ve seen from Moore – one really good deep throw per game and not a whole lot else – doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence. No matter who is doing the picking for Carolina in the April 2010 draft, put me down right now as betting that the Panthers will take a quarterback at some point.

-- What would have happened if the Panthers had pursued Favre in the offseason? Probably nothing. I doubt Favre would have wanted to sign here given that Jake Delhomme, at the time, was entrenched as a starter. A team like Minnesota offered a great nucleus with a gaping hole at quarterback.

-- Carolina’s only chance today will come if the Panthers can somehow out-physical the Vikings, like Arizona did a couple of weeks ago. The Cardinals, astoundingly, held Adrian Peterson to 19 yards in 13 carries. Can’t see that happening Sunday, but that’s close to what it would take.

-- Watch Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield play some in this one. That guy is something.

-- I don’t think this one is going to be very close – the Vikings are a bad matchup for Carolina. My prediction: Minnesota 27, Carolina 10.

(The stats: I'm 8-5 picking the Panthers' outcome for the season. But my preseason prediction that the Panthers would go 7-9 is starting to look too optimistic).

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Pistol Pete Maravich in Charlotte

I wrote an offbeat column in today's newspaper that you can find here -- a story about a game Pete Maravich played in Charlotte 40 years ago.

Maravich torched Clemson for 49 points on 22-of-30 shooting on Dec.20, 1969. By percentage, it was easily the best shooting night of his career, and that's saying something since Maravich remains the No.1 scorer in college basketball history.

The story came about as one of those fortuitous coincidences. Reporters here can access The Observer's archives by computer from the mid-1980s onward. So it's easy to look up something that happened only 25 years ago or less.

But the other stuff is tougher. You have to go to a microfilm machine and look through it, one page at a time. It's fascinating, though, because it shows you just the way the newspaper looked back then -- ads, headlines, pictures, everything.

About a year ago, I was looking for something else that happened in 1969, and now I can't even remember what it was. But I came upon the evidence of Maravich's game here -- something I had no idea about, and I've lived here 15 years myself.

Hmm, I thought. That might be a good story when we get to the 40th anniversary of that game.

Nearly 7,300 people went to the old Charlotte Coliseum to watch Maravich's LSU team play Clemson that night. Maravich beat the old Coliseum scoring record -- held at the time by Princeton's Bill Bradley -- by four points. And the tickets? How about this for a bargain -- $5 for adults, $2 for students.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Belichick can't handle the truth

Here's the problem with New England coach Bill Belichick: He's so used to hiding the truth from the media that he simply can't believe it when somebody else has the nerve to tell it, especially if it reflects poorly on one of his own.

Belichick ripped Panther cornerback Chris Gamble Monday after Gamble ripped Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss Sunday. Gamble had told The Charlotte Observer's David Scott in the postgame interviews that Moss "gives up a lot" on routes and that "We knew he'd shut it down a little bit." (Gamble said much the same thing to The Boston Globe, which played the story up very big Monday).

Said Belichick: "My response would be that's a lot of conversation coming from a team that just lost another game."

Belichick also said Monday: "I have a lot of respect for Randy. I think he's one of our best players. If you watch other teams defend him, watch other teams play against him, they think the same way, other than these two guys from Carolina after they lost another game. I guess they don't think that way, but they haven't won a lot of games now."

Belichick was also referring to Panther safety Chris Harris, who made comments in a similar vein (although not quite as pointed as Gamble's). Gamble also said of Moss Sunday: "You can tell with his body language, that he's not going deep, he's not going to run a route. I know everybody who plays against him can sense that. If you can get 'in' him in the beginning of the game, that's what's going to happen. He kind of laid down. We didn't have to pay that much attention to him."

Here's the thing: Gamble was simply telling the truth. Moss was awful Sunday. He obviously gave up on some plays. Even on the ones where he tried, he was no factor. He caught only one pass, for 16 yards, and fumbled that one away as soon as Harris hit him. Gamble intercepted another pass intended for Moss that was thrown by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who also defended Moss Sunday.

Yes, the 5-8 Panthers are pretty terrible this season, and I'm no homer about that. I wrote about the team's "hopelessness" in today's paper and online. But I think what's going on here is Belichick and Brady know how good Moss can be. Shoot, we all do. Moss is unbelievable when he's motivated. New England desperately needs him if the Pats -- who aren't what they have been for much of this decade -- are going to make a run at the playoffs.

So Belichick and Brady are pretending nothing is wrong with Moss, because they need Moss to be 100 percent there with them when the playoffs start. That's what this is about. Gamble told the truth. Belichick is bristling because an opposing player had the nerve to tell it. That's all this is.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

5 things I didn't like in loss to New England

Here are the 5 things I didn't like in Carolina's 20-10 loss to New England, which put the Panthers at 5-8 for the season:

1. Awful offense. The Panthers got a first-quarter touchdown on a 41-yard heave by Matt Moore to Steve Smith, but then just 3 points the rest of the way. Despite a defense that turned New England over three times and allowed a respectable 20 points, the offense ensured this one was going in the loss column.

2. John Fox's clock management. What was that all about at the end of the first half, when Fox kept getting Moore to throw the ball but wouldn't use his two timeouts? As it was, the Panthers just let the clock run and run and ended the half at New England's 12 after a pretty hook-and-lateral play that ended up with nothing.

3. The 96-yard drive. Although I thought the Panthers' defense gave a pretty good performance, there was one grave exception. Carolina allowed a 13-play, 96-yard drive that consumed most of the third quarter and put New England up, 14-7.

4. No sacks. Carolina's defense didn't get to Tom Brady once (shades of the Super Bowl, when Brady wasn't sacked, either).

5. Flying the flags. Carolina was penalized nine times for a season-high 92 yards, including critical ones against James Anderson for interference and Everette Brown for roughing the kicker and annoying ones like several "illegal shift" penalties on the offense. For a team that's already not that good, to make that many mistakes is going to guarantee you a loss.

Pats up lead to 17-10

After Carolina got a fourth-quarter field goal from John Kasay, New England came right back with a field goal of its own. So the Patriots still lead by a touchdown, 17-10, with 7:20 left in regulation.

New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski nailed it from 48 yards to get points for the Pats after Carolina's defense finally stopped New England at its 30 (with help from Randy Moss, who's having a terrible game and dropped a likely first-down pass on second down).

Panthers cut lead to 14-10 early in 4th

Carolina just got a 36-yard field goal from John Kasay to cut New England's lead to 14-10 here in Foxboro, Mass.

Kasay's FG came with 12:14 left in the game. Carolina ended up with a 9-play, 57-yard drive to get it, which included a wonderful sideline catch by Dante Rosario and a 22-yard run by DeAngelo Williams.

The drive stalled on third-and-8 at the New England 18, however. Carolina tried to trick New England by putting Steve Smith in the backfield and then throwing a short ball to him. It fooled no one, and if the throw hadn't been in the dirt, New England safety Brandon Meriweather might have picked it off and gone all the way.

Instead, Carolina cut the Pats' lead to four, but Carolina's defense looked very tired last time it was out there (and gave up a 96-yard TD drive).

Pats lead 14-7 after 96-yard drive

New England just took its first lead over Carolina in this game -- 14-7 with 1:06 left in the third quarter after a backbreaking 96-yard, 13-play drive. It took seven minutes and 20 seconds and ended with Tom Brady throwing a five-yard TD pass to Benjamin Watson (Rock Hill Northwestern) for the TD.

The Panthers' defense had trouble the entire series with Wes Welker, who repeatedly got open over the middle for short gains and then caught a 23-yarder for a big one. Carolina also was repeatedly gashed for rushing gains of 5 and 6 yards as the Panther defense -- stalwart through most of this game -- has begun to look tired.

Carolina had a pretty good drive going earlier in the third quarter but what would have been a first-down pass to Steve Smith at the New England 30 was nullified by Carolina's "illegal shift" penalty. The Panthers eventually punted, downed it at the 4 and then got it taken 96 yards.

7-all at halftime and starting to rain

New England tied the game at 7-all late in the second quarter on a 3-yard Kevin Faulk touchdown run. It has started to rain here in Foxboro, Mass., too, which will make ballhandling tricky the rest of the game.

The Panthers weren't able to do anything afte the Pats' score in their two-minute drill -- a hook-and-lateral with Muhsin Muhammad and Steve Smith looked pretty but didn't net enough on the half's final play -- so the teams have gone to the locker room all tied up. (John Fox ended up with two timeouts in his pocket at halftime that he will never be able to use, as he disdained using them during the final drive).

Carolina had a chance to take a 10-0 lead earlier but John Kasay was short on a 53-yard field goal attempt late in the second quarter. New England got favorable field position out of that, but the Panthers' defense had been in similar situations all day and gotten out of them.

Not this time. First, the Pats drew a huge penalty on Carolina with 2:43 left in the second quarter when LB James Anderson was called for a 30-yard pass interference penalty against tight end Benjamin Watson (Rock Hill Northwestern) on a deep route. That pushed New England to a first-and-10 at the Carolina 21.

New England moved it down to just outside Carolina's 10 with a pass to Wes Welker with 1:58 to go. A running play and a defensive holding on Captain Munnerlyn got New England to the 3. From there, Kevin Faulk ran it in standing up to tie the game at 7-all.

Patriots offense drawing boos

Carolina still leads 7-0 midway through the second quarter, and New England's offense has drawn boos each of the last three times it left the field.

Carolina's defense has held the Panthers in the game so far, causing two turnovers already (an interception by Chris Gamble of Tom Brady and a fumble caused by Chris Harris with a big hit on Randy Moss).

The Panthers offense has four punts and one lightning-strike TD in five possessions, which normally wouldn't be enough against the Pats. But the defense is playing so well right now that Brady can't get anything going. Even New England's last possession, which started at Carolina's 41 after a poor Jason Baker punt, ended with three plays, no yards, a punt and a lot of boos.

Panthers up 7-0 on Smith TD

The Panthers just took a 7-0 lead with 2:43 left in the first quarter on a 41-yard TD pass from Matt Moore to Steve Smith. Smith torched New England cornerback Shawn Springs on the play. Springs got no safety help and even though Moore's pass had enough air on it that Smith had to slow down just a hair, it was plenty good enough for the TD.

The two-play, 48-yard drive was set up by a great defensive play. On New England's third possession, Chris Gamble made a fine interception of Tom Brady on a sideline pass.

Brady made a poor throw, Randy Moss didn't seem to try that hard to get there and Gamble -- the only one with a chance to catch it -- hauled it in at the New England 48. Jonathan Stewart then ran for seven yards before the Panthers went deep on second-and-3.

3 possessions, no points for Panthers

Carolina's offense is starting off very sl-o-o-o-wly against New England's heretofore vulnerable defense.

In its first 3 offensive possessions, Carolina has exactly one first down, courtesy of a 13-yard DeAngelo Williams run. There's been really nothing else positive, unless you count the fact that a badly overthrown ball by Matt Moore wasn't intercepted a Patriot who had the ball hit him right in the hands.

On the plus side, New England got to about the Carolina 40 on its first two drives but netted nothing. On one, the Pats went for it on fourth-and-1 and a running play got stuffed. On the second, Tom Brady underthrew Wes Welker on third down and the Pats punted. The Pats are about to start their third possession.

Kasay's infamous Super Bowl kickoff

In researching my column for Sunday's Charlotte Observer on New England's frantic 32-29 win over the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl played Feb.1, 2004, I ran across some interesting numbers regarding John Kasay's infamous out-of-bounds kickoff that came after Carolina tied the score 29-all deep in the fourth quarter.

Here's an excerpt from my column about the game -- the column is about far more than the kickoff, but I thought you'd find this interesting:

I've always maintained that Kasay's gaffe wasn't the single play the game should be remembered for, though, as some Panther fans seem so anxious to do.

You know where New England had started its four previous drives, on average, when Kasay kicked off? From its own 27. Kasay's errant kick meant the Patriots got the ball at their own 40. We're talking about 13 lousy yards.

In "The Ultimate Super Bowl Book" - a book notable for its excellent research - author Bob McGinn notes that only 45 of 2,435 kickoffs went out of bounds in the 2003 season (1.8 percent). Kasay had kept 77 of his 78 regular-season kickoffs in play.

Yes, Kasay messed up. It probably gave New England the equivalent of about one first down.

OK, enough with the excerpt. You can read the entire column if you want, or you can totally forget about the painful memories from that Super Bowl and just enjoy(?) today's Patriots-Panthers matchup. One upset already: it's not supposed to snow.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Right move for Tiger, but is it too late?

Tiger Woods said tonight via his website that he is taking a "hiatus" from golf to work on his marriage, which sure needs some repairing. Woods used the word "infidelity" for the first time in the statement -- this following the rampant allegations of Tiger's affairs with multiple women.

This is the right move for Tiger, who has a wife and two young children. If he wants to somehow avoid a divorce, he's got to put his laser-like attentions on something other than a little white ball.

But does this come too late? I found it ironic that Woods' announcement of his break from golf came on the same day that Jenny Sanford announced she was filing for divorce from S.C. governor Mark Sanford, who has had his own issues with infidelity (i.e. the Argentinian "soulmate") and then made some highly-publicized, ultimately unsuccessful attempts to repair his own marriage.

Here's the text of Tiger's statement from his website,

"I am deeply aware of the disappointment and hurt that my infidelity has caused to so many people, most of all my wife and children. I want to say again to everyone that I am profoundly sorry and that I ask forgiveness. It may not be possible to repair the damage I've done, but I want to do my best to try.

"I would like to ask everyone, including my fans, the good people at my foundation, business partners, the PGA Tour, and my fellow competitors, for their understanding. What's most important now is that my family has the time, privacy, and safe haven we will need for personal healing.

"After much soul searching, I have decided to take an indefinite break from professional golf. I need to focus my attention on being a better husband, father, and person.

"Again, I ask for privacy for my family and I am especially grateful for all those who have offered compassion and concern during this difficult period."

So what does that mean? How long is the break? I really hope Tiger doesn't know. If he does -- if he's already penciling himself in for the 2010 Masters in April as usual, for instance -- that's very cynical.

How would he know at this point, really? If he's serious about trying to fix things, he shouldn't know how long this break will last. Golf will suffer, but it will survive. Tiger sounds like he's trying to get his priorities straight. He should get some time to do that.

Patriots will beat Panthers Sunday

What we’ve got on Sunday in Foxboro, to be frank, is a game that sounded awesome in April and is now something of a downer in December.

The New England Patriots of 2009 aren’t the Patriots we’ve gotten used to seeing over the past decade, and the Carolina Panthers of 2009 are nowhere close to the Panthers of 2008. The two teams have a combined record of 12-12 this season, and the Patriots’ bad vibes this week (sending players home due to tardiness, internal criticism of coach Bill Belichick by one of the team's star linebackers, Tom Brady’s assorted minor injuries that kept him out of practice Wednesday and Thursday) have made national news.

-- Nevertheless, it is the Patriots, and it certainly sounds like Brady is playing, and Matt Moore gets a chance to start against a vulnerable New England secondary. It will be interesting. Moore needs to throw for at least 200-250 yards Sunday, I think, for Carolina to have any chance at winning. The way to beat New England is to attack its back four the way New Orleans and Miami did, not go after its front seven (although abandoning the run entirely, of course, would be silly. I'd vote for about a 50-50 split in this one).

-- The Patriots have lost three of their past four games, but they are 6-0 at home this season. They are a team that is at least 10 points better at home than on the road.

-- Who will give less insight in the coaches’ postgame press conference? Generally, John Fox has this category locked up every week, but on Sunday he faces the master – Bill Belichick.

-- As previously promised in this space, the last time I was going to pick the Panthers to win a game in 2009 occurred last Sunday, when with reluctance I chose Carolina to beat Tampa Bay by eight points (the Panthers won by 10).

With little reluctance, my pick for Sunday's game is:

New England 26, Carolina 17.

(The stats: I am 7-5 picking Panthers' games so far this season. Not very good, in other words. But hey, in the Patriots' AFC East, it would lead the division).

Why I want 49ers football

The Charlotte 49ers now look like they truly are going to play football in 2013.
And I like that.

For too long, the 49ers’ athletic program has been defined largely by what it doesn’t have: A football program, in an area of the country where Southern college football is a Saturday-afternoon religion.

Now it’s almost surely going to happen. To use a football analogy, Friday’s unanimous vote by UNC Charlotte trustees to continue with plans to field a team in 2013 has pushed the 49ers into the red zone.

In fact, I’d say the 49ers now have a first-and-goal at the 5. The only things that could derail them now will be if somebody does something really stupid or if we all unexpectedly enter another, even worse economic freefall.

Yes, the students will shoulder much of the monetary burden in the form of student fees. That’s not ideal, but seems unavoidable. I think for most future Charlotte students that the enhanced experience of going to a school with a football team – and the sense of community that team will inspire – will make up for the fee and then some.

I still remember something UNC Charlotte Chancellor Phil Dubois said at a 2008 trustee meeting last year when he was pitching football. Said Dubois: “Appalalachian State knocks off Michigan and everyone in North Carolina ‘owns’ App State. Davidson advances in the NCAA [basketball] tournament and Davidson is North Carolina’s team. But when has Charlotte really ‘owned’ UNC Charlotte? Be truthful, and you’ll probably admit it was our run to the 1977 Final Four.”

Yes, it probably was. And while football won’t immediately thread the 49ers and the city together permanently, it at least gives them a chance.

Has this been a difficult process? Oh, Lord. All you have to do is look at how many plan incarnations there have been – it was “Plan E” that the trustees finally approved Friday – to know that it has.

I’m glad that “Plan E” gets the stadium issue settled relatively quickly, with a permanent, 15,000-seat stadium from the outset. (It could be expanded if necessary, but I think that will be more than enough seats in the beginning).

It’s far from a perfect plan. The 49ers won’t get into college football’s big leagues for at least a decade and likely much longer than that under it. If Charlotte hires the wrong head coach, momentum could be stunted quickly.

But at least the 49ers’ athletic program will feel more purposeful now. More complete. And soon, the school will be defined more by what it has than by what it doesn’t.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why Moore shouldn't backtrack

In today's Charlotte Observer, Panther quarterback Matt Moore second-guesses himself for running the ball instead of passing it on third-and-4 from the Tampa Bay 7 midway through the fourth quarter Sunday.

I was part of Moore's group interview in the Panther locker room Wednesday where he said, among other things, about taking the conservative route on that run-pass decision: "I kind of just wanted to be really super-safe. I didn't take a chance there and I wish I would've. I wanted to guarantee points."

Moore caught heat from the coaches and the receivers after the call and laughingly labeled himself "weak" for not throwing the ball on Wednesday. Jonathan Stewart gained two yards on the play, John Kasay kicked a 23-yard field goal, Carolina went up 16-6 after that and that was the final score.

But here's the thing: Although I criticize coach John Fox a lot for conservatism, in this case I would have done exactly what Moore did.

Tampa Bay wasn't scoring. A 10-point lead, a two-score game -- that was going to seal this one. But what if Moore had thrown the fade route the coaches wanted him to throw and got it intercepted? He had overthrown one of those already, so maybe he underthrows the next one and it's picked off.

Then it's still 13-6, Carolina is only a TD ahead and it's still a game.

I think Moore's initial instinct on this was correct. Do the sure thing. Take the sure win. No need to backtrack.

Now it will be different Sunday. New England is vulnerable in the secondary. Drew Brees made the Pats look silly, which is one thing, but so did the Dolphins' Chad Henne, and that's another. Moore is going to have to "trust himself" more, as he said Wednesday. If he doesn't throw for at least 200-250 yards in this one, no chance the Panthers win.

But in the Tampa Bay situation, I think Moore did the right thing to start with. No need to apologize, no matter what the coaches and receivers wanted.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

5 Bobcat thoughts

Five postgame thoughts after witnessing Charlotte's impressive 107-95 win over the Denver Nuggets Tuesday:

1) I knew Stephen Jackson could score before he got here, but wow, what a passer. He had 25 points and six assists Tuesday, but as Larry Brown pointed out, it would have been a dozen assists had the Bobcats' big men more often finished down low. Jackson has made both Gerald Wallace and Raymond Felton more effective.

2) Bobcats center Tyson Chandler looked absolutely terrible Tuesday -- a far too frequent occurrence this season. Chandler had five fouls, four turnovers, two rebounds and one point in 13 minutes. The Bobcats function far more smoothly when Nazr Mohammed is playing center right now.

3) It was interesting to see the Nuggets (16-6) really lose their cool late when it was apparent they were going to lose to the Bobcats (9-11). Both Carmelo Anthony (34 points) and Chauncey Billups drew technicals in the final minute, and then Billups heaved the ball into the stands -- in frustration, not exultation -- as the game ended.

4) Raymond Felton -- the subject of my column for Wednesday's paper -- is playing such smart basketball right now. He only took two shots in the fourth quarter, but they were both huge, contested layups in traffic.

5) Ty Lawson -- the NBA's fastest player, according to Allen Iverson, after Lawson made him look silly Monday night -- should be taking over for Arron Afflalo in the Nuggets' starting lineup by midseason. Once he gets the NBA routine down, Lawson is better offensively and far faster than Afflalo.

A Jordan hoax (in Utah?!)

Check this out, from an Associated Press story recently posted: My only comment is that I can't believe folks bought into this, but it was a lame promotion to begin with. And check out what the owner is offering as an "apology" to fans who showed up expecting to see Jordan play... Again, lame.

The AP story:

OREM, Utah -- An NBA Development League team owner is apologizing for misleading fans who thought Michael Jordan would play in a charity game at the Utah Flash's home opener.

Flash owner Brandt Andersen acknowledged sending a Jordan lookalike around town Monday, when supposed "Jordan" sightings and an Internet video of the impostor eating at a local restaurant created buzz that Jordan really was in town. More than 7,500 fans showed up hoping to see Jordan play one-on-one against former Utah Jazz guard Bryon Russell at halftime.

The Flash had been pitching the Jordan-Russell rematch since September, despite never hearing from Jordan after Andersen issued the first challenge.

Andersen maintained he held out hope that Jordan would agree to be part of Monday's promotion.

"This was done in fun," Andersen wrote on his blog after the game. "If you did not see it as fun or you feel we went over the top I am sorry."

Andersen that he had always planned to send out a lookalike, complete with bodyguards, into the community.

"We wanted to test the strength and effectiveness of viral media by putting him out in Provo with bodyguards, and some hype," he said. "I always assumed it would be uncovered very quickly that it was a hoax."

Fans caught on when the impostor trotted to the court at halftime. They started booing, then leaving.

Andersen had offered a $100,000 to the charity of the winner's choice if he could get Jordan and Russell to play a game of 21.

Jordan's jumper over Russell in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals gave the Chicago Bulls a 4-2 series win over Utah. Jazz fans still insist Jordan pushed off Russell.

During Jordan's Hall of Fame speech, he said he was motivated by Russell's trash talk toward him during his first retirement.

As part of his apology, Andersen is offering tickets for a future Flash game for fans with tickets from Monday night's game.

The Favre effect -- Dec.20 version

The NFL just announced that there will be NO CHANGE in the Panthers' 8:20 p.m., prime time game against Minnesota. That game remains scheduled at Bank of America stadium on Sunday, Dec.20 on NBC.

The NFL's flex scheduling offered an option for the league and TV network NBC to move the game to an earlier start that day. It stayed where it was, though, because of one reason: Brett Favre.

Favre is a one-man ratings machine, especially since his Minnesota Vikings are still in contention for the No.1 seed in the NFC (although trailing undefeated New Orleans, who the Panthers close the season with on Jan.3rd. Say this for the Panthers -- although they aren't very good, their final two home opponents couldn't be more attractive).

The Panthers, meanwhile, will get lots of prime-time exposure that Sunday night -- and likely a lot of it won't be positive. NBC's "A Team" on Sunday Night Football is one of the best in the business in large part because it doesn't pull punches, so this one stays as a prime-time showcase. And unless the Panthers can change the storyline, there will be a lot of salivating over Favre and a lot of criticism of how the Panthers have fallen so far, so fast.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

5 things I liked about Panthers' win

Here we go -- the traditional "5 things I liked" postgame blog about Carolina's 16-6 win over Tampa Bay.

1. Panthers' red-zone defense. LB Jon Beason was outstanding, with two interceptions right at the goal line just when it looked like Tampa Bay was about to score. But he wasn't alone -- the Panthers picked rookie QB Josh Freeman off five times. Five! I thought only Jake Delhomme ever threw five picks per game in this stadium.

2. Matt Moore. Not asked to do a whole lot more than manage the game, Moore did that effectively (14-for-20, 161 yards, 1 interception, 0 TDs). Coach John Fox termed Moore's overall effort "pretty good," and that was about right. Fox also said there was a "good" chance Moore will start again next week at New England, which will be a whole lot tougher foe and venue than 1-11 Tampa Bay.

3. Jonathan Stewart. Without the injured DeAngelo Williams, the rushing attack was no longer "Double Trouble," but it was still a lot of trouble for Tampa Bay. Stewart ran for 120 yards on 26 carries -- much more than his usual workload -- and scored Carolina's only TD. The offensive line helped out, but Stewart got a lot of those yards after contact.

4. Jason Baker. Carolina's punter boomed a bunch of them and ended up with a net of 45.6 on five punts, helping to win the field-position battle.

5. True football fans. Kudos to everyone showed up on a cold December day when it was only 43 degrees and the opponent was the woeful Bucs. The scalpers took a beating on this one -- if I saw one person with a fistful of tickets desperately trying to unload them 30 minutes before kickoff, I saw 50. There were probably 25,000 no-shows if the Panthers gave us an actual turnstile count. But that still leaves close to 50,000 true football fans who showed up, and if you were one of those, I salute you.

Panthers win 16-6, D gets 5 interceptions

The Carolina Panthers improved to 5-7 Sunday with a 16-6 win over Tampa Bay – a victory keyed by the defense’s five interceptions against Bucs rookie quarterback Josh Freeman.

Four of those interceptions – including two by linebacker Jon Beason – occurred inside the Panther 10 – and kept Tampa Bay from scoring any points on several drives that seemed sure to net something.

Panther quarterback Matt Moore played well enough to win – he threw one interception but also hit on a 66-yard deep ball to Steve Smith and avoided making too many huge mistakes. Moore’s final numbers: 14-for-20 for 161 yards, zero TDs and one pickoff.

Carolina’s lone TD came on a run by Jonathan Stewart, who had a 100-yard game and shouldered the lion’s share of the carries after DeAngelo Williams missed the game due to injury.

But the defense really won this one (and Carolina was also helped by Tampa Bay field goal kicker Connor Barth missing a couple of relatively easy ones).

Beason had two interceptions, Charles Godfrey had one, Chris Harris picked one off in the end zone and Chris Gamble rounded it off with an interception in the final seconds.

I’ll have my traditional “5 things” Panthers postgame blog up around 5:30 or 6 p.m.

16-6 Panthers after 2 huge plays

The Panthers have taken a 10-point lead with 7:12 left in the fourth quarter thanks to big plays by both the offense and defense.

First, it was the defense. Tampa Bay drove down to the Carolina 3, where it faced fourth-and-goal. Josh Freeman dropped back, waited... and threw his fourth interception of the game, to safety Chris Harris. That kept the score at 13-6 -- a TD would have tied it at 13-all.

Then, quickly, the Panthers went deep. Matt Moore, whose arm strength on the deep ball has always been one of his signatures, fired a gorgeous rainbow to Steve Smith. Smith hauled it in and, although he was quickly tackled, it went for 66 yards.

After that, the Panthers put the handcuffs back on Moore -- he handed off 3 times in a row. But you can't blame John Fox much for that one. He needed to make it a two-possession game. The short field goal by John Kasay -- his third of the game -- made it 16-6.

Beason's 2nd pick keeps Panthers ahead

Jon Beason just offered up some deja vu, intercepting Tampa Bay rookie QB Josh Freeman once again inside the Panther 5 to preserve a Carolina lead.

Down 13-6, Tampa Bay got a chance when Chris Gamble muffed a punt return and the Bucs took over at the Carolina 20.

But on first down, Freeman threw across the middle and No.52 grabbed it out of the air again. That's two interceptions in the same quarter for Beason, the Panthers' middle linebacker, who had only one all season coming into the game.

Carolina takes 13-6 lead

A 40-yard John Kasay field goal just gave Carolina a 13-6 lead with 6:14 left in the third quarter.

Jonathan Stewart (already 112 yards) and Matt Moore led a nice drive to the Tampa Bay 25 before it stalled. On third-and-10 from the Tampa 25, the Panthers ran a draw to Tyrell Sutton, drawing lots of boos from the crowd.

At least the Panthers got three out of their first drive, though. Tampa Bay got nothing out of its first march after the Jon Beason goal-line pickoff kept the Bucs out of the end zone once again.

Beason's interception preserves lead

Tampa Bay seemed on the verge of taking the lead for the first time early in the third quarter, but Carolina LB Jon Beason made a goal-line interception to preserve the lead.

Tampa Bay rookie QB Josh Freeman has thrown the ball really well between the 20s, but he hasn't gotten the Bucs into the end zone yet. His throw on play-action on first-and-goal from the Panther 4 was his worst yet.

So Carolina still leads 10-6 early in the third, but hasn't scored any points since its first two possessions. The Panthers really need to give the ball to Jonathan Stewart more.

Panthers up 10-6 at halftime

The Panthers are clinging to a 10-6 lead at halftime, having slowed down considerably on offense after scoring a touchdown on their first drive.

Tampa Bay had a chance to cut it to 10-9 midway through the second quarter. But kicker Connor Barth, the former Tar Heel, missed his third FG attempt of the game, banging the ball off the left upright. Barth made his first two tries.

Carolina's defense has allowed some yardage to QB Josh Freeman (171 yards in the first half and one interception), whose arm is very impressive. But the Panthers have bowed up near the goal line and managed to hold Tampa out of the end zone.

Antonio Bryant is killing the Panthers -- he has four catches for 90 yards in the first half alone, much of those against Richard Marshall.

Carolina QB Matt Moore is 8-for-14 for 61 yards, zero TDs and one interception. Jonathan Stewart has run 13 times for 82 yards.

Another Tampa Bay FG, Carolina leads 10-6

Tampa Bay just got a second FG from Connor Barth (the former UNC kicker) to cut Carolina's lead to 10-6 midway through the second quarter.

The Bucs could have tied the game when Josh Freeman threw a beautiful deep ball to TE Kellen Winslow on third-and-18 from the 28. Winslow had his hands on the ball in the end zone. But, while single-covered by Charles Godfrey, he couldn't pull it in. Godfrey got his left hand in there to break it up.

That left Tampa with the field goal and a 10-6 deficit. The turnover that set that field goal up? Matt Moore's first interception of the day. Will there be more?

Moore throws first interception

Matt Moore just tried to force a ball into tight coverage to Panther TE Dante Rosario, and it got tipped and then picked off. Tampa Bay LB Geno Hayes returned it 19 yards to the Panther 44, where the Bucs will start, trailing 10-3 early in the second quarter.

That's the sort of stuff you get with Moore -- he will make some nice throws but some goofy ones, too. Of course, that's Jake Delhomme, too.

Panthers up 10-3 early in second

Tampa Bay is on the board, getting a 21-yard field goal after a Panthers' goal-line stand to slice Carolina's lead to 10-3.

The Bucs' march was largely the result of a frozen rope thrown by Josh Freeman to Antonio Bryant, who tapped both toes in-bounds on a 40-yard sideline completion. The play was originally ruled out of bounds, but Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris challenged the call successfully.

Tampa Bay then ran the ball three times, but Julius Peppers stopped the third-down plunge a yard short. On fourth-and-1 from the 3, Morris decided not to gamble, took the sure "3" and now Carolina is up 10-3 early in the second quarter.

10-0 Panthers early

Matt Moore has now gotten points out of his first two drives for Carolina -- although he left a possible TD pass on the board on the second one.

Carolina leads 10-0 with 4:14 left in the first quarter after John Kasay's short field goal. After a Charles Godfrey interception ended Tampa Bay's first march, the Panthers rode the running of Jonathan Stewart down to the Tampa Bay 5. There, they faced third-and-goal, and Steve Smith beat Elbert Mack one-on-one to the back corner of the end zone.

Moore's pass, however, was overthrown. He seemed so intent on not getting it picked off that he overthrew it.

Still, Carolina got the three, and now leads 10-0.

Nice start for Moore, Panthers

Carolina's Matt Moore led a touchdown drive on his first possession Sunday -- a 10-play, 64-yard march fueled mostly by Jonathan Stewart runs and several crisp, short passes by Moore. The most notable was on a third-and-1, when Moore threw wide for Steve Smith, who made a nice snag to keep the drive alive.

Moore is making his first start since 2007 for Carolina due to Jake Delhomme's broken finger. Carolina leads 7-0 with 9:49 left in the first quarter. Moore was 3-for-3 on the drive for 29 yards.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Butler did it

I watched Butler's surprisingly easy 38-14 win over Independence Friday night from the sideline at Providence High and came away even more impressed with the Bulldogs. (Providence's awesome replay scoreboard made this easier, since you could see Butler dominate again on the video board after most plays).

In my column for Saturday's paper, I predict that Butler will end the season 15-0 in a week, beating Fayetteville Britt for the state championship on Dec.12. I haven't seen Britt play, but I've seen enough good high school teams to know that this Butler bunch is state-championship caliber and very focused.

Senior H-back Anthony Short caught two long TD passes Friday -- they have nicknamed him "PlayStation" for a reason. QB Christian LeMay was spectacular. But like all great football teams, Butler has a lot of depth. Junior H-back Deion Walker may be the Bulldogs' most underrated player -- he's fantastic, too. If I were kicking the ball deep to Walker and Short, I'd just as soon boot it out of bounds.

Butler was so good Friday night at answering challenges, too. The two times Independence scored TDs, in both cases Butler answered very quickly -- one time it only took 16 seconds (a long kickoff return and then a pass to Short). The other time, after Indy scored on the last play before halftime, Butler just took the second-half kickoff and needed only about 90 seconds to score.

The Bulldogs weren't a bit intimidated by the situation and I can't believe they will be next Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Raleigh, when playing Britt at N.C. State's home (Carter-Finley Stadium). This is a team that is all grown up and deserves to win a state title. I believe it will.

My Panthers-Bucs prediction

This wasn’t the way I wanted it to happen, but I will be glad to see Matt Moore as the Carolina Panthers’ starting quarterback Sunday.

I’ve been campaigning for Moore to get a chance since Sept.29, when Carolina dropped to 0-3 with a loss to Dallas. For whatever reason, this just isn’t Jake Delhomme’s season.

But John Fox has stuck with Delhomme until a broken finger has forced him to make this change, in large part because he doesn’t trust Moore to make the right decisions. That’s somewhat understandable. But Moore has an arm on him – watch him throw the deep ball today if you’ve forgotten that. He’ll make a lot of mistakes, yes. But so did Delhomme.

-- Moore couldn’t get a better opponent for his first start since 2007 – a 1-10 Bucs team that doesn’t play the run well (30th in the NFL) and that Carolina has already beaten once this season. The Panthers won that first game because they ran the ball for 267 yards. Remember, it was after that one that Steve Smith said: “I am no longer an asset to this team.”

-- Tampa Bay will try to rattle Moore with blitzes and dare him to beat them with any receiver except Smith (whom the Bucs double-covered almost exclusively in the first matchup). He needs to get someone besides Smith very involved early to get some confidence. More than anything, though, he needs to complete a lot of successful handoffs for six-yard gains.

-- I have been trying to swear off picking the Panthers to win another game for the rest of the season, because every time I seem to pick them to win, they lose.

However, I can’t quite break the habit yet. I guarantee that I’m going to pick them to lose each of their final four games, but on Sunday: Carolina 24, Tampa Bay 16.

The stats: I dropped to 6-5 in 2009 picking Panther games last week when Carolina laid an egg against the New York Jets (I had thought the Panthers would win). My prediction record is not much better than the Panthers' 4-7 real record, which is cause for me to again proclaim: Don't ever bet on anything I predict in the sports world.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

That's better, Tiger

I was glad to see Tiger Woods opened up a bit today about what he called his "transgressions." It wasn't in the forum I would have chosen had I been advising him (a statement on his website) but at least it made him seem a little more human and a little less "I'm Tiger and I don't have to bother with the little people except to tell them what club I hit and which car to buy."

Tiger's admission comes in the wake of news of a 31-month affair he allegedly had with a Los Angeles cocktail waitress. She apparently kept voice mails, texts, e-mails -- the whole bit.

As I wrote earlier this week in this column, I still think Tiger should face actual questioning from actual reporters. He could "no comment" as necessary, put a more human face on this story and more quickly make it all go away.

But, to be fair to Tiger, putting a statement out like this had to be hard for such a private person, and I commend him for doing that much.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Panther December to remember?

I wrote a column for Wednesday's Charlotte Observer (find it here) about why December will remain an important month for the Panthers even though they are all but out of the playoff chase.

I projected in the column that Carolina (4-7) would likely need to win all 5 of its remaining games to make the playoffs, and put the odds of that happening at about 100-to-1.

Nevertheless, the games are significant. Men will be playing -- and coaching -- to try and guarantee that they have jobs in 2010.

In the column, I identify four key areas that December will help us understand better: the future of the Panthers' head-coaching and quarterback positions, as well as which eras will end (Muhsin Muhammad? Brad Hoover?) and what the Panthers will do to solve the continuing salary-cap problem of Julius Peppers.