Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bests and worsts from Panthers' loss to Vikings

Going to extremes as Carolina drops another heartbreaker, 24-21, at home to Minnesota Sunday. The Panthers dropped to 2-6 entering their bye week (also, here's a link to the video Panthers beat writer Joe Person and I did following the game to recap the painful loss):

Worst yank: Olindo Mare missed a 31-yard field goal that would have tied the game and sent it into overtime with 29 seconds to go.

Best fourth-down play: Facing a fourth-and-15 from his own 35 with 1:09 to go, Cam Newton fired a strike to Brandon LaFell, who turned it into a 44-yard play to set up the final dramatics.

Worst offensive run: The Panthers had three straight three-and-outs in the second half, which helped wear down their defense and also meant that their 21-14 lead disappeared.

Best run defense: Carolina did a fairly admirable job on Adrian Peterson, who got 86 yards in 21 carries but never had a run of longer than 15 yards. On the other hand, Peterson hurt Carolina several times in the passing game, gaining 76 more yards on five short receptions.

Best stats in a losing cause: Cam Newton had 290 yards passing, three TDs, no interceptions and a QB rating of 117.6. And he lost. It didn't help, however, that he also lost his first two fumbles of the season (Minnesota would turn both into TDs).

Worst penalty: Steve Smith was flagged for holding on that final drive when a Newton run had gotten Carolina to a first-and-goal inside the Minnesota 10. Smith didn't like the call, nor did coach Ron Rivera.

Worst prediction: Unlike last year's team, in which you could almost always pick the Panthers correctly by choosing them to lose, this one is quite unpredictable to me. I've now missed the Panthers' result the past three weeks in a row -- I picked them to beat Minnesota. The only way I can guarantee that it won't be four straight Sundays is the Panthers have a bye Nov.6th.

Worst tackle: Chris Gamble missed a critical, one-on-one third-down tackle against Minnesota's Percy Harvin that helped the Vikings immensely in the fourth quarter on their field-goal drive that ultimately won the game.

Some mid-game notes from Panthers-Vikings

-- Carolina's Cam Newton hadn't lost a fumble all season until Sunday. He lost two in the first half, both of them leading to Vikings touchdowns.

-- Adrian Peterson is such a good running back that he seemed to be bottled up through most of the first three quarters (it was 21-all entering the fourth) and yet he also scored twice.

-- Gorgeous day in the stadium. I went to the top row of the 500 Section to get a feel for the atmosphere, and the fans were really into it.

-- The Panthers continue to have problems defending the tight end on pass plays up the middle of the field.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Panthers-Vikings thoughts -- and a prediction

The Panthers and Vikings play about every other year, aren’t division rivals and don’t have a huge history.

I do vividly remember two plays from these teams’ nine games, however. Longtime Panther fans may remember them, too.

The first one came in 2001. In the first game of his NFL career, about to touch the ball for the first time, a kick returner named Steve Smith was already angry. I know you’re stunned.

Smith told me long ago that a Vikings’ special-teamer had disrespected him before the game, referring to Smith’s college by telling him: “This ain’t Utah no more, son.”

“That was the wrong thing to say,” Smith said. The first time he touched the ball in a real NFL game, he returned it 93 yards for a touchdown. Carolina won that game and then lost the next 15 in a row. Hardly anyone from that game is still playing now. But Smith is, no longer returning kicks but leading the NFL in reception yards.

-- The other play I remember from this series came in 1997. The game was tied in the fourth quarter and Minnesota was at the Carolina 3 when Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson dropped back and threw. The ball was swatted by Panther nose tackle Greg Kragen.

End of play, right? Nope. Johnson caught the deflection and then ran into the end zone.

The official play-by-play read: “Johnson 3 pass from Johnson.” I guess fantasy footballers got double credit if they had played Johnson that day. Minnesota then won the game.

-- Panther defensive end Charles Johnson dressed up for a Halloween costume party this week as Chewbacca of “Star Wars” fame. Johnson said that the judging must have been rigged, however, because somehow his costume didn’t win.
“Chewbacca? That’s classic,” Johnson said.

-- The Panthers’ ability – or inability -- to stop Adrian Peterson will be the game’s biggest key Sunday. I think Cam Newton will outplay Christian Ponder, but that advantage could be negated if Peterson goes for 150.

-- Here's my story on Antwan Applewhite from today -- Applewhite has made a solid impact in under a month as a Panther.

-- Don’t set too much stock in my prediction. I’ve missed the Panther outcome the past two weeks in a row, dropping my record over the past 22 Carolina games to 16-6. But I think the final score Sunday will be Carolina 30, Minnesota 21.

The best baseball game I've ever seen

I don't like to watch baseball very much.

But oh man, I loved last night.

The St. Louis Cardinals' 10-9, 11-inning World Series win against the Texas Rangers was the best baseball game I've ever seen -- a remarkable series of comebacks that culminated in a walk-off home run by the Cardinals' David Freese to force tonight's Game 7. I thought Jayson Stark of offered a nice synopsis of it here.

There's no way whatever happens tonight in St. Louis, however, will top Game 6 for sheer drama. Twice the Cardinals were down not only to their last out, but literally to their last strike. The Rangers' players were poised on the top step of the dugout, ready to sprint onto the field and celebrate. And twice the Cardinals came through with base hits that tied the game.

Texas led five -- five! -- different times during the game, including 7-5 going into the bottom of the ninth and 9-7 going into the bottom of the tenth. And still, the Cardinals kept coming, scoring two runs in each of those innings and then getting the Freese walk-off to win it. That Freese actually grew up in St. Louis rooting for the Cardinals made it even more storybook.

As the game kept going well past midnight, I wanted to go to bed. I needed to go to bed. I couldn't go to bed.

I don't really have a dog in the fight. Until age 9, I grew up in Austin, Texas and was a Rangers fan, but I can't pretend that I really kept up with the team with any zeal once we moved to South Carolina. I usually find major-league baseball too slow for my taste, with a too-long season to compound matters.

My father-in-law is a diehard Cardinals fan, though, and a number of my relatives who are still in Texas are big-time Rangers fan. So I'll feel good for someone whatever happens tonight.

But last night was something amazing -- a game that just kept topping itself, piling one adjective on top of another. I'm sleepy today, but it was worth it. If you like sports, even just a little bit, you had to love Game 6.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cam Newton's advice to kids and other notes

A few notes as the Panthers draw closer to their 1 p.m. game with Minnesota:
1) Joe Person and I offer a video preview of the Minnesota game here, which includes an interview clip of Cam Newton saying the Panthers could be “undefeated” right now if not for his turnovers.

2) If you haven’t checked out my blog item right before this one, you owe it to yourself to at least read the comments. There are close to 200 of them now, and they are well-reasoned and sometimes very funny responses to the controversial theory of a passionate Washington Redskins fan who lives in Charlotte about why no Panther fan 23 years old or older should be trusted. It’s a great debate. Thanks to everyone who contributed such thoughtful responses – I read every one of them -- and thanks, too, for keeping those responses clean.

3) Cam Newton, who started playing football at around seven years old, was asked Wednesday what advice he had for kids who wanted to follow in his footsteps. I thought he gave a good response to the question, and here’s an excerpt:

Have fun,” Newton said. “I think during my whole journey to where I’m at right now, I’ve seen so many people get burned out. And that’s a large part due to parents, a large part due to pressure…. “Have dreams. Set goals. Stick to it.

“It’s like if you go to Wal-Mart and you [want to] make a playhouse, you’re not just going to do it blindly. You need a manual. So you have to look at something and set dreams, and that’s going to be your blueprint to success. And have fun doing it. The day you’re not having fun that’s the day you should just stop doing what you do.

"I can honestly say I love coming and waking up in morning and playing football…. Special thanks to my kindergarten teacher that said on career day that you want to wake up and do something you enjoy doing.”

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Redskins fan rips Panther fans ages 23 and over

I got an email from a passionate Washington Redskins fan I wanted to share with you. He lives in Charlotte and believes that any Panther fan 23 or over can't be trusted. This doesn't have anything to do with the result of Sunday's game -- although he did go to that one and was obviously unhappy with the result. It's more of an overall theory. I'll let him explain -- his letter is in italics below.

I'm going to let him remain anonymous for this, although I can tell you it's a real person I'm familiar with, as I don't want the extreme edge of the Panther base to decide to harass him or something. Everyone, after all, is entitled to an opinion.

Feel free to comment on this rather provocative theory below, but keep it CLEAN. I don't want to have to hide and disable the comments, but will if I must.

From A Passionate Redskins Fan in Charlotte... To the readers of the "Scott Says" blog:

"I have a theory that I have expressed to several people, but no one has yet given me a reason why my theory is incorrect or otherwise poked any holes in it. Here it is: I don’t trust drinking-age Panther fans. The Panthers started in 1995. That’s 16 years ago. That means that one of two realities is true for anyone over or about 23 years old (who would have been 8 years old when the Panthers started) who is a Panthers fan:

1 -- They were the fan of another team and then just abandoned them when the Panthers came along. Imagine: You’re 40, the Panthers come along, and you ditch your favorite team. Blasphemy. That really shows a lack of trustworthiness, loyalty, character.


2 -- The person didn’t have a favorite team. That might even be worse. A 30-year-old who doesn’t like a football team? How can you trust them to commit to a person or a cause if they are an adult and don’t have a favorite football team?

At a minimum, they are wishy-washy. At most, they are something much, much worse. Seems to me that those are the only 2 possibilities for adult Panther fans. As such, I don’t trust either.

Obviously, it is perfectly acceptable for a person under the age of about 22 to be a Panthers fan because that’s been the local team since they were young.

So what do yall think about that theory? And keep it clean!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Carolina Panthers by the numbers after Week 7

Some interesting stats as the Panthers (2-5) head into Sunday's 1 p.m. home game against Minnesota (1-6):

7 -- Cam Newton is the first NFL player to have at least seven rushing TDs and seven passing TDs in the first seven games of his career.

8-for-8 -- This got lost in the shuffle Sunday, but Newton went a perfect 8-for-8 for 152 yards and a touchdown in the second half against Washington. He led the Panthers on three TD drives and had a perfect QB rating of 158.3 during the second half.

11.5 -- Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen's sack total this season, which easily leads the NFL.

14 -- Panther defensive end Charles Johnson has 14 sacks over his past 14 games.

41 -- The number of plays the Panthers' offense has had of 20 or more yards this season (35 passes, six runs). Carolina leads the NFL in these "explosive" plays (Oakland is second, with 37). The Panthers had only 44 such plays all of last season, which ranked them tied for last in the NFL in that category.

51 -- According to the Minnesota Vikings, this will be the first time in the team's 51-year history that the Vikings have played a team and both squads have started a rookie at quarterback. Minnesota will start its own first-round draft pick, Christian Ponder, on Sunday.

80 -- You know all the fuss about Cam Newton setting a new Panther record for a rushing touchdown by a quarterback with his 16-yard TD Sunday? He's got a long way to go for the stadium record in the same category. If you remember Kordell "Slash" Stewart, he sprinted 80 yards for a TD against Carolina in the December 1996 game best remembered for Chad Cota's game-saving interception.

712 -- Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson's rushing yards so far this season, which ranks No.1 in the NFL.

818 -- Steve Smith's receiving yards this season through seven games, which leads the NFL. New England's Wes Welker, second with 785 yards, has played in one fewer game than Smith. The two receivers have traded the top spot back and forth much of the season.

The kid, the football and Cam Newton

Law Waddill (left) and Nathan Guptill, who are 10-year-old cousins, plan to share the football Cam Newton handed to Law after Newton scored a 16-yard rushing touchdown against Washington Sunday (Photo courtesy of James Guptill)

My column today was about the football Cam Newton handed into the stands to a 10-year-old kid Sunday during the Panthers-Washington game.

It turns out that the ball is going to be shared between two 10-year-old cousins -- Law Waddill of Raleigh and Nathan Guptill of Charlotte. Four weeks at one house, four at the next. Cam actually handed the ball to Law, but he would never have been at the game except for Nathan and his dad, plus he's a good sharer anyway. I talked to both kids Monday and was impressed at how they handled the situation.

In the meantime, did you notice Sunday when Washington's London Fletcher knocked Newton out of bounds just short of the goal line and then mockingly did Newton's "Superman" rip-off-the-shirt thing -- twice?! That drew a huge roar from the nearby Redskins fans. It won't be the last time Newton's move is mocked, since it's so recognizable (in a way, it's Newton's version of LeBron's pregame chalk toss).

As I wrote in today's column, I hope the ultimate result of Newton's hand-the-football-to-the-kid gesture (which he was coaxed into doing by quarterbacks coach Mike Shula) is that more of that stuff happens at Bank of America Stadium. I know DeAngelo Williams, Steve Smith, Mark Carrier and others have all done similar things after scoring in past years, and I'm sure there are others I am forgetting, but I'd like to see more of it to cement the player-fan bond.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Rivera compares Cam Newton to Walter Payton

I wrote my column today on Cam Newton, which makes about the 1,657th column I think I've written about the rookie quarterback so far, give or take a couple of hundred.

Newton keeps being newsworthy, though. He had the most efficient game of his young career Sunday, throwing only five incompletions and compiling a 127.5 QB rating in Carolina's 33-20 win over Washington.

Coach Ron Rivera has said previously that Newton has the "It" factor, which is hard to argue. Rivera went further Monday in his "day-after" news conference, comparing Newton's joy and charisma on the field to Walter Payton, the Hall of Fame running back that Rivera played alongside when he was a linebacker with the Chicago Bears.

"The only other player I've seen that has that kind of charisma or charm, in my opinion, was Walter Payton," Rivera said. "I think there's something about guys like that that are special. They love practicing, they love meeting, they love just coming here and being here.

"Walter was the same way," Rivera continued. "He just loved being at the facility, loved to practice, loved his teammates. Treats everybody with the same type of respect. They both have this attitude about losing -- they hate losing. Everything they did was to win. They've always been winners…. It's infectious, and you want that type of feeling all the time."

Rivera also said he thought it was "awesome" that Newton handed the ball to a young boy in a front-row seat after his rushing TD. "We're trying to get our fans to understand and realize that this is a football team that wants to give back," Rivera said.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bests and worsts from Panthers' win over Washington

Going to extremes after Carolina improved to 2-5 overall with a 33-20 win over Washington (3-3) in Charlotte before a sellout crowd that really looked like a sellout crowd:

Best quarterback run: It’s tempting to go with Newton’s 16-yard touchdown, but that one was easy compared to the stunning 25-yarder he had to convert a third down in the first quarter. On that carry, Newton held the ball for 14 seconds total, doing a full spin and leaving three tacklers grasping for air before being forced out of bounds.

Best Panther sequence: Early in the third quarter, the Panthers had a three-play thing of beauty. It started with James Anderson’s fourth-down sack, continued with a 37-yard pass from Newton to LaFell and ended with Newton’s 16-yard TD run that provided the first touchdown of the game and opened the floodgates after Carolina led by a scant 9-6 margin at halftime.

Best half: The second, if you like offense. In the first half, we saw five field goals. In the second half, we saw five touchdowns.

Worst defense: Washington entered the game No.1 in the NFL on third-down conversions and fairly high in a number of other categories. But the ‘Skins got shredded by the Panthers and the very efficient Newton in the second half, as Carolina scored touchdowns on its first three possessions on drives of 80, 80 and 65 yards.

Best game for scalpers to make money: This one. Lots of demand for the Carolina-Washington contest, as evidenced by the number of regular folks holding their fingers in the air and trying hard to get tickets before the game began. Usually it’s the other way around, with fans holding extra tickets in their hands, trying to get rid of them.

Worst first-half trend: The Panthers were called for nine penalties for 70 yards in the first half, as they time and again hurt themselves – especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Best ownership contrast: I saw both of these teams’ owners in the pregame. The Panthers’ Jerry Richardson was working the crowd from his golf cart – when I saw him he was chatting with a young boy. The Redskins’ Daniel Snyder, meanwhile, had a phalanx of security guards as he rolled quickly through the pressbox in the pregame.

Worst rule: It’s been said before, but it’s worth saying again. Moving the NFL kickoffs to the 35 was a terrible idea. Olindo Mare and Washington’s Graham Gano simply took turns booting the ball through the end zone on almost every kickoff. The play was once again taken completely out of the game.

Best weather: A sunny October afternoon, with highs in the low 70s. Can’t beat that.

Best gesture: After Newton’s TD run, he gave the ball to a small boy in the stands.

Worst prediction: I can’t predict the Panthers lately to save my life. I picked them to beat Atlanta last week and lose to Washington this week. To quote Britney Spears, “Oops, I did it again.” My 2011 overall preseason prediction for the Panthers – 6-10 – I feel a little more confident about.

Best line, Part I: After a 15-yard penalty on the Panthers’ Captain Munnerlyn, Fox analyst Tim Ryan joked that Munnerlyn might be busted to private.

Best line, Part II: The Panthers’ offensive line, despite giving up four sacks, often gave Newton beautiful protection and blocked well for the run as the Panthers put up a season high in points.

Best field-goal precision: Mare actually had to kick one field goal three times after two straight Panther penalties but still made it from 45 yards (it was originally from 30). He ended up 4-for-4 on the afternoon.

Best receiver: Steve Smith was dominant once again, catching 143 yards worth of passes and spinning the ball after every one.

Best two-play defensive sequence by one guy: Carolina defensive end Antwan Applewhite had a pass deflection and then a sack in which he caused a lost fumble by John Beck on consecutive first-quarter plays.

Best stat: After causing only five turnovers in their first six games, the Panthers’ defense forced three Sunday and the offense didn’t have any.

Friday, October 21, 2011

My pick for Redskins-Panthers and thoughts on the game

Washington quarterback John Beck is Sunday's mystery man -- a quarterback who is 30 years old but who has even less experience as a starter than Carolina's Cam Newton.

Beck becomes the Redskins' 21st starting quarterback in the past 19 years, which isn't a good statistic if you're a Washington fan. The Redskins have had problems establishing a quarterback basically since Joe Theismann was running the show (Theismann, incidentally, said on a radio show this week he disagreed with the idea of benching Rex Grossman at this point).

Beck, who hasn't started a game since 2007, is more of a running quarterback than the pocket passer Grossman. Panther coach Ron Rivera this week compared Beck to Jake Plummer, who once played quarterback for current Washington coach Mike Shanahan in Denver.

-- Newton likes to say the offense is in the "moving the chains" business, and that will be a challenge Sunday. The Redskins' defense is No.1 in the NFL in third-down conversions, allowing only a 28.8 percent conversion rate.

-- Watch out for No.89 Sunday -- no matter who's on offense. Washington's Santana Moss and Carolina's Steve Smith both wear that number. They also are both 32 years old and can both still burn you deep.

-- If you wanted to make the best guess the final score of Sunday's game, based on history you'd have to go with 20-17. Of the nine times these two teams have met -- with Washington holding a 7-2 edge -- that's been the score in four of the games. Weird.

Eight of those nine games were decided by four points or less. I believe Sunday will be another close one, but I'll steer away from the 20-17 outcome. I'm 16-5 over the Panthers' last 21 games after missing on my upset pick last week -- I incorrectly thought Carolina would beat Atlanta.

This time, I'm basing my pick on the fact that the Skins generally are playing better defense than Carolina is -- I just don't trust the Panthers' defense right now, particularly against the run.

My Sunday pick: Washington 24, Carolina 20.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Duke, UNC, State and college hoops in the Triangle

I wrote my column today about Harrison Barnes, the UNC forward who may be the best player in college basketball this year and is at least in the conversation.

Barnes was at "Operation Basketball" -- the ACC's annual college basketball preview event. It was in Charlotte this season and provided a one-stop shopping opportunity for reporters to talk to players and coaches from all 12 ACC teams.

It was also interesting to listen to Duke's Ryan Kelly, who didn't lack for confidence. Kelly's Duke team was picked No.2 behind UNC in the media preseason poll (last year, UNC won the regular-season championship and Duke won the tournament title).

Kelly said Duke definitely could win the regular-season title this season, saying: "We believe we can win the ACC. Winning games and winning championships is what we do.”

Kelly said freshman guard Austin Rivers had impressed him so far, too. “He’s a dynamic scorer with a great ability to break down defenders," Kelly said. "There are not many people in the country who have a first step like that.”

And, on Duke itself, Kelly noted: "Some people love us, some people hate us, but everybody knows us."

The same could be said of UNC's program, where three players (Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson) made the preseason all-conference team. N.C. State... not so much.

It was interesting to hear new coach Mark Gottfried talk about the fact that although the Wolfpack can boast of two national championships, the most recent came in 1983 and that doesn't make much of an impact on the 16- or 17-year-old he and his staff might be recruiting these days. (The Wolfpack was picked by the media to finish No.8 in the ACC this season).

Gottfried said N.C. State to today's recruits might not be "fashionable" or "cool," so the program had to "sell the future" more than the present.

It was also interesting to note coach Roy Williams talking about the differences between the '09 Tar Heel national championship team and this current team. "This team simply doesn't have the scoring options that '09 team had," Williams said. He said Harrison Barnes was a natural scorer, that Tyler Zeller was a "great complementary scorer" and that everyone else on the team was also mostly "complementary scorers."

On the other hand, Williams said, this team will be able to defend the basket better than the '09 team and perhaps better than any team he has ever coached.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Carolina Panthers by the numbers after Week 6

Some significant statistics for the 1-5 Panthers:

4 -- Cam Newton is fourth in the NFL with 1847 passing yards. In all of 2010, Jimmy Clausen had 1558 passing yards.

9 -- Cam Newton's interception total. He is tied for the league lead with Washington's Rex Grossman, so the two could face off Sunday in Charlotte (although Grossman may have lost his job to John Beck with a four-interception game against Philadelphia).

14 -- Steve Smith's receptions of 20 or more yards this season. That ranks first in the NFL in that category; he is second in total reception yardage (675) to New England's Wes Welker (785).

27.2 -- A major problem. That's the number of points the Panthers are giving up per game. Only three NFL teams are worse -- John Fox's Denver Broncos being one of them.

78.3 -- Newton's overall quarterback rating, which was dragged down significantly with Sunday's three-interception performance against Atlanta. It ranks him No.25 in the NFL.

395 -- Number of yards the Panthers have been penalized this season, which is third-worst in the league behind Oakland and Tampa Bay.

418.2 -- Panthers' average offensive yards per game, fifth in the NFL. They've moved the ball with authority between the 20s but continue to have some red-zone problems.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Bests and worsts from Carolina Panthers' loss to Atlanta

Going to extremes after the Panthers dropped to 1-5 with a 31-17 loss to Atlanta at the Georgia Dome:

Worst quarter: The fourth, for Carolina. The Panthers actually led 17-14 entering the quarter and then got outscored, 17-0.

Best play: Atlanta had several candidates, but I'll go with Falcon defensive tackle Corey Peter's remarkable one-handed interception of a Cam Newton screen pass. With the Panthers down 24-17 and needing a touchdown desperately at the time, that was the kiss of death.

Worst QB rating: Newton set the all-time low of his young career with a 44.6 rating, fueled mostly by his three interceptions.

Best QB run: Newton scrambled very well throughout the game, and his 14-yard improvised run for a TD on third down was a beauty that gave Carolina its brief 17-14 lead.

Worst prediction: I actually thought the Panthers would win this game and said as much on this blog and in The Charlotte Observer. Instead, the Panthers lost for the first time this season by more than 7 points.

Best running back: Atlanta's Michael Turner. He killed the Panthers last year, scoring four times in two games, and hit that average again Sunday with two TDs as well as 139 rushing yards.

Worst luck: The Panthers came down on the wrong side of a couple of deflected passes. Early in the game, Greg Hardy knocked one of Matt Ryan's in the air, but the Falcons caught it for a short gain. Then just before halftime, the Falcons knocked one of Newton's in the air in the red zone and intercepted it. Had it not been deflected, it likely would have hit Steve Smith for a touchdown.

Best catch: Legedu Naanee, who I have criticized a number of times in this blog, had two superb catches the two times he was targeted by Newton. But he also committed a critical holding penalty in the fourth quarter.

Worst trend: The Panthers had two first-half pass interference penalties in the end zone that resulted in the ball being placed at the 1 -- one of them on Charles Godfrey and the other on Chris Gamble.

Best elevator companions: For some reason, the Falcons really draw some celebs to their games. I rode up the elevator to the press box in a crowd along with Deion Sanders (who was being honored at halftime) and movie star Vince Vaughn. On the way down, comedian Billy Crystal was in the elevator. Of the three, Vaughn turned out to be the most talkative.

Worst stat: Turnover margin. The Panthers never caused a Falcons turnover, which meant that the offense was always having to go 80 yards to think about scoring. Atlanta, on the other hand, had three turnovers (all on Newton interceptions) and also caused Jeremy Shockey and Steve Smith to fumble, although the Falcons didn't get either one of those. Still, ball security was a huge issue for Carolina.

Halftime thoughts on Falcons-Panthers

Atlanta and Carolina have played an interesting first half full on long scoring drives, with the Falcons leading 14-10 at halftime.

Carolina is having a hard time defending Michael Turner, who has 11 carries for 62 yards. The game has featured 3 TD drives of 80 yards or longer -- 2 by the Falcons, who are getting a controlled, no-mistakes passing effort from Matt Ryan.

Carolina actually has more yardage at halftime (193-165) but one play was the difference. Down 14-10 but with a first-and-goal at the Atlanta 10, Cam Newton tried to zing a pass into Steve Smith. Instead, it was tipped into the air by one Atlanta defensive back and intercepted by another.

At worst, without the turnover, Carolina would surely have gotten a field goal out of the drive.

One positive sign: On first-and-goal from the 1, Carolina ran Jonathan Stewart (instead of Newton) and he bulled his way in for the Panthers' only TD.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Picking a Panthers upset over Atlanta

What's going on with Atlanta right now reminds me a lot of what the Carolina Panthers experienced in 2008 and 2009.

First, you have an incredible regular season to secure a playoff bye. For the Falcons, it was 2010, when they went 13-3 and earned the No.1 NFC seed in the playoffs. For the Panthers, it was 2008 when they went 12-4 and grabbed the No.2 seed.

Then, you blow a home playoff game badly against a hot wildcard team that would wind up in the Super Bowl. For the Panthers, it was a 33-13 loss to Arizona that spelled the beginning of the end for Jake Delhomme. For Atlanta, it was the 48-21 thumping Green Bay handed the Falcons on its way to the Super Bowl and a win over Pittsburgh.

Then you begin the next regular season like you still have a hangover, even though the talent is very similar. Carolina would end up 8-8 in 2009. The Falcons are 2-3 so far in 2011 after being picked by many to make the Super Bowl.

-- How could Carolina win Sunday? First of all, the Panthers must stop Michael Turner. The bruising running back has been a pain for Carolina for years. He had 179 rushing yards and four TDs in two Atlanta victories last year. Another time, in 2008, he scored four TDs against the Panthers in one game.

If the Panthers play run defense like they did last week against New Orleans, they've got a shot. But if Turner gets more than 100 yards today, they are in trouble.

-- Cam Newton grew up in the Atlanta area and was a Falcons fan growing up. He had a funny line this week when asked how he was going to deal with all the friends and relatives wanting tickets from him this week.
"," Newton said, referring to the online ticketing site.

-- Watch DeAngelo Williams Sunday. He had his first 100-yard rushing game since 2009 last week, and he always looks faster on artificial turf to me.

-- I came closer to hitting a final score than I have last week in awhile, choosing New Orleans to win 33-27 in a game the Saints ultimately won, 30-27. That made me 16-4 over the past 20 games picking Panther outcomes.

Today I'm going with the Panthers in an upset. I think coach Ron Rivera and his team are due to win one of these close games. My prediction: Carolina 27, Atlanta 21.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Harper fined 15K for hit on Steve Smith: Was it enough?

New Orleans safety Roman Harper has been fined $15,000, according to an report, for his late hit on Panther wide receiver Steve Smith in Sunday's 30-27 New Orleans win.

If you saw the play Sunday, you can't forget it. Smith out-jumped Jabari Greer for the ball at the Saints' 30. Greer fell down, which left Smith coasting into the end zone for the last few yards and a touchdown. Harper came and blasted No.89 three yards deep in the end zone, drawing a 15-yard penalty and igniting a full-scale brawl.

Was $15,000 enough? I would say no, not quite, although I'm glad the NFL took action here. Other hits sometimes draw bigger fines from the NFL, and this one should have.

While Smith wasn't entirely in "defenseless receiver" mode when he got hit, it was close. And someone else easily could have been hurt in the resulting scuffle that Panther coach Ron Rivera said he was "very pleased with" at his Monday news conference.

"We are not going to take it," Rivera said. "Like I said before, we may be the little brothers and we may get punched around a little bit but we are not going to take it. We are going to fight back. I was very proud of them for that."

Harper did not apologize after the game for hitting Smith, saying: "If you're going to score, go score. But a guy is not going to try and just walk it in on us like that. You're going to have to pay for it as you get past the goal line."

Now Harper is the one paying.

Smith, who did not immediately fight after the hit but later got locked up with another Saint in the ensuing scuffle, said after the game of Harper's hit: "I don’t really understand it, the reason why. But that’s his game. That’s his thing, him personally, he wants to intimidate.

"You know I wanted to respond," Smith continued. "I just took the high road and then all of a sudden the other guys came down there and I was right in the thick of it… People say I’m unpredictable. But I’ve grown up a little bit."

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Fox and Tebow: A shotgun marriage

We interrupt our regularly scheduled local programming to bring you an update from Denver, Colorado, where head coach John Fox has made the unlikely move of installing Tim Tebow as the Denver Broncos' new starting quarterback.

It's hard for me to believe Fox has done this, but I believe he must have felt painted into a corner. I've kept up with what the nine-year Panther head coach has done in Denver only by reading up on the Broncos every now and then, but from everything I read it sounded like Fox was extremely committed to Kyle Orton and a more traditional style at quarterback.

That won't surprise anyone in the Carolinas. If Fox had been coaching this Carolina Panther team and had the same quarterbacks, he would have started Derek Anderson for the first five games, undoubtedly. Cam Newton would be sitting on the bench except for maybe a handful of "Wildcat" plays in every game. Fans would be clamoring to see more of Cam and Fox would be stubbornly saying that Anderson "still gives us the best chance to win."

Given the choice, Fox is always more comfortable with the veteran.

That's not to say Fox won't ever start a young quarterback. He did in 2010 with rookie Jimmy Clausen, giving Matt Moore a quick hook, and of course that ended very badly. Clausen had a 1-9 record as a starter and the Panthers went 2-14, which means Fox is now 3-18 over his last 21 games as an NFL head coach.

But Tebow? The Broncos are 1-4 (same as the Panthers), but Fox had been adamantly sticking with Orton until halftime of Denver's most recent game, when he replaced a thoroughly awful Orton with Tebow. Tebow then led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives against San Diego, although he also made a couple of errors and Denver still lost.

This all tickles me. Thinking of Fox coaching such an unorthodox quarterback like Tebow -- who is a poor man's on-field version of double threat Cam, but throws the ball less accurately than Newton does and simply doesn't inspire as much fear in defenses -- is delightful.

Not to say it won't work. Let's not forget the Panthers had most of their greatest successes under Fox, including their lone Super Bowl appearance and another trip to the NFC title game. The man is more conservative than Rush Limbaugh, but he can coach. Don't forget that.

Still, Tebow is not a conservative coach's quarterback. I would think that ultimately this Fox-Tebow shotgun marriage will end badly, but it's not out of the question the two can make it work. Denver has a bye week this Sunday, but the Broncos and Tebow will be among the most-watched, written-about and dissected teams in the NFL after that. All of which I'm sure Fox just loves.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Panthers by the numbers after Week 5

Some significant Carolina Panther numbers after five weeks:

0 -- Interceptions by Panther cornerbacks so far this season.

2 -- Steve Smith's rank in NFL receiving yardage with 609 (second only to Wes Welker's 740). With less than a third of the season played, Smith already has surpassed his 2010 numbers for both yards and touchdowns. The Panthers made two great moves involving trades in the offseason -- acquiring tight end Greg Olsen for a third-round pick and not trading Smith at all.

5 -- Cam Newton is the first player in NFL history to have at least 5 rushing touchdowns and 5 passing touchdowns in his first 5 games. That's the good part. The not-so-good part is that Newton has been directly involved in 12 of the Panthers' 13 touchdowns so far this season (7 pass, 5 run), and that's too lopsided. A defensive or special-teams score would be very helpful for the Panthers, who rarely get any cheap points.

5.6 -- Average margin of the first five Panther games, with none decided by more than a touchdown. It's almost weird to see almost all of the seats still full in Bank of America Stadium in the fourth quarter after last year's halftime exodus trend.

7-6 -- Number of touchdowns and interceptions thrown this year, respectively, by both Newton and Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who is this week's opponent. Newton's overall quarterback rating is slightly higher (84.3 to 79.9).

14 -- Armanti Edwards' longest punt return of the season. He averages a pedestrian 5.7 per return so far in 13 attempts. On the plus side, he hasn't fumbled.

1610 -- Newton's passing yardage through five games, which is fourth in the NFL behind three quarterbacks who have won Super Bowls (Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers are 1-2-3).

Monday, October 10, 2011

Ron Rivera: Don't stop believin'

Carolina Panther coach Ron Rivera sounded a little like he was singing Journey's 1980s megahit "Don't Stop Believin" Monday during his day-after press conference following Carolina's 30-27 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Rivera once again fully took the blame on the clock management miscue at the end of the first half that allowed New Orleans kicker John Kasay to leisurely boot a 46-yard field goal. But he also said that the Panthers continue to make progress and that when they got better it would happen in a hurry.

"We believe it’s going to get better," Rivera said. "We believe when it turns it’s going to be really good. And it is about believing. We have the opportunity to build something very special here.... We're growing and we’re getting better and that’s what it really gets down to. Sure it’s a process -- it’s a matter of time. But this is a different set of circumstances, we have to grow and get better. I’d like to do it faster, sooner rather than later, but unfortunately we haven’t figured that out yet."

As you look through the statistics, though, it is hard to imagine the Panthers are 1-4 at this point.

All five of their games -- including Sunday's 30-27 home loss to New Orleans -- have been decided by seven points or fewer. They have 112 first downs compared to their opponents' 86 and average 62 more yards per game overall than their opponents. Rookie quarterback Cam Newton may look utterly forlorn after every loss but he is also the first player in NFL history to have at least five rushing and five passing TDs in his first five games.

Still, they're 1-4. But Rivera -- who was obviously frustrated last week and said publicly it was time for the team to "grow up" -- has changed gears this week and is acting more like a cheerleader for a team that really needs one.

One injury note: Omar Gaither, the linebacker and Charlotte native who plays mostly in passing situations, has a knee injury that Rivera said would likely keep him out 2-4 weeks.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Bests and worsts from Carolina Panthers' 30-27 loss to New Orleans Saints

Going to extremes as the Panthers drop to 1-4 with another heartbreaker -- a 30-27 loss to New Orleans in which the Panthers led midway through the fourth quarter.....

Best catch: Steve Smith’s 54-yard catch and run for a touchdown in the first quarter recharged a crowd that had seen Carolina fall down 10-0 in the first nine minutes.

Worst cheap shot: Safety Roman Harper coming over and drilling Smith after he had clearly crossed the goal line on that TD incited a miniature brawl and should draw Harper a fine.

Best drive: New Orleans was beautifully methodical on its final one, starting it with 7:06 left and running the clock down to 50 seconds before scoring the go-ahead touchdown.

Worst drive: The Panthers had all three timeouts and 51 seconds remaining to try and get Olindo Mare in position for a field goal to send the game to overtime. But they couldn’t advance past the New Orleans 49, hamstrung by an offensive holding call on Jordan Gross, a drop of a very difficult catch by Naanee and a lot of defensive pressure by the Saints.

Best game against former team: John Kasay (3-for-3 on both field goals and extra points) eclipsed Jeremy Shockey (three catches, 21 yards and a whole lot of exhortations to the crowd and his teammates).

Best/worst of special teams: Carolina's punt coverage was far better. But the Panthers did allow an extra point to be blocked, which should never happen.

Worst throw: Cam Newton’s very first one was picked off and allowed New Orleans to start its first drive at the Carolina 3. Newton said later this was his fault, as he threw a slant pass and Smith ran an out toward the sideline.

Best target: New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham is a star in the making and burned the middle of the defense time and again with game highs in catches (eight) and yards (129).

Best comeback: The Panthers made a game of it, taking a 27-23 lead after being down 23-13 in the third quarter.

Best weather: It was just about a perfect October afternoon – sunny, a little breeze and in the 70s. Fans deserved it after the Jacksonville monsoon.

Worst Panther coaching decision: Sending the “field-goal block” team on the field in the frenzied final seconds of the first half. With that team coming on, the Panther defense had to rush players off the field. Coach Ron Rivera called a timeout with 0:02, which he later said was a mistake and that “those three points come right on my shoulders.”

But I think if Rivera didn’t call timeout that the Panthers had too many men on the field and would have been penalized. It was an error, certainly, but if Carolina had just kept the defense on the field, I don’t think Kasay would have gotten the field goal away before the clock ran out.

As it ended up, though, that was a very critical three points in a game decided by three points.

Halftime thoughts as Saints lead Panthers 20-13

An entertaining but fight-marred first half has ended with Carolina trailing New Orleans, 20-13.

A few thoughts on the first half:

-- These teams really don't seem to be able to stand each other. From the cheap shot Roman Harper took on Steve Smith in the end zone to the Panthers' Jermale Hines (who?) getting called for a very dumb personal-foul penalty to the end-zone brawl after the Smith-Harper incident, it's getting ugly. Jeremy Shockey is stirring things up on the Panthers' sideline.

-- Why in the world would the Panthers call timeout with 0:02 left in the first half? New Orleans kicker John Kasay wasn't going to be able to get the field goal off with his team out of timeouts. But the Panthers were desperately trying to get their field-goal block team onto the field and may have been about to get penalized for too many men on the field.

A suggestion: Keep your defense on for that field-goal attempt. Quit trying to shuffle personnel in that situation. Kasay wouldn't have had a chance to get it off.

Instead, Kasay was perfect as usual after the timeout, knocking it in from 46 yards and making a four-point lead a seven-pointer.

-- The Panthers certainly can move the ball against New Orleans. They have two TDs over 50 yards already -- the 54-yard pass to Smith and DeAngelo Williams' vintage 69-yard run on a college-style option from Cam Newton.

-- But New Orleans can move it just as well or even better. Drew Brees has been surgical against Carolina. He's 18-for-25 for 200 yards and a TD in the first half.

-- Newton basically gave New Orleans a TD by throwing a terrible interception on Carolina's first play from scrimmage that got returned to the 3. Since then, it's 13-all.

-- The Panthers' run defense looks a lot better, as New Orleans is only averaging 3.8 per carry. But Carolina can't get off the field on third down -- the Saints are 8-for-11 on third-down conversions -- which has led to New Orleans running 44 offensive plays to the Panthers' 19.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Cam Newton cracks Top 20 in national jersey sales -- and my Sunday prediction

I wrote my column today on observations about Cam Newton and then came across another one courtesy of CNBC's Darren Rovell's story about the latest NFL jersey sale rankings.

The Panthers basically never have anyone on these lists released by the NFL, but Cam Newton this time has cracked the Top 20 at No.16. It'll only go higher, of course, if the rookie keeps playing as he has been.

New Orleans QB Drew Brees, who comes to Charlotte Sunday, is No.6. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, who has already been in Charlotte this season, is No.1. Here are the Top 25 based on sales at from April 1 to Sept 30, 2011:

1. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
2. Tom Brady, Patriots
3. Mike Vick, Eagles
4. Troy Polamalu, Steelers
5. Clay Matthews, Packers
6. Drew Brees, Saints
7. Tony Romo, Cowboys
8. Miles Austin, Cowboys
9. DeSean Jackson, Eagles
10. Jason Witten, Cowboys
11. Mark Sanchez, Jets
12. Dez Bryant, Cowboys
13. Peyton Manning, Colts
14. Brian Urlacher, Bears
15. Eli Manning, Giants
16. Cam Newton, Panthers
17. Darren McFadden, Raiders
18. Ndamukong Suh, Lions
19. Philip Rivers, Chargers
20. Darrelle Revis, Jets
21. Ray Lewis, Ravens
22. Adrian Peterson, Vikings
23. DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys
24. Tim Tebow, Broncos
25. Hines Ward, Steelers

-- As for a prediction Sunday: I'm now 15-4 over the past 19 games picking the Panthers' outcome after missing on my upset pick last week of Panthers beating the Bears (instead Carolina lost, 34-29).

This week, I think the Saints have a bit too much firepower in what should be an entertaining game. New Orleans 33, Carolina 27.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

5 things I've noticed about Cam Newton

After observing Cam Newton up close for a few months now, here are a couple of things I've noticed that aren't terribly significant but still interest me.

1) Newton likes to boil things down to absolutes: Wins, losses, successes, failures. He is a pretty bad loser at the moment, in part because he hasn't had much practice.

It is a plain and simple approach, although Newton would call it a "simple and plain" approach. He loves that phrase, using it at least once in every press conference. For instance, he said this week: "We could actually be 4-0, simple and plain."

2) The Panthers have drastically changed their offense to suit Newton, which makes a ton of sense. Notice how much they are in the shotgun now? Third-and-1, second-and-2, it doesn't seem to matter -- they will use it at anytime.

I went back to the play-by-play last week and counted it up. It turns out Newton was in the shotgun on about 65 percent of the Panthers' offensive snaps. Newton obviously sees the defense better from the shotgun since he played practically the entire year that way at Auburn in 2010.

I still wish Carolina would run him a little less at the goal line and their two highly-paid running backs a little more, though. That's quite a beating Newton is taking on every carry in the red zone. But it has worked out decently so far.

3) I asked Newton this week about what he does after scoring a touchdown when he puts both hands near his chest and then pulls them away. It's basically meant to be a takeoff of the way Superman rips open his shirt to reveal his Superman costume.

"My little brother likes it, so I'm going to keep doing it," Newton said.

The first time Newton did this, in the Arizona game, he got penalized 15 yards because he went to his knees first, and that's a no-no in the No Fun League.

But as far as TD celebrations go -- and Newton also does the Clark Kent/Superman thing when he gets introduced in the pregame -- this one fits. For now, Newton is the Panthers' Superman. And he also has a pair of glasses that he wears on occasion that look like they came straight off of Kent himself.

4) "Cam Mania" has, almost singlehandedly, made the Panthers relevant in the national football conversation again. He's already had a glowing feature about his play as a rookie in "Sports Illustrated," and unless things go south fast he's going to ultimately sweep the Rookie of the Year awards.

The other day I went on a radio show that was broadcast on 220 National Public Radio stations to talk about Cam -- and Cam only -- for 6-8 minutes. I've done a lot of radio and TV interviews about the Panthers over the years, but I can honestly say that's the first time I ever discussed the Panthers on NPR. Everyone notices this guy.

5) And speaking of noticing No.1: Everyone that sees Newton up close and in person for the first time remarks on how big he is. This is a given, much like a 7-footer guy walking through an airport and being asked if he plays basketball.

Newton is listed at 6-5 and 248 pounds, but he somehow comes off as larger than that. I don't know if it's good posture or what exactly. But he's forever drawing comparisons to guys like Julius Peppers, who in reality is at least two inches taller and 40 pounds heavier (Chicago coach Lovie Smith made that analogy last week).

But Newton looks bigger and thicker than most tight ends and some defensive ends. and When you see him up close, if you haven't already, you'll say something like that, too -- simple and plain.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A baseball star -- for one day

I wrote something completely different for me in today's newspaper -- a story about Shelby's Rogers Hornsby McKee, who 68 years ago became a baseball star for one day.

There was a wartime shortage of baseball players in 1943, since so many were drafted and were serving in World War II. At age 16, McKee was too young to be drafted but had a sizzling fastball and was a standout lefty pitcher in Shelby. The Philadelphia Phillies signed him for $4,000 and brought him straight to the big leagues, where he appeared several times in relief and then started the only major league game he ever would on Oct.3, 1943.

Incidentally, it's amazing what you can find online, isn't it? Here's the boxscore for that game.

McKee won the game, 11-3, and threw all nine innings for the Phillies. But the next spring, in spring training, he threw his arm out and was never the same. He stayed in the minors for 13 years because he was a decent hitter, too, playing first base and outfielder, but his MLB career was over at age 18. He's now 85, long retired from his job as a mailman in Shelby, and was a pleasure to talk with. I went to Shelby to see McKee and his wife Denice last week and enjoyed it immensely.

Special thanks to Buzz Biggerstaff, a friend of McKee's, for bringing this story to our attention. McKee is too modest to have ever let us know about it on his own, which is one reason why we've never written about him before in The Observer to my knowledge.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Why LaFell should start over Naanee for Panthers

Welcome to another edition of Panthers' "By the Numbers," my weekly look at some of the statistics surrounding the team.

One of the most important -- but hidden -- statistics for a receiver is how many yards they average when the quarterback targets them with the football.

Based on my analysis of this number in particular through the first quarter of the season, I think it's time Brandon LaFell starts in front of Legedu Naanee at wide receiver for Carolina.

Simply put, bad things -- or nothing -- seems to happen when Cam Newton is throwing at Naanee. I compared Naanee's averages in several ways to LaFell and also to Steve Smith and tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey, who have been Carolina's three most productive receivers so far this season. (For this exercise, I have excluded running backs since they generally aren't down-the-field receivers).

First, here's how often Newton has thrown at each man this season, and how many they have actually caught for how much yardage:

Player Targeted-Caught-Yds

Smith -- 41-24-530
Olsen -- 27-17-219
Naanee -- 24-8-75
Shockey -- 20-11-178
LaFell -- 16-12-161

So while LaFell has caught 75 percent of the throws directed toward him, Naanee has caught only 33.3 percent of the ones Newton has thrown at him. Now this isn't all Naanee's fault. Newton, for instance, once missed a wide-open Naanee in the end zone in the Arizona game.

But the numbers are pretty glaring. Here's the amount of yardage the Panthers have gained on average per play when each receiver was targeted (this includes both completions and incompletions):

Smith 12.9
LaFell 10.1
Shockey 8.9
Olsen 8.1
Naanee 3.1

So far this season, Naanee has been an "almost" sort of player, as in he "almost" had a touchdown here or he "almost" caught that critical fourth-down pass against Chicago there.

I know Naanee is more familiar with the offense than LaFell, based on his time in San Diego, and I think Naanee can still be useful to the Panthers in all the three-wide sets. He obviously can get open or Newton wouldn't be throwing to him an average of six times per game. (I asked Panthers coach Ron Rivera Monday if LaFell should get a chance to start over Naanee Monday, and he did not commit either way, saying both had played "well").

But to me, the most prudent move now is to try LaFell as the starter for awhile. Based on the numbers, he deserves it.

Monday, October 3, 2011

What Billick said on Shockey's push

Panther tight end Jeremy Shockey was furious after the game about being called for pass interference, negating a 22-yard touchdown pass he caught from Cam Newton early in the third quarter that would have put Carolina ahead, 27-24, at the time. Read here for Shockey's comments.

Shockey, who undoubtedly will be fined after his tirade, seemed incensed that game officials offered him no explanation for what he did. Fox-TV analyst and former Super Bowl-winning coach Brian Billick did offer an explanation while doing game analysis on TV, however, and it follows later in this blog.

First, the setup: Carolina had a first-and-10 from the Chicago 22. Shockey went in motion to the right and was guarded 1-on-1 by Bears cornerback Charles Tillman. Shockey cut inside of Tillman, who was caught off guard and started to lose his balance.

Shockey then reached out his right hand, creating a bit more separation between him and Tillman. Tillman fell, but Shockey's hand hardly made contact with Tillman at all. He then ran about 10 more yards and caught Newton's perfect throw in the end zone, aggravating a finger injury in the process.

Said Billick while Fox showed several replays of the call: "That last little push. You know the sad thing there? I don't think that he needed it... Anytime you hold your hand out away from your body, whether it's the impetus [for the defensive back falling] or not, it's going to get called. You can lift the elbow, you can lift the forehand [Billick probably mean to say forearm there]. But if you show the open hand, it's typically going to get called.... He barely touches him. i don't know if it was a factor (in Tillman falling), but it was an open-hand push."

My take: Shockey never gets called for that "push" except for the fact that Tillman falls down, which makes it look far worse than it actually was.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Bests and worsts from Carolina Panthers' 34-29 loss to Chicago Bears

Going to extremes after the Panthers drop to 1-3 with a 34-29 loss to Chicago Sunday:

Worst ratio of success: Throwing the ball to Legedu Naanee. Newton targeted Naanee 11 times -- more than any other Panther receiver. Naanee only caught four of those. That wasn't all his fault -- some of the throws were bad -- but why is this guy getting more chances at receptions than players with a far better track record? (Steve Smith caught eight of the 10 passes targeted to him; Greg Olsen five of a possible seven).

Worst player to face for Carolina: Matt Forte. He's not an all-star all the time -- he had only two yards on nine carries a week ago -- but Forte has been a Panther killer the past two years. Remember 2010? He had four carries, 101 yards and two touchdowns -- in the first quarter!
This time, he was even better. Forte had a career-high 205 rushing yards on 25 carries to pace the Bears' win.

Best Cam stat: Cam Newton has now thrown for more than 350 yards in 3 of his 4 career NFL games.

Worst Cam stat: The Panthers have lost all those games, but won the one where Newton threw for 158 but didn't commit a turnover.

Worst idea: Kicking a punt to Chicago's amazing Devin Hester.
Jason Baker attempting a rugby-style kick from the middle of the field was very questionable, but why not just target the ball out of bounds, have a 35-yard net and be done with it? Instead, Hester scooted 69 yards on his only punt return of the game to set another NFL record.
I understand kicking off to Hester, as Olindo Mare is going to boot it through the end zone half the time and nearly did on the one Hester took back for 73 yards. But kicking punts to Hester? Ever?! That's just poor decision-making.

Best toughness: How does Steve Smith get up after some of those hits? He took a couple that looked like they should have induced a concussion and still stayed in the game and gained 181 yards receiving -- the sixth-best total in Carolina history.

Best/worst combo of the week: The Panthers' running game. It finally got going, as DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for well over 100 yards. But Carolina couldn't get it to work early in the fourth quarter and quickly abandoned it after that.

Worst "How did the Panthers not win this game?" stat: Carolina outgained Chicago by a 543-317 margin from scrimmage.

Best former Panther: Julius Peppers had a field-goal block this season (Olindo Mare got too far under the kick and hit it too low, but Peppers still made a spectacular play). That goes along with the interception Peppers had last season in this game.

Best trend: For the fourth time in four weeks, the Panthers were in the game in the fourth quarter with a chance to win. They still don't know how to finish games, but at least they are in them.

Worst unit: Special teams gets the nod in a fairly close battler with the defense. The special-teams errors were numerous and in several cases game-changing: Mare missed two field goals (one was blocked); the coverage units allowed two huge returns to Hester and the Panthers' kickoff team seems to run every kickoff back to the short side of the field for no more than 20 yards every single time.