Sunday, September 30, 2012

Panthers lose a 30-28 heartbreaker to Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons survived a strong challenge from the Carolina Panthers Sunday in the Georgia Dome, coming from behind in the fourth quarter to win, 30-28, in the final seconds in a heartbreaker for Panther fans.

The Panthers led 28-27 in the final two minutes but then passed up going for it on fourth-and-one from the Atlanta 45, instead taking a delay of game penalty and then downing Brad Nortman’s 49-yard punt at the Falcons’ 1. But Ron Rivera’s refusal to gamble there on offense and put the game in the hands of his defense ended up costing the Panther head coach dearly. (The Panthers had nearly had the first down already, but a Cam Newton fumble on third down cost them about a yard although it was recovered by Carolina).

From its own 1, Atlanta had only 59 seconds to get into field-goal range and no timeouts. But on the first play, Roddy White caught a deep ball right over safety Haruki Nakamura’s head for a 59-yard gain to the Carolina 40. (Nakamura would later blame himself for the loss in the locker room, saying he "cost us the game.) A couple of short passes later and the Falcons got a 40-yard field goal from Matt Bryant with five seconds remaining to win.

The Panthers played far better than they did 10 days ago, but it wasn’t enough as they lost once again in the Georgia Dome, which has long been a personal house of horrors for Carolina. Newton was sacked on the final play as he tried to pull off an 80-yard miracle.

After sustaining a 36-7 loss to the New York Giants on national TV on Sept.20, this time the Panthers played one of the NFC’s top contenders to a virtual standstill for most of the game and actually led 28-24 in the fourth quarter. But Atlanta ultimately made more big plays, with overmatched safety Nakamura figuring prominently in several Falcon scores.

The Falcons (4-0) started sluggishly but then ended up beating Carolina (1-3) for the seventh time in their last eight tries.

The Panthers stayed in the game throughout the first half and even held leads of 7-0 and 14-10 on touchdowns by Greg Olsen (a 17-yard pass from Newton) and DeAngelo Williams (a 13-yard run).

After giving up an 80-yard touchdown drive on the opening possession of each of its first three games, this time Carolina held Atlanta to a three-and-out on the Falcons’ first possession and then got an end-zone interception by Nakamura on the second.

But Nakamura, who was obviously being targeted by the Falcons, then gave up a 49-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Roddy White in which Nakamura completely misjudged the ball. And then came another Ryan-White TD late in the second quarter, when the Panthers couldn’t contain White in zone coverage. That gave Atlanta its 17-14 halftime lead.

Atlanta extended that lead to 24-14 on a dump pass to Michael Turner in the third quarter after some very poor tackling by Carolina (including a badly missed arm tackle by Nakamura). But Carolina sliced that margin to 24-21 on Newton’s four-yard touchdown run, which he followed with a Superman celebration that drew raucous boos.

Newton’s four-yard run in the third quarter sliced Atlanta’s margin to 24-21. Then he threw a beautifully executed flanker screen to Kealoha Pilares to beat a Falcon blitz, and Pilares took it 36 yards for a touchdown with 7:55 to go to give the Panthers a 28-24 lead.

The Falcons cut that to 28-27 on a 33-yard field goal with 4:57 to go – they were in scoring range but a key sack from Panther rookie Frank Alexander helped to force the field goal. That set the stage for the final dramatics.

The Panthers ultimately wasted seven sacks of Ryan and 199 rushing yards (86 by Newton) in one of the most crushing regular-season losses in team history.

Friday, September 28, 2012

My Panthers-Falcons prediction and some pregame notes

Never again will the “regular” NFL officials be greeted with such glee as on this Sunday around the NFL. File it under the “Don’t Know What You Got Until It’s Gone” section of life.

How long until somebody complains to these wonderful men? Oh, I’d give it until at least about two minutes after the coin toss. When Steve Smith was asked whether he would complain about any flags once the regular refs returned, he replied: “Only when it’s a call against me.”

The Panthers have lost six of their past seven games to Atlanta, including the last four in a row. During that stretch, they’ve had all sorts of problems with powerful running back Michael Turner. But Turner is one of the few Falcons not performing at an extremely high level right now – he’s averaging a modest 3.7 yards per carry. If, say, Jonathan Stewart is more effective than Turner Sunday, that would increase the Panthers’ chances to win substantially.

The weirdest thing I ever saw in the Georgia Dome? It was in 1998, when the Falcons scored 21 points in 48 seconds against Carolina on their way to a 51-23 win. Think how hard that is to do – three touchdowns in less than a minute. At one point, Muhsin Muhammad fumbled the ball with no one around him. A Falcon passing by picked it up and scored.

When you look at the statistics of Matt Ryan vs. Cam Newton so far this year, two numbers really jump out. Ryan’s TD/interception ratio is 8/1. Newton’s is 2/5.

I got the Panthers’ outcome right for the first time this season last week when I picked the Giants to beat Carolina. Both my weekly predictions and the Panthers’ record sit at a lousy 1-2.

My prediction Sunday: Atlanta 30, Carolina 16.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Steve Smith says he should have kept Cam conversation private

Panther wide receiver Steve Smith said Wednesday he now regrets telling the media that he had “lit into” Cam Newton Thursday night, but said he doesn’t regret the original conversation with Newton.

“I shouldn’t have said anything,” Smith said, clarifying later that he meant he shouldn’t have said anything to the media, not to Newton. “So that really falls on me. Hey, sometimes when you try to help, you do more harm than good.”

Smith, a team captain, had approached Newton on the bench Thursday night during the Panthers’ 36-7 loss to the New York Giants. He was upset that Newton was sitting alone on the bench instead of standing by the coaches, taking “mental reps” and paying more attention to what was going on when Derek Anderson quarterbacked the team during the final few minutes with the game out of hand.

Coach Ron Rivera said earlier this week he wished that Smith had kept the resulting conversation private instead of answering reporters’ questions about it. Smith said Friday, among other things: “If I am afraid to say something, who will? The same way if I'm afraid to teach a son from mistakes, I can't expect somebody else to be that. So yeah, I got into him, I lit into him, because I thought it was an opportunity for him to see and understand what's going on. This is more than about playing football. It's about becoming a man.”

Newton said Wednesday he looked up to Smith like he was his “big brother” and that their relationship was fine. Smith said much the same thing Wednesday as the 1-2 team continued preparation for its road game against 3-0 Atlanta Sunday.

“We’re good,” Smith said. “Hey, I look at him as a big little brother. You’re going to fight. You’re going to spat. But you’ll always be able to come back to it.”

-- On a totally different subject, Smith said there was no way that Golden Tate caught the disputed touchdown ball in Seattle’s last-second win over Green Bay Monday night. Said Smith: "Hey, I’m a wide receiver and I’m always rooting for a wideout, but that wasn’t no catch."

Dale Earnhardt Jr rips replacement refs

I wrote my column for today's newspaper about NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has been a Washington Redskins fan since age 7. Earnhardt used to have two youth-sized Redskins uniforms -- one for him and one for whoever he was playing with, so they could both put them on and go "Redskins vs. Redskins" in the backyard, as he said Tuesday.

Earnhardt is very perturbed at what the NFL is turning into with the replacement refs and said this season has already been "stained in a way that's irreparable."

Here's the full quote: It’s not quite working,” Earnhardt said Tuesday of the replacement refs. “I think some action needs to be taken to shore up an agreement with the refs to where we can bring them back.... This season has a little asterisk next to it. It’s kind of stained in a way that’s irreparable. It’s frustrating to see this happen because there’s a lot of football fans out there that would rather things be different.”

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Shame on the NFL for putting replacement refs in impossible situation

Replacement ref issues plumbed new depths during this past NFL weekend, digging yet another new hole with the controversial ending to the Seattle-Green Bay game.

Green Bay appeared to have intercepted the ball on the final play of the game -- a fourth-and-10 from the Packers' 24 -- but Seattle's Golden Tate was ruled to also have possession and the Seahawks won with a last-second TD, 14-12.

UPDATE: The NFL issued a statement Tuesday afternoon admitting the Packers should have won the game because Tate should have been called for offensive interference on the play. A part of the statement reads: "While the ball is in the air, [Golden} Tate can be seen shoving Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields to the ground. This should have been a penalty for offensive pass interference, which would have ended the game. It was not called and is not reviewable in instant replay.".

Replay Official Howard Slavin stopped the game for an instant replay review. The aspects of the play that were reviewable included if the ball hit the ground and who had possession of the ball. In the end zone, a ruling of a simultaneous catch is reviewable. That is not the case in the field of play, only in the end zone.

Referee Wayne Elliott determined that no indisputable visual evidence existed to overturn the call on the field, and as a result, the on-field ruling of touchdown stood. The NFL Officiating Department reviewed the video today and supports the decision not to overturn the on-field ruling following the instant replay review.

The result of the game is final.

The NFL also noted that the final call should not have been overturned -- that Tate did have simultaneous possession of the ball. However, that should have been moot since she should have been called for offensive pass interference.

Packer fans -- and there may be more of them in America than for any other team -- are justifiably furious. Their team should have won after all -- and the NFL is even admitting it, which is a bit stunning in itself. This could be a good thing, leading to more pressure on the NFL to settle the ongoing labor dispute with the refs.

But look, I don't blame the refs here. I blame the NFL. The NFL has put its replacements into an impossible situation. It's a little like a NASCAR team saying, OK, you look like you can drive a car on I-85 at 70 mph pretty well. Let's enter you in the next Sprint Cup race. Good luck!

Of course, a wreck is going to occur. But who is really at fault? The NFL needs to pony up to pay its real refs, who are well-paid by American standards but on the poverty level compared to NFL players and coaches. It's not like the league doesn't have the money.

In the meantime, the refs are absolutely being abused, getting the full-on substitute teacher treatment. Former Panther coach John Fox has already been fined $30,000 for getting after them too much, and the fine for Bill Belichick should be substantially more than that for putting his hands on one at the end of the New England-Baltimore game Sunday night. Kyle Shanahan, the Washington assistant, ran into the tunnel to rip the crew and should draw a huge fine, too.

Here's what the NFL should do: Use all the fines levied to help pay the real refs. Get the real guys back on the job. And, while you're at it, give the replacement refs a bonus and an apology for putting them in this untenable situation. Then send them on their merry way.

Two more notes:

1) In Tuesday's newspaper and online, my colleague Tom Sorensen and I debate the merits of Cam Newton's "Superman" celebration. Check out my view and Tom's view.

2) The Panthers play Seattle and former N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson, who now has the Seahawks off to a 2-1 start, in their next home game Oct.7th at 4:05 p.m. in Charlotte. The Seahawks' pass rush produced eight sacks of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers Monday night -- all in the first half. It will be quite a challenge for the Panthers' offensive line.

Monday, September 24, 2012

On the Falcons -- and Cam's Superman pose down 16

OK, first off, since this keeps coming up in my emails and blog post comments:

I was very critical of Cam Newton in this blog and in Saturday's newspaper for the same reasons Steve Smith was critical of him on the sideline Thursday night -- basically, he sulks too much when things go badly.

But I had no problem with Newton doing his "Superman" thing when the Panthers finally scored on his 1-yard TD run and cut a Giant lead frmo 23-0 to 23-7 in the third quarter. A lot of folks did have a problem with it, judging from the feedback I'm getting. Cam was celebrating there, yes, but he was also trying to get the fans and his teammates back into the game -- and God knows they hadn't had anything else to celebrate.

So let's be clear: I'm fine with the Superman thing in almost every situation -- I wouldn't do it in the fourth quarter down by 30 points on a score. But in this case the game was still (a tiny bit) in doubt and you don't want Newton to tamp down his positive emotions, because that's part of what makes him great when he is great. He doesn't need to be a robot, he just needs to be a better leader when the Panthers are losing.

OK, now onto the NFC South:

We now have a fairly good sample size in the NFC South -- three weeks worth of games. And the obvious conclusion is this -- there's Atlanta, and then there's everyone else.

The Falcons (3-0) are already at least two games clear of the rest of the NFC South field. They are one of only three undefeated teams left, joining Houston and Arizona. And they were the only team that won this week in the division -- an impressive 27-3 victory over San Diego Sunday. New Orleans (0-3) had a horrible home loss to Kansas City, blowing an 18-point lead, and Tampa Bay looked decent but lost by six to Dallas.

So the good news is the Panthers (1-2) definitely could finish second in their division. And, if you consider this good news, they have a shot at cutting into the Falcons' lead Sunday at 1 p.m. in the Georgia Dome.

The bad news is that it's hard to imagine the Panthers winning the South right now after that 36-7 blowout loss to the New York Giants, and they hardly ever beat the Falcons (especially not in Atlanta). So already it looks a little bit like the only playoff spot they have any shot at it is a wildcard, and that's only if they get about 80 percent better.

If I'm Ron Rivera, this is the week he must challenge his team as he has never challenged it before. The season hasn't slipped away yet, but it sure is sliding toward a bad conclusion unless things get reversed. Panther players had this weekend off and return to work Monday.

And it will be very interesting to see how the Steve Smith-Cam Newton drama plays out this week (see my previous blog post if you missed that). Newton's Wednesday press conference will be watched closely to see if he is taking No.89's advice to heart or if he plans to continue acting the way he does now when things start going wrong.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Steve Smith right on money with Cam Newton criticism

Anyone who has followed Steve Smith's 12-year history with the Carolina Panthers knows that the best player the team has ever employed is not always a paragon of virtue.

But the wide receiver was exactly right Thursday night to get into quarterback Cam Newton's face and tell him to stop sulking after Newton threw his third interception in the Panthers' 36-7 loss to the New York Giants.

Newton was benched after that interception -- the game was out of hand and coach Ron Rivera, who made that call, decided he didn't want Newton to take any more shots. Newton then sat down on the bench, which didn't sit well with Smith (who, like most of the Panther starters, would continue to play).

"I watched D.A. [Derek Anderson] and Jimmy (Clausen), they don't play in 20-something games last year. And they get up and they observe and learn and get those mental reps,” Smith said Friday. “I told him [Newton], 'You can get some mental reps or you can sit on that bench and sulk.'"

Smith also said Friday he used some "unchoice" words with Newton and that he "got onto" him and "lit into" him. And good for Smith, a team captain who is one of the people Newton most respects in the locker room. Newton staying immersed in his private pain isn't good for anybody. Hearing this from Smith will be much more effective than hearing it from the fans and media who have oftentimes criticized the same sort of behavior.

Newton wasn't available Friday to talk about this. Panther coach Ron Rivera was and basically said that the incident was between Newton and Smith and that he would deal with Newton in his own way, as he always does.

Newton did talk after the game Thursday. If you saw any of his postgame press conference, you know that his responses were sometimes close to inaudible and delivered in an eyes-closed monotone. At that time, Newton called the game "a performance of embarrassment" and also praised Smith, saying: "Smitty gave unbelievable effort today. We needed more guys with Smitty's mentality -- simple and plain."

Added Newton: "If I was a fan of the Carolina Panthers, I would be holding my head down in shame of the product that was out there tonight."

Certainly, I'm not blaming all that loss on Newton, I'm not trying to pile onto him and I'm not saying Anderson should start -- Newton is the quarterback who can lead this team to great heights.

But with his talent comes great responsibility, too. When you're the quarterback and likely the team's best athlete, too, other players are looking to you for leadership in the most difficult times, and games like this are among those. Newton is charismatic and Superman-esque when he wins and everybody loves him, but he's too often a poor loser when he loses.

Newton is 23 years old, not 13.

He needs to start acting like it.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

An awful night for Panther fans

If you were a Panther fan, the best part of Thursday night was the walk to the stadium. The weather was gorgeous, the sidewalks were packed and the atmosphere electric.

After that, it was all downhill.

With the Giants scoring on their first four possessions, the lead was 20-0 at halftime and it ended up with New York whipping Carolina, 36-7.

A magician performed at halftime, but the only thing that truly disappeared was most of the fans by early in the fourth quarter. The Panthers haven’t played worse in a long time, not since the 30-3 shellacking that Tennessee put on them in Charlotte last November.

Most everyone had a bad night -- here's a video we did about the game if you are a glutton for punishment -- but here are seven Panther players who really struggled:

1) Cam Newton. Newton had a reputation coming out of college for being a somewhat inaccurate passer. We haven’t seen that much in the NFL, but it reared up Thursday. He only completed one of his first six passes, and a later throw to Brandon LaFell was behind him and resulted in a tip and interception. It wasn’t all Newton’s fault by any means, but he did throw three interceptions on the night. And by the time he finally led a TD drive, the Giants were already up 23-0. Newton, whose QB rating was a woeful 40.6, later called the Panthers' overall effort "a performance of embarrassment."

2) Jon Beason. The linebacker had two critical misplays that you simply have to make. He bounced off an early attempted tackle of Andre Brown, allowing the former N.C. State back to run for 31 yards. And he had one of Eli Manning’s few misfires go right between his hands – a sure interception that he somehow managed not to even touch.

3) Garry Williams. Subbing in for Byron Bell at right tackle, Williams was often taken to school by Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.

4) Josh Norman. The rookie cornerback was too often beaten by unknown Giants receiver Ramses Barden, who played because Hakeem Nicks was out due to a foot injury and had 138 receiving yards. The Panthers paid too much attention to Victor Cruz and too little to Barden, and Rivera said after the game that Norman's coverage was "too soft."

5) Charles Johnson. He showed up early on a near-sack and then was barely noticed after that. The Panthers pay Johnson huge money to be their pre-eminent pass rusher in games like this, but Manning had time to send a text before most of his throws.

6) Charles Godfrey. The safety had two potential – not easy, but possible -- interceptions go through his hands, and then he compounded matters but ripping off the helmet of a Giants player in the fourth quarter and getting a personal foul.

7) Joe Adams. Two lost fumbles?! When the Panthers put Adams on the coverage teams to make something happen, that’s not what they had in mind. After listening to Rivera in the postgame -- he said Adams might be "star-struck" and mentioned possible replacements -- it sounds to me like Adams isn't going to be playing for awhile.

One last note: I have read all the comments on the previous post about "Best night game memory ever" and really enjoyed them. I have now decided on the winners as well. If you wrote either the entry about 1) Hurricane Katrina and the Guardsmen; 2) Watching Brad Hoover as a 13-year-old and getting sick enough not to have to go to school the next day or 3) about facing your first deployment in 2000 but losing yourself in a Panther game for 3 hours, congratulations -- I have a signed book for you. You will need to email me at with your name, physical address and what entry you wrote (we can check all these comments via IP addresses if we need to, so make sure the entry was yours). Thanks to everyone who participated.

What is your favorite Panther nighttime memory?

The Carolina Panthers don't play at night very often. They have done so 25 times -- an average of about 1.4 per year -- since starting play in 1995. I wrote my column about their mixed-bag history in those after-dark games -- they are 10-15 overall in the regular season -- for today's newspaper.

But NFL night games often make for great memories. The lights are bright. The helmets glisten. The game feels more important.  

So what's your favorite night-time memory with the Panthers and why?

It can be a postseason, preseason or regular-season game, and you can have attended it or just seen it on TV somewhere. Mine was on Jan.2, 2004, when the Panthers whipped Dallas, 29-10, in a playoff game in Charlotte. That one had some personal significance, as my wife had had our third child only three days before. I was originally supposed to be off for a week, but she was kind enough to help out on The Observer's team coverage for one night only.

After all, the Panthers have had fewer home playoff games (three) than we have had children (four).
That would have been a hard game to miss.

The best answer or answers to this "best night-time memory" question -- left in a comment below on this blog entry -- wins a free signed copy of my 2004 book "Tales from the Carolina Panthers Sideline."

I will announce the winners on this blog in the comments by Friday morning.

Here's a list of the Panthers' regular-season nighttime games to help get you started:

1995 -- Lost to New Orleans
1996 -- Beat the N.Y. Giants
1997 -- Lost to Washington and San Francisco; Beat Atlanta and Dallas
1998 -- Lost to Buffalo
1999 -- Beat Atlanta
2000 -- Beat St. Louis and Green Bay
2001 -- Lost to San Francisco
2002 -- None
2003 -- Lost to Atlanta
2004 -- Lost to Green Bay and Atlanta
2005 -- Beat Green Bay
2006 -- Lost to Dallas and Philadelphia, beat Tampa Bay
2007 -- Lost to Dallas
2008 -- Beat Tampa Bay, lost to the N.Y. Giants
2009 -- Lost to Dallas and Miami, beat Minnesota
2010 -- Lost to Pittsburgh
2011 -- None

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

My Panthers-Giants pick and some pregame notes

Some thoughts about Thursday night’s Giants-Panthers prime-time game and my prediction:

-- The two Eli Manning numbers I’m most impressed with have nothing to do with those 510 yards he threw for against Tampa Bay Sunday.

The first one is a number you know – the number two, which is how many Super Bowls he’s won. The second is 122 – he will start his 122nd game in a row Thursday against Carolina. He has started every Giants game since November 21, 2004. There have been 23 other starting quarterbacks in the rest of the NFC East since then.

That’s something to aspire to for Cam Newton, who plays a higher-risk game than Manning, who runs the ball only when he absolutely has to. Newton has never missed a play to injury in his young career and will start his 19th straight game Thursday.

But one very good quarterback for nearly eight years straight… man. No wonder the Giants have been so good.

The Observer’s Joseph Person has a nice story today about Newton and the question of whether the Panthers are better when he runs (and they certainly are, although there’s a danger element there).

-- The last time Hakeem Nicks played against the Panthers was in 2010, and the Charlotte product torched the Panthers for three touchdowns. This time he's not playing. That could be huge for Carolina.

-- Listen, you’ve got to come earlier to this game (which kicks off at 8:20 p.m., and can be seen locally on Channel 9 as well as NFL Network) than you think you need to. The new security "wanding" procedures in place are making things safer but also slowing things down at the gate. Don’t wait until the last minute.

-- As many of you have very kindly pointed out to me, I have managed to start the season 0-2 in my Panther predictions on game day. (My preseason pick for the entire season was 8-8; last year this blind squirrel did find an acorn as I picked the Panthers 6-10 in the preseason and they finished 6-10).

Many of you have also asked nicely for me to pick against the Panthers once again vs. the Giants to “guarantee” a Carolina win.

OK, fine. I understand superstition. It’s hard to pick against the Super Bowl champions anyway.

My pick: New York Giants 26, Carolina 24.

Monday, September 17, 2012

I agree with Coughlin -- Tampa Bay was bush league Sunday

I usually devote this blog during the NFL season to the Carolina Panthers, but today I'll comment on an NFL issue that has reared up.

The New York Giants -- who come to Carolina Thursday night for an 8:20 game to be telecast both by the NFL Network and locally on Channel 9 -- had beaten Tampa Bay Sunday, 41-34. They had lined up in the "Victory Formation" to take a knee and run out the clock on the last play.

Generally, everyone just lines up and does nothing on such a play, knowing the game is over. It's much like a player dribbling out the final 15 seconds of the shot clock in an out-of-reach game. The defense stops fouling and the offense is then expected not to shoot -- that's the way it should work.

The Bucs, however, on the instruction of new head coach Greg Schiano, blasted the New York blockers and managed to knock Eli Manning down as he took the knee.

Manning and N.Y. coach Tom Coughlin called it a cheap shot afterwards and Coughlin and Schiano had a heated midfield conversation. Schiano later said there was "nothing dirty about it," and that he'd do it again and that he used to do it all the time when he was the head coach at Rutgers.

So who's right?

Coughlin. Just because something isn't technically against the rules doesn't mean you should do it.

When a basketball player is saving a ball from going out of bounds and is in midair, he could technically throw it into another player's face and break their nose to gain possession. Would this be a good idea? No. That's one reason why players are generally taught to throw the ball at the other teams' feet.

There are plenty of other instances in other sports where there are "unwritten" rules that aren't in the rulebook, from baseball to NASCAR to hockey. Most of them, though not all, are designed with sportsmanship and/or player protection in mind.

I don't like all of them. For instance, I hate the idea that baseball players always think they have to retaliate when someone gets hit by a pitch in what often turns out to be an escalating and unsafe incident.

But the ones that have to do with good sportsmanship... I like those. Look, the Bucs weren't going to get the ball on that play. They were simply taking out the team's frustration for losing a substantial lead to the Giants.

Yes, it was technically legal, you can play to the final whistle and so on. People seem to be about evenly split on whether Schiano did the right thing here or not.

But I don't think he did. I think it was cheap. The game was over, and all that was going to do was get somebody hurt.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Panthers won -- and here's why

Panther fans everywhere exhaled Sunday about 4 p.m. and said, “Now that’s more like it.”

Carolina had laid an egg in its first game – a 16-10 road loss to Tampa. But the Panthers rebounded with a flourish Sunday, beating New Orleans, 35-27, in their home opener to get to 1-1 with a winnable home game against the New York Giants on Thursday night.

What changed? Here’s a quick list:

-- The Panthers’ defense finally forced a turnover -- two, in fact. After not getting any takeaways against Tampa Bay, Charles Godfrey intercepted Drew Brees (under heavy pressure from Charles Johnson) in the first quarter at the Saints 9 and galloped into the end zone. That tied the game at 7-all and made it obvious it would be competitive. This was roundly described as the play of the game in the Panther locker room afterward.

Then Jon Beason intercepted Brees again late on the Saints' final drive to seal the game.

-- The Panthers remembered Cam Newton – and the team in general – can run.
After tying a franchise low with 10 rushing yards against the Bucs, the Panthers got four times that on one 40-yard Newton rush off an option play. They ran for 219 yards and three rushing touchdowns, which meant extended drives and fewer possessions for Brees. The offensive line deserves big credit here.

-- The Panthers got a strong pass rush to bother Brees. Johnson and Greg Hardy both pressured Brees several times, including Johnson’s great pressure on Godfrey’s interception and a Hardy pressure that caused an intentional grounding and moved the Saints out of field-goal range. Thomas Davis also knocked him down on a blitz. No.9 is going to be very sore.

-- Cam Newton. Other than one lost fumble, he had a superb game, throwing and running with abandon. It looked a lot more like last year. Newton ended up with a QB rating of 129.2.

-- Resilience. The Panthers made a boneheaded play early on a fourth-and-inches, when instead of having Newton run a quarterback sneak they tried another option that resulted in a lost fumble (and it was a called option play -- Newton said so after the game). But they forgot about that one quickly and from then on the major mistakes seemed to belong to the Saints – including forgetting to cover Steve Smith on one play that turned into a 66-yard completion.

-- Brandon LaFell and Steve Smith. Both had more than 100 combined yards, with LaFell’s coming early when Smith and Greg Olsen were mostly being neutralized by the Saints. LaFell is known as a deep threat but was more of a possession receiver in this game, while Smith had two catches of 35 yards or longer.

Friday, September 14, 2012

My Panthers vs Saints prediction for Sunday (and some thoughts on Drew Brees)

A few notes about the Saints-Panthers game, followed by my prediction for Sunday:

-- I always enjoy watching New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees play. At six feet tall, he’s several inches shorter than ideal for an NFL quarterback, yet he’s one of the best ever at getting the ball where it needs to be and playing the chess game with defensive backs to help ensure his receivers get open.

Josh Norman, the Panthers’ rookie who is starting at cornerback, will undoubtedly be a Brees target Sunday and said he is looking forward to that challenge. He has been studying Brees closely on film, trying to understand what makes him so good.

“He’s a big pump faker,” Norman said of Brees. “He likes to show his shoulders one way and then come back to the other side. And for a DB, you cannot look into his eyes.”

Norman warmed to the topic, acting as if staring into Brees’ eyes was almost like staring into the eyes of a hypnotist.

“You can’t gaze into them,” he said. “Once you do that, he gets a touchdown for sure. He always knows where he wants to go – he just does the rest to toy with the DBs. The shoulders, the pump fake, the eyes – it’s all just to throw us out of the way.”

-- I found it very interesting that Panther coach Ron Rivera talked openly about his difference in philosophy with (currently suspended) New Orleans coach Sean Payton on Wednesday.

Rivera basically said he wouldn’t try to set NFL records given the same set of circumstances that the Saints had last January, when they tried to set several in a 45-17 rout of Carolina in the season’s last game. But Rivera also said that he didn’t have a problem with the Saints’ philosophy – that defenses are designed to stop people, and if they can’t, it’s their tough luck.

(bullet) OK, onto the prediction. The Panthers and Saints have traditionally been almost dead even. Although New Orleans has won the last four games in a row, the all-time series stands at 17 wins apiece. I think Carolina will certainly play better on offense than it did last week, but the Saints won’t be as bad on defense, either, and their offense still bulges with playmakers. Close, but….

New Orleans 28, Carolina 23.

And if you're looking for a reason to be optimistic, Panther fans, note that I missed last week's pick -- incorrectly choosing Carolina to beat Tampa Bay. So quite possibly I'll be wrong again.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cam Newton: We are better than that

Carolina quarterback Cam Newton said Wednesday afternoon that “we are better than 10 points offensively” and that the “defense did enough” for the Panthers to have won on Sunday against Tampa.

Instead, Carolina lost, 16-10. The Panthers’ 10 points tied the Miami Dolphins for the fewest scored in Week 1.

Newton said the Panthers too frequently had individual breakdowns. Carolina ran the ball for 10 yards, tying a franchise low, and Newton threw for 303 yards but also had two second-half interceptions.

“On offense, it’s 11 guys who have to gel to make a play,” Newton said. “Defensively you can kind of get away with it with a single player making a play and making up the difference of another person. But offensively, if one guy slips down or falls down, it’s going to show on the whole offense.”

Newton said he wasn’t going to address the reported bounty the Saints put on him last season (but other Panther players certainly aren't real fond of the Saints these days, as The Observer's Joseph Person reports here). He didn’t have much more to say than that Wednesday during his scheduled media availability.

Newton was only available for two minutes and 37 seconds, which translated into three questions and three answers, before a Panther official said Newton had to go to a meeting.

Coach Ron Rivera said Newton had handled the Week 1 loss well.

“Cam’s been solid,” he said. “I talked to him yesterday morning. We had a great conversation. In typical Cam fashion, he put it on himself -- things he felt he could have done better, things that he could have handled better. The one thing he has done is he has opened up and been a little more vocal about it. Which I think is good. I think the more he says, the more he’s out there about it, the better off he’s going to be.”

The Saints gave up 320 yards passing to Robert Griffin III in Week 1, and RG3 plays a style that is similar to Newton's. New Orleans (0-1) comes to Carolina Sunday for a game that will kick off at 1 p.m.

I will have more about Newton in my column for Thursday's Charlotte Observer and online.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Panthers last in NFL in rushing offense, fifth in total defense

Here's a smattering of stats involving the Carolina Panthers after the Week 1 games have concluded (and here's my link to today's column, comparing the Panthers' Week 1 performance to the bad old days of 2010 under Jimmy Clausen):

-- OFFENSE. A mostly sad story. The Panthers are dead last in the NFL in rushing yardage (10 per game) after finishing third in the same category a year ago. They are tied for last with Miami in points per game (also 10 per game).

Cam Newton is 20th in passing efficiency (83.3), dragged down by his two interceptions Sunday despite his 303 passing yards (tied for eighth). Washington's Robert Griffin III is a a surprising first -- he had a debut that was pretty close to perfect. Former N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson, a rookie who like Griffin started his first NFL game but lost, is 27th.

-- DEFENSE. Carolina is surprisingly good -- tied for fifth with Oakland -- in yards allowed per game (258). The Panthers did not generate any turnovers, however. This week's opponent, New Orleans, gave up more yards than anyone in the NFL last week. They allowed 464 in a 40-32 loss to Washington.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Now that was embarrassing -- Panthers lose opener to Tampa Bay

Was that a dud of a season opener or what?

The Carolina Panthers looked dazed and confused for much of their 16-10 loss to Tampa Bay Sunday -- at least from where I sat, which was in front of my TV.

The Panthers fell behind 13-0 at halftime in Tampa, mounted a bit of a comeback effort and then saw it dwindle away when their defense allowed Tampa Bay to run out the final 2:40 or so with two straight first downs.

A few quick impressions:

-- What an awful running game. The Panthers scored 86 points against Tampa Bay last year (averaging 43 in two wins) in large part because they ran the ball so well. This time they were terrible -- and then they stopped trying to run the ball at all in the second half.

The funniest tweet I've gotten about this game so far came from ar_Mele, who wrote: "Most significant takeaway from this game - we WILL need to bring alcohol when tailgating this year."

-- The Panther rookies really struggled. Luke Kuechly, so good in the preseason, made little impact. Offensive guard Amini Silatolu was worse -- he made an impact, and it was negative. Silatolu just didn't look ready to start. Josh Norman had an interference call. Joe Adams fumbled a punt (though he recovered it).

-- Cam Newton was OK, but not good enough. Newton threw for slightly over 300 yards, but he also had two interceptions and could generate only 10 points. He wasn't helped by the fact he was rushed so well and so often by the vastly improved Tampa Bay defense. He never did really break one of his signature runs.

-- The Panther defense was very subpar in the first half and then pretty darn good in the second (allowing only three points).

-- A punt block? After all the work the Panthers have put in on special teams? Are you kidding me? That was a huge momentum-changer.

-- There were a few highlights: Steve Smith had a fine game overall and rebounded well from a tremendous hit he took. Louis Murphy had a great fingertip grab on a 51-yard pass from Newton. Greg Olsen made a lot of good plays. I thought Jon Beason and Frank Alexander (the lone rookie to make a really positive impact) both did some good things. The Thomas Davis hit at the goal line to save a touchdown was huge and he also had a big open-field special teams tackle.

But this sort of effort won't get it done. The Panthers were one of the best running teams in the NFL last year, and they became one of the worst Sunday. I thought the worst part of the game for Carolina was its offensive line, which looked overwhelmed and undermanned far too often despite the presence of two Pro Bowlers (Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross). That DeAngelo Williams was a total non-factor in this game just boggles my mind.

I had predicted Tampa Bay would score 16 in this game (but also thought Carolina would score 27). If you hold a team to 16, you should win most of the time in the NFL.

Not this time, though. Even the Panthers' 2010 offense (the Jimmy Clausen 2-14 season) averaged 12.25 points. This was a horrid offensive performance.

The Panthers will need to be far better in their two upcoming home games against New Orleans and the New York Giants or they are quickly going to find themselves in an 0-3 hole to start this season.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

My Panthers vs Bucs pick and a few other thoughts

It's always cool when the NFL season begins, in part because it always reminds you how last year really doesn't matter anymore. That was the case Wednesday night, when Dallas went on the road and upset the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, 24-17, in the NFL opener.

"Take a bite out of humble pie, that's basically what it is," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said afterward. "It brings you right back down to earth."

Humble pie will be passed out all over the place this weekend. For eight months, no one in the NFL loses a game, and so optimism naturally runs rampant around the country.

But then, by late Monday night, 16 teams are 0-1 and things don't look so rosy.

The Panthers aren't going to be one of those, however. I'm picking them to beat Tampa Bay on the road Sunday by the score of 27-16.

I think Tampa Bay is one of the few teams Carolina will see all year where the Panthers are clearly more talented, and I think Carolina will be able to run the ball with impunity on the Bucs.

A couple of other notes:

1) You need to pick up The Charlotte Observer Saturday. That's the day our annual preseason NFL section will be in the newspaper. Lots of good stuff coming in there.

2) I'm always asked a lot this time of year what my Panther prediction for the season is. You probably don't remember this, but in 2011, on the eve of the season, I for once got it right -- I picked Carolina to go 6-10 in the newspaper and that's what the Panthers ended up doing.

This year's pick will be found in Saturday's special section. As is usual, me and fellow sports columnist Tom Sorensen will be picking against each other, with bragging rights on the line.

Last year, Tom picked Carolina to go 3-13. But this year he may have an advantage -- he has honestly been around the team a ton more than I have in the offseason due to the way our offseason assignments have worked out.

All that is to say that when you like Tom's prediction more than mine on Saturday -- and you will if you are a Panther fan -- you can feel a little better about him possibly being right. That's all I'll say about it for now.