Monday, December 30, 2013

Who the Panthers will play in the playoffs -- my odds on the 3 possibilities

We now know a lot more about who the Panthers will play in their first home playoff game in five years, which will be Sunday, Jan.12th, 2014, at 1:05 p.m. at Bank of America Stadium.

There are five other teams in the NFC playoff race, and No.2 seed Carolina is only eligible to play three of them (No.3 Philadelphia, No.4 Green Bay and No.5 San Francisco) in the divisional round game. Here are my odds of who is the most likely opponent for Carolina and why:

1) PHILADELPHIA (50 percent). The Eagles are the No.3 NFC playoff seed and host sixth seed New Orleans Saturday at 8:10 p.m. The most likely scenario for Carolina is that the Eagles win this game at home against the Saints (who were 3-5 on the road this year) and come to Charlotte the next week.

If the Eagles win, the result of the Green Bay-San Francisco game DOES NOT MATTER in terms of who the Panthers will play in their Jan.12 game. That's because the Panthers, as the No.2 seed, must play the higher-seeded NFC team left after the first-round games. If the No.3 Eagles win, that has to be Philadelphia.

The Eagles would be a very difficult challenge for Carolina's defense, with their creative, fast offense led by quarterback Nick Foles and running back LeSean McCoy, who led the NFL in rushing this year. Their defense, however, is erratic, as Dallas quarterback Kyle Orton showed Sunday night.

2) SAN FRANCISCO (30 percent). The 49ers travel to play at Green Bay on Sunday, Jan.5th at 4:40 p.m. This game only comes into play for Carolina IF No.6 New Orleans can upset No.3 Philadelphia Saturday night in Philly.

If that happens, the Saints automatically will travel to play No.1 seed Seattle the following weekend, because the Seahawks are guaranteed the lowest remaining seed after the first-round games, and you can't get lower than No.6.

So if the Saints pull that upset, then the winner of the 49ers-Packers game will come to Charlotte. Even though that game is at Green Bay, I believe the 49ers will win it. San Francisco ended the season on a six-game winning streak, made the Super Bowl last year and, at 12-4, had a far better regular-season record and a better defense than the Packers (8-7-1).

3) GREEN BAY (20 percent). Same scenario as No.2 -- New Orleans would have to win first. Then the Packers would need to beat San Francisco. If they could manage that, Aaron Rodgers would come to Charlotte to face the Panther defense. Green Bay, in my mind, would be the best first-round matchup of the three for Carolina -- but at this point no one is easy.

And if the Panthers (12-4) win that Jan.12th game (in which they will wear black jerseys, if you are thinking that far ahead)? They would play in the NFC championship game Sunday, Jan.19th, at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time. That game would be at Carolina if Seattle gets upset on Jan.11th, when it hosts its first playoff game. It would be at Seattle if the Seahawks win.

If you are interested in trying to buy some of the approximately 7,000 seats the Panthers will put on sale for the Jan.12 playoff game on Wednesday, follow this link for more information. I expect those tickets will be gone in 5-10 minutes given all the outlets Ticketmaster has, so be ready. But DON'T show up at Bank of America Stadium -- its box office will NOT be open for this 10 a.m. sale on Wednesday.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Panthers win another thriller, clinch a playoff bye and home game

The Carolina Panthers' fans can't ever seem to get off Thunder Road, but they had another thrill ride Sunday that ended well, as they edged Atlanta, 21-20, on the road to clinch a first-round bye and a home playoff game in Charlotte.

The Panthers ended up as the NFC's No.2 seed after Seattle's win Sunday -- the Seahawks are No.1. The Panthers will be playing either Jan.11 or 12 in Bank of America Stadium for sure. They won't have to play next week at all. About 7,000 single-game tickets are expected to go on sale Wednesday for the home playoff game -- more to come on that. The date of the game (Jan.11 or 12, Saturday or Sunday) is not yet set. If Carolina wins that one and the Seahawks win, too, the Panthers would have to beat Seattle in Seattle on Jan.19 in the NFC title game to advance to the Feb.2 Super Bowl in New Jersey.

5 things that went right for the 12-4 Panthers in a game they certainly could have lost:

1) Melvin White. With Carolina down 10-0 and looking awful, the rookie White made what I thought was the biggest play of the game in the second quarter. His pick-six of a Matt Ryan pass made it 10-7 and turned it into a game.

2) The defensive line. The Panthers got an incredible, franchise-record nine sacks off of Ryan, including two huge ones on what turned out to be the Falcons' next-to-last drive. Four came from Greg "Kraken" Hardy, who was truly monstrous. And, fittingly, it was the defense that won it at the end.

3) Cam Newton's legs. Newton was on and off throwing the ball, including starting 1-for-5 for eight yards and throwing an early interception again. But his legs kept the Panthers in the game offensively, particularly on a 96-yard TD drive at the end of the first half that culminated in the 3-yard TD pass to Ted Ginn Jr. that you see in the above picture.

4) Greg Olsen. He was the Panthers' most reliable receiver on a day where the team badly missed Steve Smith. Olsen caught a strike from Newton for the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter.

5) Crowd noise. Panther fans came out in force in the Georgia Dome, and although outnumbered overall, they screamed loud and long at some very key times. In fact, Atlanta's center (who made a terrible bad snap that short-circuited the Falcons' final drive) said later he couldn't hear because of the Panther fans' crowd noise in the final seconds. At a road game, no less! The Panther fans contributed heavily to that noise, so they actually affected a road game at a critical moment. Kudos to those who made the 250-mile hike to do that.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Panthers a sure thing over Falcons? Not so fast

I have heard from many jubilant Panther fans this week celebrating the fact that the team will finally win the NFC South and host a home playoff game in January after a heart-pounding win over New Orleans a week ago.
That celebratory tone is understandable. But it's also premature.
The Panthers have to beat Atlanta in Atlanta first (the above picture shows how they must do it -- their swarming defense needs to be huge). The Falcons are 4-11 -- the mirror image of Carolina's 11-4 record -- but they have many of the same players that got the Falcons to the NFC championship game only one year ago.

As Panther offensive tackle Jordan Gross said: "The Atlanta game now is bigger than the New Orleans game was because it's got everything on the line. And playing the Falcons at Atlanta is never an easy game for us."

-- Gross understated that fact. The Panthers have lost five straight to Atlanta on the road. It's been so long that the last time Carolina has won in Atlanta was 2007.

-- One of the most memorable Panther wins in Atlanta came in 2006. Chris Weinke only threw the ball seven times and had an astoundingly low 32 passing yards, yet Carolina won, 10-3, because the Panthers controlled the ball for more than 41 minutes and DeAngelo Williams repeatedly ran out of the wildcat for first downs on third-and-short.

-- Now it's 2013. I wish the Panthers would drop the wildcat formation entirely from their offense. Every time they line up in it, I go ahead and write down a one-yard gain in my notebook before the play is run. And Williams is in his eighth season. But one thing hasn't changed -- the running back will be a key Sunday. A Panthers win would guarantee at least the No.2 NFC playoff seed, a first-round bye and a home playoff game either Jan.11 or 12.

-- Prediction time -- and time for a look back, courtesy of alert reader of John Wilkins of Denver, N.C. Wilkins writes: "In the 2013 Panthers Kickoff Preview dated Sept.7th, you predicted the Panthers to go 10-6 where Tom Sorensen predicted 8-8. Tom said in his prediction that if the Panthers go 11-5, he would buy golf shirts in mauve, taupe, and lavender.... I think Tom needs to get coordinating golf pants if we win next week to go 12-4."

Agreed. Tom's all-black Johnny Cash wardrobe is nothing if not consistent, but it could use an update. Here's hoping the pants he buys are lavender, too.

My pick: Carolina 24, Atlanta 13.

The Panthers led Atlanta only 17-10 entering the fourth quarter Nov.3 at Bank of America Stadium, but then scored 17 fourth-quarter points to win going away, 34-10. Here Cam Newton scores a TD vs. the Falcons -- Newton will play with an ankle that is not 100 percent Sunday.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Panther fan challenges others to make road trip to Atlanta

Panther fans were at their absolute best Sunday against New Orleans.

Buckets of rain? No problem. The rain-soaked, rowdy crowd stayed until the end and literally shook the stadium on Domenik Hixon's 14-yard TD catch to win it in the final minute. If you were there, you know what I mean.

I felt it and thousands of people there did, too -- one fan in the upper deck said people around him "actually fell down, but it could have been the beer." Defensive end Charles Johnson would later tweet that it was the loudest the stadium had ever been in his memory. The picture above shows fans celebrating after DeAngelo Williams' early TD run.

Fan Lisa Swygert wants to keep that enthusiasm going for the critical final regular-season game at Atlanta -- here's an excerpt from an email she sent me.


My family and I are DAY ONE Panther PSL fans..... I think the fans finally got it! My husband, son and I have seats in the upper deck and I will tell you when anyone started getting loud when the Panthers had the ball, just about everyone around that person started yelling for them to be quiet!

Over the course of the game, I think they actually understood the importance of remaining as quiet as possible, when the Panthers have the ball and as LOUD as possible, when the opposing team has it, especially on 3rd downs.

On a different note, I have a suggestion.... I am challenging other Panther fans to attend the Atlanta game next Sunday. I personally am surprising my husband and son with this last-minute gift idea.

It can be a day trip, so if finances are an issue, no hotel needed. Tickets are reasonably inexpensive... and I believe they might even be "cheap" on game day.

It's a GREAT last-minute gift for the family and most importantly we will (for once in the history of our team) have a real presence, at an away game. The conditions are perfect for it to actually happen, if we can just get the word out and challenge Panther fans! Doesn't get much closer in distance from CLT and prices should be at an all-time low with the Falcon's performance this year, combined with the holiday season still in full swing!

Always a Panther fan,
Lisa Swygert

(OK, this is Scott again. Incidentally, Panther defensive end Greg Hardy challenged Carolina fans to do much the same thing shortly after the New Orleans game. Tickets for the 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec.29th game are available in lots of places on the secondary market online, including the NFL's official ticket exchange, and other places. Be careful and try to buy online from a vendor who guarantees the tickets as valid).

On another note, this will be my last blog until shortly after Christmas -- I will be posting my Falcons-Panthers prediction on Friday, Dec.27th. Have a great holiday, everyone!

I so much appreciate you making this blog -- and The Charlotte Observer -- a part of your day.

Enjoy one more pic -- here's Steve Smith making his lone catch against New Orleans, a 44-yarder, before he hurt his knee. Pretty good concentration here, huh? The news was good Monday on Smith's knee, and although I'm sure he won't play against the Falcons I believe he will return at some point in the playoffs.

Monday, December 23, 2013

How the Panthers could host 2 playoff games and other NFC playoff analysis

It's still a long shot, but the Panthers could end up as No.1 playoff seed in the NFC for the first time in team history.

Here's how it would have to work. Three things must still happen (it used to be four, but San Francisco did the first by beating Atlanta Monday night):

1. Carolina must beat Atlanta at 1 p.m. Sunday.

2. San Francisco must beat surging Arizona on the road Sunday at 4:25 p.m.

3. St. Louis must beat Seattle on the road Sunday at 4:25 p.m.

The least likely of these things to happen would have to be No.3, given the Seahawks aren't likely to lose two straight at home. But St. Louis already did Carolina one favor -- beating New Orleans a couple of weeks ago -- and might again, you never know.

The Panthers can only control their own game, which will be played before Nos.2 and 3. Beating Atlanta assures a first-round bye and a home game on either Jan.11 or 12. That would be only the fourth playoff game the city of Charlotte has ever hosted (the Panthers have beaten Dallas twice -- following the 1996 and 2003 seasons -- and got clobbered by Arizona in the most recent one, in 2008 when Jake Delhomme had six turnovers).

There's still a way the Panthers and their superb defense (above, that's Greg Hardy putting Drew Brees on his back from Sunday's 17-13 win) could host two playoff games even if they end up as No.2 seed. Let's assume Seattle is No.1.

If the Seahawks are upset the weekend of Jan.11 and 12 by a to-be-determined opponent and Carolina wins that same weekend -- both teams would be coming off a bye in that scenario -- then the Panthers would get to host the NFC championship game for the first time in team history because of their higher seeding.

But a loss to Atlanta would likely push the Panthers to a No.5 seed, because I just don't see New Orleans losing at home to Tampa Bay Sunday. And in that scenario, there would be no home playoff games -- unless the No.6 seed and the No.5 seed both pulled two straight upsets -- and a much tougher, literal road for Carolina.

So beating Atlanta on the road is essential -- and cannot be taken for granted. If the Panthers do not do that, the team will likely be a No.5 or 6 seed and on the road at Philadelphia, Dallas, Chicago or Green Bay the weekend of Jan.4-5.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

An unbelievable victory for Panthers over Saints

The Panthers came up with one of the most miraculous drives in team history Sunday, going 65 yards in the final minute with no timeouts Sunday for the game-winning TD to edge the New Orleans Saints, 17-13, in a rainy and raucous Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers (11-4) clinched a playoff berth with the victory.

Here are 5 things that went right in a very tight game:

1) The defense. Holding the Saints to 13 points is a fairly amazing feat. The Panthers intercepted Drew Brees twice (Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly) and sacked him numerous times. The only hiccup was a big one -- a 97-yard drive in the fourth quarter. But the defense came up big time and again. And the crowd noise was a big part of this -- Charles Johnson would later tweet it was the loudest he had ever heard Bank of America Stadium.

2) Domenik Hixon. What an amazing catch on the game-winning TD (above)-- diving into the side of the end zone for a Cam Newton bullet. Hixon was only playing due to Steve Smith's knee injury, which looked serious.

3) Cam Newton. After 59 minutes of high throws, a red-zone interception and just plain ineffectiveness, he made three incredible throws on the final drive (to Ted Ginn, Greg Olsen and then Hixon).

4) The rain. It didn't hurt the Panthers a bit that the third quarter was played in mostly monsoon conditions. Graham Gano punched a 40-yarder in through the rain that was a key play. And it kept Drew Brees and company on their heels for a couple of series. Check out the rain picture at the bottom of this blog post.

5) The final drive. Just remarkable. Much more coverage to come, but the fact that it was all done without Steve Smith makes it even nuttier.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Panthers vs Saints Round 2 -- my prediction

On Sunday at 1 p.m. in Charlotte, the Carolina Panthers play their biggest game in, oh, what, about two weeks?

It was only Dec.8th when the Panthers and New Orleans Saints first locked up, and the Saints embarrassed the Panthers in the Superdome, 31-13.

What will be different this time in a game in which the winner is guaranteed a spot in the playoffs?

Not much if Carolina's defense can't do any better with Drew Brees (shown above talking with Steve Smith after the first game). A whole lot if the Panthers play Brees with more ferocity and Cam Newton has a better game.

The two quarterbacks in this game will be, by far, its biggest keys. Newton was mostly ineffective against the Saints two weeks ago, and that was partly because he got very little help from his receivers who kept getting pushed around and an offensive line that was occasionally manhandled.

Brees, on the other hand, was his usual wondrous self. Here's an instructive stat. Brees threw for 313 yards against the Panthers that first time around. Pretty darn good, right?

In terms of yardage, that didn't even make Brees' top five against just the Panthers. It barely qualified for his top 10 (it was eighth).

So Brees is going to pile up some yardage. No doubt. But he has to be made uncomfortable. He can't be allowed to step into every throw. He can't be allowed to have time to get to his third read when the first two are well-covered.

-- As for Newton, he had a measly 111 net passing yards against New Orleans. He took five sacks for 49 yards and threw for only 160. No Panther receiver could get to 50 yards as the Saints simply outplayed the Panthers everywhere.

-- In this game, Newton has to be very good to win. And he's going to have to hit a few deep throws. In the first game, of Newton's 34 passes, not a single one was completed for a gain of 20 yards or longer. The screen pass could also be a big Panther weapon Sunday, but Newton will also have to make quicker decisions.

-- It will be a pleasure hearing Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in the broadcast booth for those watching this one at home. They are a great pairing.

-- I'd like to see Mike Tolbert a lot more involved in this Saints game as the Panthers try to establish the run again early. The Panthers almost eliminated Tolbert from the offense the first time around -- he only touched the ball five times. And the Saints do give up yardage to pounding backs of the Tolbert variety. St. Louis bruiser Zac Stacy ran 28 times for 133 yards last week in St. Louis's upset of the Saints.

-- How many points does Carolina need to score to win? At least 20 is a must. In the 50 games that Sean Payton has coached for New Orleans in which the opponent scores 20 or less, the Saints' record is 47-3.

-- On Dec.8th, I picked the Panthers to upset New Orleans. This was a serious mistake. So.... fool me once, shame on you. Will the Panthers fool me twice?

Maybe so. But I think the Panthers will pull it off in front of the home crowd. My prediction: Carolina 30, New Orleans 27.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Some Panther notes as Saints week looms

-- Are visions of playoffs dancing in your heads as Panthers/Saints, The Sequel, looms (that's Drew Brees and Cam Newton hugging after the first one above)? Is it weird to you that with only two weeks to go, the Panthers still could finish as the 1,2, 5 or 6th seed in the NFC playoffs -- or out of them entirely? Check out Jonathan Jones' excellent breakdown of all the scenarios. Here is the simplest, though -- if the Panthers win Sunday at home against New Orleans they are IN the playoffs no matter what else happens. Go 2-0, and they win both the NFC South and a first-round bye. Lose to the Saints, and they sure better win at Atlanta the following week or face the danger of falling out entirely.

-- Come join The Observer's Joseph Person, Jonathan Jones, Tom Sorensen and myself, as well as WBTV's Delano Little, for a fun and FREE pre-game tailgate Sunday before the Saints game. We will have free Papa John's Pizza on The Observer's front lawn (600 South Tryon Street) as well as trivia contests with prizes and, at 11 a.m., a Q and A with all of us as we get ready for the big Panthers-Saints game.

-- Speaking of events at The Observer, we have another one this THURSDAY from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in our lobby at 600 South Tryon Street called "Holiday Store." There is limited free parking under the building for this one. Several current and former Observer-ites who have also authored books will be personalizing them with signatures and selling them in The Observer lobby for those two hours if you need last-minute Christmas gifts.

I will have copies of my new Panther book -- "100 Things Panthers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die" -- there for sale (one book for $15; two for $25). This is probably your best chance to get it before Christmas -- a number of stores in the area, as well as, are sold out.

-- Our wonderful food writer Kathleen Purvis will be selling copies of both of her superb books in the Savor the South series, "Pecans" and "Bourbon," for $18 each. Former Observer religion writer Ken Garfield will be signing and selling copies of his excellent book on Billy Graham. And editor Roland Wilkerson will be selling a book version of the popular "I'm So Clever" Observer series of reader home tips for $5.99. Come see us. All sales must be by cash or check at this event.

-- Lastly, my friend Brandon Uttley sent me the picture below of Baller the ball python at Discovery Place, who appears to be reading one of my columns before using it for... well... whatever snakes use their cage liners for. This was taken Saturday, and Baller was apparently interested in reading about the Bobcats.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

5 performances I liked in big Panther win over Jets

The Panthers broke open a close game in the fourth quarter at home Sunday, whipping the New York Jets, 30-20, and raising their record to 10-4. And with New Orleans losing on the road to St. Louis, it couldn't have been a better Sunday for the Panthers. The Panthers can win their last two games (home against New Orleans, on the road vs. Atlanta) and win the NFC South with a 12-4 record. Here's my column about the possibilities Sunday opened up.

And here are 5 performances I really liked Sunday:

1. Brandon LaFell. Not only did LaFell have a big-time 36-yard catch in traffic when he held onto the ball while getting drilled, but he also threw a big-time block on DeAngelo Williams' 72-yard touchdown run with a screen pass (that's DeAngelo above, running down the right sideline as Jets coach Rex Ryan looks on).

2. Captain Munnerlyn. Two sacks, one interception returned for a TD to break Mike Minter's pick-six team record?! Promote this man to general.

3. DeAngelo Williams. That 72-yard scamper showed us the speed that we sometimes forget DeAngelo has, and he also had some key tackle-breaking runs as he rushed for 81 yards on 15 carries.

4. Cam Newton. Threw for 224 yards in the first half alone (and 273 altogether), repeatedly putting the ball on target to tight end Greg Olsen in particular. Seemed to take a hard hit at end of first half and was slow coming out for the second -- he had wound up stubbing his toe, but in a pretty painful way -- but didn't miss a play and didn't have a turnover. In the picture at the bottom of this post, he's celebrating Mike Tolbert's touchdown.

5. Jason Williams. The genial, behind-the-scenes special teamer came up with what may have been the biggest play of the game, blocking a punt with the score 16-13, Carolina, early in the fourth quarter. That set up Mike Tolbert's touchdown and gave Carolina breathing room in what was a close game for a long time. The Panthers are now 6-1 at home and about to face the Saints in a 1 p.m. game Sunday that WON'T be flexed, although I keep getting emails and tweets wondering if it will be.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Picking Panthers to rebound vs Jets and other pregame notes

If the Carolina Panthers beat the New York Jets on Sunday at 4:05 p.m., life returns to normal. The 31-13 loss to the New Orleans Saints fades into the distance. Another Saints game looms, but this time at home. The Panthers would be 10-4 and sitting pretty in the NFC playoff race, dancing much like Steve Smith is in the above picture.

But this is a game the Panthers can't afford to lose. And shouldn't lose. Although the Jets have won some big games this season, the fact remains they are 1-5 on the road and have a rookie quarterback in Geno Smith who is tied for the NFL lead with 20 interceptions. If you can't beat a team like that at home, you probably don't deserve a playoff berth.

-- If you are watching the game on television Sunday, remember that it will be found on CBS (WBTV in Charlotte) and not on the usual Fox outlets. The longtime NFL rule holds that when there is an inter-conference game like this one, the visiting team holds sway in terms of who televises it. CBS does AFC games and Fox does NFC games, so that's why the visiting Jets have placed this game on CBS with Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf as the announcers.

-- Over-under on how many Rex Ryan shots we get during the telecast? I put the number at 25.

-- I have heard from a number of people who have had difficulty finding my new Panther book -- "100 Things Panthers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die" -- because of temporary sellouts., for instance, for much of this week had the book labeled as not being available for "1 to 3 months" due to back-orders.

-- So this should help. First of all, has the book available immediately online. Secondly, I will be signing books at Park Road Books in Charlotte Saturday, Dec.14th, from 2-3 p.m. and also at The Observer building (600 South Tryon Street) during a newspaper event that also will include author signings from Kathleen Purvis and Ken Garfield from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Thursday, Dec.19th. Come on by.

There are now signed copies of the Panther book available at Blis Uptown, a gift shop in Charlotte, in Founders Hall as well as at Barnes and Noble in Birkdale Village. And if you live in the Gastonia area, I will be signing books and speaking on Saturday, Dec.21st, at 2 p.m. at the main Gastonia library (1555 Garrison Blvd).

-- A number of folks have emailed me after my note last week about me wanting to hear from fans who have received a football directly from Cam Newton after a touchdown for a story coming up. However, I would still like to hear from others, too. Email me directly at if you are one of those people or know somebody who is.

-- Prediction stuff: I overestimated the Panthers last week and picked them to upset New Orleans on the road -- an unwise choice. That dropped my seasonal record to 9-4 -- the same as Carolina, although I have not picked the Panthers to win every week. My pick this week: Carolina 23, New York Jets 13.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Panthers will go with all black look on Sunday

The Carolina Panthers will go with their all-black look for only the third time in team history this Sunday afternoon in their home game vs. the New York Jets, according to my sources.

UPDATE: The team has now confirmed the look. The Panthers will wear black jerseys, black pants and blue socks -- the combination that won's "Greatest Uniform in NFL history" contest in a major upset over the summer.

The Panthers have not worn black on black except for the 2012 regular season against Denver -- a game which they lost 36-14 and which Greg Olsen's TD (above) was one of the few good moments -- and a preseason game against Philadelphia this season, which they also lost. So the "back-in-black" look will be looking for its first win.

While jersey colors are decided months in advance -- the home team gets to pick first -- and cannot be changed, pants color is optional and can be changed at the last minute. The Panthers generally wear silver pants with their black jerseys.

No matter whether Panthers win or lose Sunday, they will wear black jerseys and silver pants vs. New Orleans at home Dec.22 (the Saints wore all black while eviscerating the Panthers Sunday night). Panther fans have long clamored to see the all-black look more often, although some of them would rather the team also had a black helmet it could wear with them (the Panthers do not and have no plans to do so).

The bolt of color in the all-black look -- the electric blue socks -- comes courtesy of Steve Smith, who in 2012 got a sneak peek at the black uniforms before they debuted and was allowed to choose the sock color. So blame No.89 if you don't like that part of it.

The Panthers defeated the San Francisco 49ers' current uniform in the finals of the contest, getting about 90 percent of the vote in a contest where fans could vote an unlimited number of times (despite the fact the uniform had only been worn once in team history at that time).

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Updated NFC playoff picture with 3 games to go

Let's take a look at the crowded NFC playoff picture with 3 weeks left in the regular season. If it ended today, this is how it would stand.

Current seeds:

1. Seattle (first-round bye) 11-2

2. New Orleans (first-round bye) 10-3

3. Philadelphia 8-5

4. Detroit 7-6 (wins tiebreaker with Chicago due to series sweep)

5. Carolina 9-4 (higher than 49ers due to head-to-head win)

6. San Francisco 9-4

Outside looking in: Arizona (8-5); Dallas (7-6); Chicago (7-6); Green Bay (6-6-1)

First-round playoff games the weekend of Jan.4-5:

Carolina at Detroit

San Francisco at Philadelphia

Here are the remaining schedules for the 10 NFC teams in playoff contention:

CAROLINA: New York Jets (6-7); New Orleans (10-3); at Atlanta (3-10)

NEW ORLEANS: at St. Louis (5-8); at Carolina (9-4); Tampa Bay (4-9)

SEATTLE: at New York Giants (5-8); Arizona (8-5); St. Louis (5-8)

ARIZONA: at Tennessee (5-8) at Seattle (11-2); San Francisco (9-4)

SAN FRANCISCO: at Tampa Bay (4-9); Atlanta (3-10); at Arizona (8-5)

PHILADELPHIA: at Minnesota (3-9-1); Chicago (7-6); at Dallas (7-6)

DALLAS: Green Bay (6-6-1); at Washington (3-10); Philadelphia (8-5)

DETROIT: Baltimore (7-6); New York Giants (5-8); at Minnesota (3-9-1)

CHICAGO: at Cleveland (4-9); at Philadelphia (8-5); Green Bay (6-6-1)

GREEN BAY: at Dallas (7-6); Pittsburgh (5-8); at Chicago (7-6)

Panther analysis: Winning two out of the final three should virtually assure a Panther wild-card spot, and it really helps that the Panthers beat San Francisco by harassing Colin Kaepernick so well (see above picture).

In case of a three-way tie for the wild card -- with San Francisco, Arizona and Carolina all finishing 11-5 -- the Panthers would win the three-way tiebreaker and get the No.5 seed, San Francisco would be No.6 and Arizona would be out (In that case, 49ers and Arizona would use the two-team tiebreaker, eliminating Cards due to 49ers' better NFC West record, and then Carolina would be seeded higher than 49ers due to head-to-head victory).

Note: Carolina could actually clinch a playoff spot this week, but it would require ALL of these things to happen: Carolina wins, and Arizona, San Francisco and Dallas all lose; OR Carolina wins and Arizona, San Francisco and Philadelphia all lose (in the Eagles' case only, a tie would also work).

Winning the NFC South division for Carolina would require New Orleans to go 1-2 over its final three games and the Panthers to go 3-0 (New Orleans wins the tiebreaker if the teams both finish 12-4). So the Saints need only to win two of three games for a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game. (Or New Orleans could go 0-3 and Carolina 2-1, although the Saints ain't going to be going 0-3).

Most likely, the Panthers will not host a home playoff game now. If they are the No.5 seed, they could host the NFC championship, but only if the No.6 seed also advances to that game.

If Carolina goes 1-2 over its final three games, the Panthers would finish 10-6 and stand a chance at being caught by a variety of teams -- that's when it gets dicey, as I point out in my Tuesday column. A 10-6 Chicago team did not make the playoffs in 2012. And an 0-3 ending would likely doom the Panthers, although I don't see that happening.

General NFC analysis: Arizona has the most difficult schedule remaining of the playoff contenders, and Panther fans should cheer for Cardinals to lose every week. Seattle needs to win two of three to assure homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs by virtue of its win over New Orleans.

Detroit and Chicago are tied atop the NFC North, but Detroit's sweep of the Bears means that the Lions would win the tiebreaker. Philadelphia has a fairly favorable schedule and a strong chance at winning the NFC East, although it will likely come down to the Eagles' season-ender at Dallas. Remember, all four division champions get one home playoff game, regardless of record.

Monday, December 9, 2013

5 things that went wrong in a bad Panther loss to Saints

The Panthers had a downcast locker room after the game for the first time in a couple of months. Offensive tackle Jordan Gross probably provided the best perspective on the loss, saying: "It was just tough. But I feel good that we can learn from this and get a little bit revitalized. You win eight in a row and everything is peaches and cream every Monday... When you lose, you get reminded of all your little faults. It might not be bad for us."

Gross reminded everyone that the Panthers' 9-4 record is "great. We're right in the mix of the playoff picture. The worst thing we could do is hang our heads and mope around and let one loss turn into two.... We might have a better sense of urgency now than had we won. I'd rather get my butt kicked this week than three weeks from now or four weeks from now."

Now, onto the list of the five things that went most wrong (as well as some analysis of the Panthers' playoff chances):

1) The coverage. This was the night that the secondary -- and the linebackers in coverage -- really got exposed. Drew Brees had a classic Drew Brees day -- 30 of 42, 313 yards, four TDs and no interceptions. He was accurate as usual, but often his receivers were open by 3-4 yards. Coach Ron Rivera said afterward that the Panthers weren't physical enough with the Saints' receivers, which linebacker Luke Kuechly agreed with. Kuechly gave up one TD pass to Jimmy Graham where he said "I needed to get my hands on him."

2) The offensive line. Cam Newton had a bad day, but that was partly because he was harried so often. Newton was sacked five times and took big losses on most of them -- a total of 49 yards. He scrambled out of trouble many more times. The offensive line simply looked overmatched against the Saints' pass rush, and DeAngelo Williams never went longer than nine yards on his 13 carries. And, to make matters worse, the oft-injured Jonathan Stewart may have a serious knee injury.

3) Newton himself. He threw 34 passes, and not a single completion went for more than 17 yards. "I was trying to take what the defense gave me," said Newton, who targeted Greg Olsen 12 times. Olsen caught eight of them, but for only 40 yards.

New Orleans coach Sean Payton praised his team for "minimizing the chunk plays," and the Saints certainly did that. It wasn't all Newton's fault. His receivers didn't get enough separation, Rivera said. Brandon LaFell in particular had a bad day, with only two receptions for 22 yards and one drop.

4) The pass rush. Brees was only sacked twice even with all those attempts. Now he gets the ball out really quick, but c'mon. The Panther simply didn't get there enough with their base four-man rush, and Brees picked them apart in the 21-point second quarter that decided the game. The Saints were great in the red zone behind Brees, while Carolina was bad, kicking field goals instead of scoring TDs.

5) Coaching. The players didn't blame the game plan, but it certainly didn't work. The Panthers only netted 111 yards passing. Mike Tolbert disappeared. The Saints found every hole in the Panther defense. The offensive line couldn't hold up. The Panthers tried to start blitzing more after halftime, which disrupted Brees a little, but he looked like a much different quarterback than the one who was so messed up by Seattle on Monday night. They get another chance Dec.22, at home.
"It's a great measuring stick for who we are and where we have to go," a somber Newton said. "The best thing about this tonight is we have opportunity to face this same team in two weeks."

OK, as for the playoffs: Carolina would be the No.5 NFC team, going on the road to play Detroit, if the playoffs began today (here are the NFL standings). The Panthers must be careful, though. They now share the same record as San Francisco -- 9-4 -- but the Panthers hold that tiebreaker. However, if Carolina loses once more -- say, to the Jets at home on Sunday -- then there's a possibility Arizona (8-5) could catch Carolina. And Arizona holds the tiebreaker against Carolina. So the Panthers are no sure thing to make the playoffs as of now -- 11 wins would almost certainly get them there, which would require a 2-1 finish. Anything less than that would be very iffy. So the Panthers can't afford a holiday hangover.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Panthers over New Orleans? I just have a hunch

Do you know how rare this is?

All of it, I mean.

The Panthers on an eight-game regular season winning streak (never has happened). The Panthers getting "flexed" into a Sunday night game out of what used to be a Sunday 1 p.m. game (happened five years ago, against the New York Giants, but that seems like a long time).

New Orleans and Carolina both 9-3, meeting for the first bout in a two-game, 15-day, home-and-home series (never has happened).

Me going to Cafe du Monde to load up on coffee and beignets, getting powdered sugar all over myself and never being able to entirely brush it off just before a game at the Superdome (all right, that has happened a few times).

-- Look, the Panthers are going to give up yardage Sunday night. No way around it. Drew Brees has thrown for 325 or more yards seven times in his New Orleans career against Carolina. Seven times! You know how many times Cam Newton has thrown for 325 yards or more in his entire career against everybody? Three.

-- On the other hand, do you remember that DeAngelo Williams (shown above on his touchdown run against San Francisco) rushed for a franchise-record 210 yards in the season finale at New Orleans a year ago? The Panthers certainly do. I've always thought Williams is one of the Panther players who excels on artificial turf, which accentuates his speed and cutting ability. I'd be surprised if he doesn't get at least 15 carries Sunday.

-- Look, this has nothing to do with the game, but it's a good cause. If you're feeling lucky about the Panthers' chances of making the Super Bowl, you ought to consider entering a raffle for two Super Bowl tickets, plane fare and luxury accommodations for the big game on Feb.2, 2014. The raffle tickets are expensive -- $100 each -- but they benefit a very good cause (Children's Home Society of North Carolina) and only 1,200 will be sold. And the prize is big-time. Click here if interested in learning more.

-- One more thing unrelated to this game: I am thinking about writing a column about some of the kids and families who have gotten a "touchdown football" from Cam Newton at a Panthers game over the past three years. You know what I mean -- one of the balls that Newton physically hands to a kid in the end zone after a Panther score. As you can imagine, however, no one keeps a list of such families. If you are one of these families or know of one I could contact to talk about what the ball means to them and so on, please email me at This is called crowd-sourcing, people -- help me out!

-- OK, onto the prediction.

The Saints should win this game, really. They are undefeated at home in 2013. By my totally unscientific measure, I believe they are 10 points better at home than they are on the road. They are coming off an awful loss to Seattle that was a nationally televised embarrassment, and anxious to make up for it. Brees is ridiculously good.

All week I have planned to pick the Saints. And yet that Monday night game keeps giving me pause. I know it was in Seattle, but it was a blueprint. And the Panthers should have Charles Johnson back. And they have a ton of confidence. And I just have a hunch. Could be a bad one. Could be too many beignets. But I'm picking: Carolina 33, New Orleans 29.

What if Panthers had begun play in 1955? An imagined history of the logo

Matt Stevens is a dreamer, which comes in handy in his work as a graphic designer in Charlotte. So when his friend Ryan Kalil, the Panther Pro Bowl center, asked him recently to imagine what the Panthers' history would look like if the team had been founded a long time ago instead of in 1995, Stevens couldn't stop thinking about it.

As a personal project, with no endorsement from or affiliation with the Panthers, Stevens decided to imagine a logo and brand history for the Panthers if they had been founded in 1955 instead of 1995.

The results are pretty stunning if you're into that kind of stuff. Stevens said he put "about 30 hours" of work into the project, which he then posted on his own blog. I'm reprinting some of his work here, but if you want to know more about how he did all this, I'd recommend checking out this post. The level of detail is amazing, as Stevens not only designed a fake logo, but also a fake game program and fake football cards (Kalil's name is hidden in one of them -- notice the guy on the left is a made-up player named Bryan Lilak (which is "Kalil" backwards.)


Stevens, 42, grew up in Asheville, graduated from UNC Charlotte in 1994 and has lived in Charlotte ever since. After working in small to mid-sized graphic design and branding shops for most of his career, he opened his own company two years ago. His is a small, one-person office in the Cotswold area. He has a wife and three children and did one of the sketches for the program cover while waiting for a pizza at Hungry Howie's on a Friday night to bring home to them.

This sort of "on spec" project thing has worked for him before. He has obsessed with Nike shoes in the 1980s and so he did some creative illustrations about one particular brand of Nikes not long ago. Nike saw them and eventually hired him for a project. He has also done work for Facebook and Pinterest.

"I like to do things I'm passionate about," Stevens said. "And I'm a huge football fan and a huge Panther fan, so this made sense."

Stevens got to know Kalil when he designed a logo for a charitable foundation that Kalil does some work with called "," and the designer began to realize quickly that Kalil was no dumb jock.

"Ryan has all sorts of creative interests," Stevens said. "Movies, comics, design -- he's into lots of stuff."

After Stevens finished the project, he put the work on his website Monday. Kalil gave it an online boost by sending out the link on Twitter, and the link has since been picked up by one of Sports Illustrated's website and several other national sites. Stevens said his personal website usually draws around 500 hits a day, but that increased to about 12,500 per day this week.

Based on feedback Stevens has gotten, the most popular part of his design seems to be the black Panther on top of the silhouette of North and South Carolina. So he's making a modified version of that one into a T-shirt, figuring he will sell at least a few of them at $30 each. It won't outsell the "Ice Up, Son" T-shirts, but I think it's cool, as is the rest of this stuff. Stevens didn't imagine any results for the team in these 40 "lost" seasons -- I guess he's going to leave that to you. (All the pictures reproduced here are used with Stevens' permission).

Monday, December 2, 2013

What New Orleans loss to Seattle means to Panthers

Well, no one expected that.

Seattle absolutely torched New Orleans on Monday night, blasting the Saints 34-7 in Seattle and sending New Orleans skidding into its key game with Carolina Sunday. The Saints and Panthers now have identical 9-3 records entering the Sunday night game at New Orleans. Here are the full NFL standings. New Orleans would still win the division if the playoffs started today because it holds the tiebreaker edge.

How can Carolina get by the Saints and win the NFC South and the automatic home playoff game that goes with the title (as well as a likely first-round bye)? Two ways:

1) Beat the Saints twice. That head-to-head advantage would guarantee the Panthers a home playoff game no matter what the results of the two teams' other games were. With the Saints on a "short" week and somewhat beaten up by the physical Seahawks, this is at least possible, although playing in New Orleans is a rigorous test. Here's my column about the New Orleans "sandwich."

2) Split with the Saints and.... win against Atlanta and the N.Y. Jets, and hope New Orleans loses once more in its other December games at St. Louis (5-7) and home vs. Tampa Bay (3-9). In that case Carolina would finish 12-4 and New Orleans 11-5.

So what happens if both teams finish 12-4 and tied in the NFC South by splitting against each other and each winning their other two games? That is a pretty likely scenario, and in that case New Orleans would be the NFC's No.2 playoff seed (with a first-round playoff bye) and Carolina would be the No.5 seed and have to travel for a first-round playoff game (likely to Dallas, Detroit, Chicago or Philadelphia).

The reason: New Orleans would win the fourth tiebreaker after the first three failed to break the tie. That relevant tiebreaker -- best NFC record -- would go to New Orleans (10-2 vs. 9-3 in this hypothetical) because the Saints' two other losses this season were to AFC teams and Carolina lost to Arizona, an NFC team, along with Buffalo. Both, of course, lost to Seattle. (The head-to-head, division and common opponent records would all be tied in this scenario). So the Panthers' best bet, by far, is a sweep of the Saints.

-- One interesting side note to Monday night's game: it gave me a strong sense of deja vu from the biggest game I ever saw in person in Seattle. That was the Panthers' 34-14 loss to Seattle in the 2005 NFC title game.

Like New Orleans, Carolina seemed totally discombobulated early in that one. Both teams fell behind the Seahawks by scores of 17-0, 27-7 and 34-7. It was really over by halftime in both cases. Ed Hochuli even was the head official in both games, for gosh sakes. In both cases, the Seahawks crowd was a huge factor. The only real difference was that Carolina scored a late meaningless TD to make it sound more respectable, and New Orleans didn't. The Saints, incidentally, gave up more points to Seattle in 13 minutes than Carolina did in 60 in the 2013 season opener.

And the Saints' defense really looked vulnerable to the pass, if Cam Newton can be anywhere near as accurate as Russell Wilson was Monday. The New Orleans offensive line also looked vulnerable as Seattle got more pressure on Drew Brees than I have seen in a long time. It makes Carolina's 12-7 loss to Seattle look a little better, although of course Seattle is a totally different team on the road.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

5 things I liked in big Panther win over Bucs

The Panthers moved to 9-3 Sunday with their eighth straight win, a 27-6 manhandling of Tampa Bay that was close early until the Panthers began to dominate. Here are five of the things I liked the most about the victory, which included Brandon LaFell (above, celebrating) scoring the Panthers' first TD:

1) Riverboat Ron. I thought the key play of the game was when "Riverboat" Ron Rivera went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1 with 30 seconds to go with Carolina holding a 10-6 lead. No doubt Rivera would have kicked the field goal there earlier in his career and gone into halftime up 13-6. Instead, he goes for the jugular, Newton gets over the top a half-yard before fumbling and Carolina had a 17-6 lead and all the momentum.

2) Team defense. Even when the Panthers play badly on defense, they seem to have just enough to make up for it. Case in point: Drayton Florence gets torched for a 60-yard Vincent Jackson pass. But Florence manages a shoestring tackle at the Carolina 4, and from there the Panthers hold for two plays and Mike Glennon has an awful fumble on the third one. No points, and once again -- after yet another second-half shutout -- the Panthers will retain their overall No.1 rank in the NFL in scoring defense. The run defense was particularly effective.

3) Mike Tolbert. What a banger. With DeAngelo Williams out, he took a larger role and took the old Sam Mills motto ("Keep Pounding") to an extreme.

4) Ted Ginn Jr. He's seemingly good for about one big play a game, but what a big play it can be. Ginn's visit to Darrelle Revis's "Island" resulted in Ginn burning Revis for a 36-yard touchdown and putting the game out of reach.

5) A.J. Klein. Several times in this game the rookie linebacker looked so much like Luke Kuechly that it was tough to tell the difference. Some fans had to catch themselves as they started the old cheer of "L-U-U-U-K-E" after Klein's big sack of Mike Glennon.