As anyone who follows the NFL even casually knows, Sunday is not a "gimme" for the Carolina Panthers, even though they are 8-3 and Tampa Bay is 3-8.
This game looked like a six-inch putt a few weeks ago, but it has morphed into a four-footer with a sidehill lie. The Panthers can't lose focus against the Bucs, who have won three in a row and nearly beat Seattle in Seattle, which was their most impressive accomplishment of all. A few game notes:
-- The Panthers are going to have to rattle former N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon to win (the picture above is of Greg Hardy sacking Glennon in the Oct.24 meeting and was taken by The Observer's Jeff Siner). But Glennon is not easily rattled. Glennon has thrown just one interception in the past six games -- the lowest number of interceptions by any NFL quarterback over that time period. Because he has thrown so few interceptions, Glennon's quarterback rating is slightly higher than Cam Newton's (91.6 vs. 88.3).
-- Carolina is tied for third in the NFL with 15 interceptions -- already four more than the Panthers had in all of 2012 -- but were not able to pick off any of Glennon's 51 throws in the teams' first meeting Oct.24th. That's partly because a lot of them were dump-offs, but still.
-- You better believe Newton will know where No.54 is at all times Sunday. That's Lavonte David, the Buccaneers' most dynamic defender and the closest thing Tampa Bay has to Luke Kuechly. Like Kuechly, David is in his second season and very fun to watch.
-- To quantify the "Riverboat Ron" nickname a little, check this out. Since the Week Two loss to Buffalo, when Ron Rivera was burned by not going for the first down on fourth-and-1 in a loss to the Bills, he has gone for it seven times on 4th-and-1.
Carolina has converted six out of seven, including a key one last week when the Panthers were down by 10 points and on their own 41. On the seventh, Brandon LaFell dropped an easy pass against Arizona.
-- Incidentally, I was on a radio show with former Panther general manager Bill Polian earlier this week. Polian said he never would have gone for fourth-and-10 at his own 20 with 2:33 to go and trailing by three points, as Rivera did last week against Miami. He did go, the Panthers made it, and they ended up scoring the winning TD on the drive.
-- I don't foresee an easy game on Sunday, but I do foresee the Panthers' eighth straight win. Like the Panthers, I am 8-3 predicting their outcome this season. My prediction: Carolina 24, Tampa Bay 17.
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Ricky Berens of Charlotte said Thursday he was retiring from swimming -- this time for good.
Berens said in a phone interview Thursday from Austin, Texas, that his swimming career had "run its course." He has accepted a full-time paid position with the University of Texas athletic department, where he is working with the Longhorns' fundraising arm and its lettermen's club.
Berens, 25, graduated from Texas and helped it win a national championship during his time there. He had been working as a volunteer swim coach for the Longhorns for the first part of 2013 while still pursuing his own swim career.
"I've put off the real world long enough," Berens said. "It's time to pursue some other passions."
Berens originally retired following the 2012 Olympics after winning his second gold medal in the 4 x 200-meter freestyle relay. In an interview with The Observer minutes after that gold medal, he said he was retiring immediately.
But after a few weeks, he reconsidered and decided to give swimming one more season. He swam in the 2013 UltraSwim meet in Charlotte as usual. And he participated in the world championships in Barcelona this summer, anchoring the U.S. 4x200 freestyle relay to another gold medal.
"That was very scary," Berens said. "I had never anchored before. I held off one of the Russian swimmers to win it in what will turn out to be my last competition. Not a bad way to go out."
Berens said Thursday he wants to work in collegiate sports administration as a career and that his eventual goal is to be an athletic director at a college. He promised this retirement would stick and that he would not return for another comeback.
"If you had told me 10 years ago I would go to even one Olympics, I would have said you're crazy," Berens said. "I got to participate in two and win three Olympic medals (two gold, one silver). Everybody always wants more, but I have no real desire to swim competitively any longer. It's time to get on with life."
As you prepare for a Thanksgiving feast of football, food and family, here are three Panther numbers I find significant:
8 -- Although it has been widely reported the Panthers have now tied the team's all-time winning streak record with seven consecutive wins, that's only sort of true. In the regular season, yes, that's right -- the 1996 team was once 5-4 and then finished 12-4 with seven straight. But that '96 team then beat Dallas in its first playoff game, so really it won eight straight. To get to eight, the Panthers will need to beat Tampa Bay at home Sunday at 1 p.m., a task that looks a little more daunting now than it did three weeks ago when the Bucs were 0-8.
15 -- That's the total number of Panther interceptions this season, and that's significant. Last year's team only had 11 all year, and no single defensive back had more than two. This year three players (Mike Mitchell, Luke Kuechly, pictured above after one of his picks, and Robert Lester) already have three. The fact that the Panthers are catching most of the balls they have a chance to catch this season -- not all of them, though, and I'm talking to you, Captain Munnerlyn -- has played a big part in the defensive success.
27 -- The Panthers are now No.1 in scoring defense by a wide margin, allowing 13.7 points per game. How wide is that margin? Kansas City and Seattle are tied for No.2 in the NFL in scoring D. But if KC and Seattle shut out their opponents this weekend and Carolina gave up 27 points to Tampa Bay, the Panthers would still be No.1.
You may not want to hear this if you are superstitious, but:
The Carolina Panthers, have dramatically lowered their odds of winning the Super Bowl in February 2014. The Panthers, authors of a seven-game winning streak that is the longest current streak in the NFL and employers of popular linebacker Luke Kuechly and the NFL's No.1-ranked scoring defense, are now 10-1 to win the Super Bowl. Just before the regular season began, they were 66-1.
So if you put $100 in Las Vegas down on the Panthers right now to win the upcoming Super Bowl and they did, you would get back $1,000. If you had made that same bet in early September and it paid off, you would receive $6,600.
Here are the current odds to win the 43rd Super Bowl, to be played Feb.2nd in (and why is this again?) in New York/New Jersey. The odds are courtesy of Bovada.lv. I have listed the current odds first -- the worst teams aren't even on this list because they won't be making the playoffs. Below that, just for fun, are the odds as they were Sept.3, 2013:
The Panthers finally broke one of the most curious streaks in their history Sunday. The only NFL team they had never beaten until Sunday was Miami, and it took all they had to grab a come-from-behind, 20-16 victory on the road.
In what was an often flat performance, the Panthers (8-3) did just enough to win their seventh straight game by going 80 yards on their last drive of the game when they absolutely had to have it. Here were 7 of the most notable reasons why they won:
1. 4th-and-10. On the Panthers' final drive, the most important play was a fourth-and-10 the team converted when Cam Newton hit Steve Smith in tight coverage. Smith bounced off two guys and gained 19.
2. The rest of that drive. Mike Tolbert, Newton, Greg Olsen (who had the one-yard touchdown catch pictured above), the offensive line -- it all came together at the end, and Miami's 15-yard late hit penalty on a Newton run didn't hurt. "One good drive can fix a lot of problems," Olsen said afterward.
3. End of first half. Although it will be overshadowed by that final drive, this was huge. Miami had the ball first-and-10 from the Carolina 11, already ahead 13-3. The Dolphins had to take a field goal -- Luke Kuechly had another controversial flag pickup in the end zone after jarring the ball loose -- and then Carolina drove down for its own field goal with Brandon LaFell's smart, get-out-of-bounds-at-just-the-right-time 29-yard grab to keep the halftime deficit at 16-6, far more manageable than 20-3 would have been.
4. Riverboat Ron. With Carolina facing a fourth-and-1 on its own 41 in the third quarter and down 16-6, Ron Rivera gambled big-time. The Panthers converted on a Newton run and eventually got a TD on an 83-yard drive (afterward, Newton purposely mimicked LeBron James' knee-lifting dance in tribute to LeBron, whom he counts as a friend). Newton also posed with Mike Shula and father Don -- the legendary former Dolphins coach, now 83 -- following the game (see the picture at end of this blog post).
5. Brad Nortman. The punter had a tremendous day, booming one big one after another in a game where field position really mattered.
6. Defensive stinginess. After allowing Miami such a big first half, the Panthers shut down Mike Wallace and company in the second half, doing just enough for Carolina to pull it off. Wallace nearly caught a Hail Mary that would have been a game-winner after safety Mike Mitchell for some reason allowed Wallace to get behind him on a play you simply can't let that happen, but Wallace dropped it. That's the way it is going for the Panthers this year -- part karma, part confidence, as I write in this column.
7. Close-call confidence. I don't think the Panthers would have won this one except for the fact they won in very similar circumstances against San Francisco and New England over the past two weeks. Close wins are contagious, just like close losses are.
If you are going the nostalgia route, you need to go as far down the path as you can.
So the Charlotte Bobcats -- soon to be the Charlotte Hornets -- are absolutely correct to change their primary colors to purple and teal starting with the 2014-15 season, to coincide with their nickname change. Team officials talked in depth about the decision in this exclusive interview with The Observer's Rick Bonnell.
I don't mind the old Hornet uniforms getting a slight tweak. That makes sense. But the primary colors had to stay the same. Purple and teal -- particularly teal -- were a huge part of the Bobcats' original appeal.
In their 14 years in the NBA before George Shinn moved the franchise to New Orleans, the Charlotte Hornets led the league in attendance eight times. That color scheme – designed by Alexander Julian – was incredibly popular. It regularly outsold the merchandise of every NBA team except Jordan’s Bulls.
Of course, it all went bad for the Hornets. They moved away in 2002. The Bobcats came in for the 2004-05 season, and since then have mostly struggled to make a wide swath of the Charlotte area care deeply about the NBA again.
A color and uniform change won't do that alone, of course. The Bobcats will need to win, too -- although they are a respectable 7-7 now in their final season as Bobcats. But evoking nostalgia makes a lot of sense for the soon-to-be Hornets, or else why would you go back to the original nickname in the first place?
If you were a Carolina Panther defensive lineman and you absolutely did not want to miss a certain game, that game would be Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.
The Dolphins have allowed more sacks this season than any other NFL team. Ryan Tannehill has gone down 41 times, which is literally a staggering number for a quarterback. It is no coincidence that the Dolphins' bullying scandal took out two of the team's offensive line starters.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, their defensive line will not be at full strength, either, for Sunday's 1 p.m. game at Miami. I would not be surprised if defensive end Charles Johnson (above, being carted off Monday night) misses 2-3 games with that sprained ligament in his knee, perhaps not returning until the key showdown at New Orleans Dec.8th. He's definitely out for this one. (And speaking of New Orleans, the Saints won again Thursday night, edging Atlanta 17-13 with the help of a terrible decision by Falcons coach Mike Smith at the end. Smith incomprehensibly tried a 52-yard field goal down four points with less than three minutes remaining. In that situation, even though it's fourth-and-15, you've got to go for it, because otherwise you will never see the ball again with Drew Brees needing just a first down or two to seal it. The Saints (9-2) now lead the NFC South by 1.5 games over Carolina (7-3). But I digress....
-- The news could have been worse after Johnson was viciously leg-whipped by New England's Marcus Cannon Monday night -- Cannon was fined nearly $16K for the play -- but it still doesn't help Carolina this week. There will be a big opportunity for some of the Panthers' young ends in this game, as Greg Hardy will now attract the double-team on most plays -- assuming Hardy is OK to play, which he should be.
-- To me, the steady progression of Cam Newton as a quarterback can best be defined statistically by how good he has been on third down this season. That's when Newton does his best scrambling work, and he also has been very good throwing the ball under pressure this year.
He's always been above average on third down, which is the down that makes or breaks quarterbacks. The Panthers were No.10 in third-down conversion percentage in Newton's rookie year (2011). They rose to No.6 in 2012. But now Carolina ranks No.1 in the NFL third-down conversions, a shade above Denver, which is the gold standard of NFL offenses this year. The Panthers have converted almost half of their third downs -- 62 of 128 for 48.4 percent.
Like the Panthers, I am 7-3 this season -- in my case, that's my record picking the team's outcome each week. (As you may recall, before the season I picked the Panthers to go 10-6 and make the playoffs; that one I did not feel too good about after the 1-3 start). I have managed to get seven of the past eight weeks right, getting back on track last week by choosing Carolina to beat New England by three (the Panthers won by four). This one I don't believe will be that close. My prediction: Carolina 27, Miami 13.
This is a little weird. The only NFL team the Panthers have never beaten in the regular season is their next opponent -- Miami.
The Dolphins and Panthers have only played each other four times, and in each case the Panthers have managed to mess it up. They've lost to Miami when Carolina was good (the 2005 playoff season) and when Carolina was bad (the 1-15 2001 season). They've lost to Miami when Dan Marino was the quarterback and Jay Fiedler was the quarterback (and he threw for more yards than Marino).
They lost a game once when Steve Smith had one of the best games of his career -- three touchdowns and 170 receving yards. They allowed the forgettable Oronde Gadsden to burn them for 102 receiving yards.
In other words, history says not to take these Dolphins (5-5) lightly. The Panthers (7-3) just got the two biggest victories of Ron Rivera's tenure in an eight-day span -- the winning touchdown was scored by former Dolphin Ted Ginn Jr. (above) against New England. But Carolina would give back some of that hard-earned ground if they lost.
I asked the Twitterverse on Tuesday to come up with a nickname for the last play of the Panthers-Patriots game Monday night, when Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly was first flagged for pass interference against New England tight end Rob Gronkowski in the Panther end zone with 0:00 on the clock. Then the call was reversed after the officials determined Gronkowski couldn't have caught the ball anyway, and the Panthers won, 24-20. Had the original call stood, the Patriots would have gotten one play from the 1 to try and score a game-winning touchdown.
Here were some of the best entries, all submitted via Twitter to @Scott_Fowler. A three-person panel judged "Immaculate Perception," written by David Wood, as the winner of the modest prize -- a copy of my new book chronicling the Panthers. Thanks to all who entered.
They seem to be getting the old band back together again -- does it not seem to you like the Cardiac Cats are back? Carolina edged New England, 24-20, Monday night on a game not decided until the final play. The 5 things I liked the most (as well as a couple I didn't):
1. The dramatics. Hey, if you're a little tired on Tuesday, suck it up. Was that game not worth it? It wasn't decided until the last play, when Tom Brady threw an interception in the end zone and a pass-interference flag on Luke Kuechly was controversially waved off (due to the ball being deemed uncatchable by Rob Gronkowski, who Kuechly was bear-hugging. This was one of the most electrifying wins in Panther franchise history. (Also, I am holding a quick contest on Twitter only -- best nickname of that final play wins a copy of my new Panther book. Enter by going to Twitter and putting your nickname and @Scott_Fowler in your tweet to make sure I see it). Deadline is 3 p.m. Monday.
2. Cam Newton. Simply put, one of his best games ever. Three TD passes. Zero turnovers. A 14-yard scramble you had to see to believe. And the signature fourth-quarter TD drive his career needed. Here's my column on Cam's performance, which netted him a 125.4 quarterback rating and, far more importantly, a win. He thought he could fly (see picture at very bottom of this blog) and it turned out that he could.
3. The crowd. "It was phenomenal," coach Ron Rivera said. "This city wants it, and we're going to give it to them." Rarely has it been louder at B of A.
4. Thomas Davis and Kuechly. Unofficially, Davis had a remarkable 17 tackles and Kuechly had 12 (as well as that bear hug of "Gronk" on that last play that was not called).
5. Robert Lester. On the final play, the rookie undrafted safety was in the right position and intercepted Brady. After watching the Georgia-Auburn game Saturday, you know that it's not a sure thing to make that interception right at that time.
There were a number of problems this game showcased for the Panthers, too. Brady shredded Carolina for 296 yards and the Patriots ran for another 107. Charles Johnson got leg-whipped by the Patriots' Marcus Cannon (it should have been a penalty) and his injury status is unclear, although I was amazed to see him back in the game late. Cornerback Melvin White looked overmatched many times and was obviously targeted by the Patriots. The Panthers couldn't run the ball at all, as the offensive line had all sorts of trouble run-blocking and the running backs did little.
But, hey, they won another close game over another extremely good team. It was a huge win on a number of levels, and it pushed the Panthers to another in what recently has been a series of mountaintops. Here's how Greg Olsen felt about it in a postgame hug with Rivera (and no wonder Olsen is so sure-handed; he has three hands). And then look at this Newton "flying" picture (all of the pictures in my blog are from our excellent Observer photographers - Jeff Siner and David Foster were shooting Monday night's game and did a great slideshow you can find elsewhere at charobs.com).
4 notes before the Monday night game, in which the Panthers will wear black jerseys and silver pants and want their fans to dress in black for a "blackout" night:
-- I wrote this weekend about Jon Gruden being very bullish on the Panthers -- he believes they will win "10 or 11" games, reach the playoffs and have a shot at the Super Bowl. Another high-profile coach with a Super Bowl title in his pocket added his name to the "Panther respect" list on "Sunday Night Football." At halftime of the Kansas City-Denver game, former Indianapolis and Tampa Bay head coach Tony Dungy added his voice to the chorus, saying he thought the Panthers were the best team in the NFC right now, saying "Defense. Defense. Watch." The other members of that studio team -- Hines Ward and Rodney Harrison -- picked Seattle as the NFC's best and disagreed with Dungy. But Dungy's endorsement carries way more clout than that of those two former players.
-- One thing I didn't have room for in the story about Gruden: he said he thought both offensive coordinator Mike Shula and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott would get head coaching interviews after the season.
-- The Panthers got no help in the NFC South division race on Sunday. They could have benefited from a San Francisco win over New Orleans, but instead the 49ers mismanaged a late two-minute drill and lost to the Saints, 23-20. So no matter what happens in the New England game, the Panthers are going to be trailing New Orleans (8-2) for awhile (the Saints do still have to play Seattle, as well as the Panthers twice). If Carolina (6-3) loses to the Patriots Monday night, they still will be tied in the wild-card race and would win the tiebreaker right now on the basis of a better record in the NFC. Also, if you care about statistics, they could become the No.1 scoring defense in the league Monday night following the conclusion of Week 11 if they can hold New England to 22 points or fewer, since Kansas City had such a hard time with Denver in its 27-17 loss to the Broncos.
-- Here's my story on Mike Tolbert (above). The blocky running back leads the Panthers in both touchdowns and nicknames, and I love his unofficial philosophy on having fun while playing football. "You stress up, you mess up," he said. As well as a lot of other things -- the story also includes a list of seven of his nicknames. Check it out.
You could argue that Mike McCormack -- who died at age 83 on Friday in California -- had the most successful front-office tenure in Carolina Panther history, even though it was brief.
Panther owner Jerry Richardson hired McCormack (whose statue outside Bank of America Stadium is pictured above) as a consultant in 1989, and his main job was to help Richardson and his partners win an NFL franchise for Charlotte.
“Just his presence gave our ownership instant credibility,” Richardson said once.
Every one of my dealings in those early years with McCormack was fun. He was consistent and classy, a guy who had done everything in the NFL but never tried to lord that over you.
McCormack was a genuinely kind person -- Sam Mills once called McCormack the "ultimate gentleman," and coming from Mills that's quite a compliment. By the time Richardson hired him, McCormack had been in the NFL for nearly 40 years. He was a Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive tackle, earning that honor after paving holes for Jim Brown in Cleveland and blocking for quarterback Otto Graham. His old coach, Paul Brown, once said he was “the finest offensive lineman I ever coached.”
McCormack then turned to coaching. He was the head coach of three different NFL teams in his career – for the Philadelphia Eagles, Baltimore Colts and Seattle Seahawks. He also served as the Seahawks’ president.
The Panthers were awarded an NFL franchise on Oct.26, 1993. McCormack was the team’s first general manager, but later was elevated to become its first president when he and Richardson hired Bill Polian as the GM.
Then McCormack stayed on through the heady first two years of the Panthers – the better-than-expected 7-9 season of 1995 and the NFC championship game appearance in 1996. Right after that, McCormack retired, so he got to skip the next six years of playoff misses.
My longtime colleague Charles Chandler just reminded me of a story that shows how much even reporters who covered the team were affected by McCormack. In 1996, when Charles was the head beat writer covering the Panthers and I was his backup for The Observer, we got a landline at the stadium. We needed to establish a voicemail so we could check it every day. We picked the password "1951," which was in honor of McCormack's rookie year in the NFL.
Richardson thought so much of McCormack that he made McCormack the first inductee into the Panthers’ Hall of Honor. A statue of McCormack was unveiled outside the stadium in 1997.
McCormack would wonder later if he had retired too soon from Carolina. He had a year left on his contract, and his moderating influence was obviously missed in the front office. But he was 65 by the time the Panthers began play in 1995. He thought he was leaving the team in the hands of a strong front-office man in Polian – his handpicked successor – but Polian left for the Indianapolis Colts only a year later.
“When I left, I felt it was in good hands and everything would be fine,” he said once in an interview with The Observer. Instead, the team slowly unraveled, although McCormack also hastened to say that he might not have been able to stop the decline, either.
But McCormack, who moved back to the West Coast after his retirement, remained a fan of the team and was cheered by its three playoff appearances in the 2000s. He is still one of the men remembered most fondly from the Panthers’ early days.
As Richardson said when announcing McCormack would be the first man in the Panthers’ Hall of Honor: "Mike is a person who typifies everything the Panthers stand for. We think he's the best benchmark for all of us in the organization. There is no more appropriate person than Mike to start our Hall of Honor. It sets a high standard for all who follow.”
I would like to suggest something to those Panther fans who come to Monday night's game against New England. Walk by McCormack's statue outside the North Gate and pay your respects. Thank a kind thought or say a prayer for him. He was a great man who lived a long and fulfilling life. May he rest in peace.
It has been eight years since New England visited Charlotte, and that is an eternity in the NFL. The Panthers and the Patriots have not played very often, but when they have it's been memorable. They have only played five times in games that counted, but four of those have a spot in Panther history. In order of importance, they were:
1) The Super Bowl. Following the 2003 season, the Patriots bested Carolina in the most important game the two teams have ever played. Jake Delhomme (shown above, running out onto the field with his teammates before that Super Bowl) threw for 211 yards -- in the fourth quarter! He led three touchdown drives in the Panthers' final three possessions and Carolina still lost, 32-29, because Tom Brady was even better.
2) The Seifert Bowl. In George Seifert's final game as the Panthers' head coach, more than 50,000 empty seats mocked the team as New England decimated the Panthers, 38-6 in the last game of the 2001 season.
3) The Redemption Bowl. Two years after the Super Bowl, the Panthers upset New England, 27-17, in Week 2 of the 2005 regular season in Charlotte. It was the first indication that Carolina was ready to go to the playoffs (the team would finish 11-5).
4) The Kasay Bowl. Carolina's first-ever road win came in 1995, when John Kasay won the game in overtime, 20-17.
-- The Panthers are wearing black jerseys Monday night and want fans coming to the game to wear black as well for a "blackout" effect.
-- This is scary good -- since the 2010 season, the Patriots are 24-1 in the second half of the regular season (Games 9-16 each year). Yes, that's correct: 8-0 twice, 7-1 once and 1-0 so far this season.
-- Tom Brady is 13-4 on "Monday Night Football," which means he's played more than one regular season's worth of games on Monday night. Suffice it to say the moment is not going to be too big for him.
-- This is weird: Carolina and New England are two of the three NFL teams NOT named for either a specific city or a specific state. The third? Tampa Bay.
-- I missed my Panthers' pick last week, breaking a string of six straight hits. This time I think the Panthers will prevail, paced once again by a defense that will rise to this momentous occasion. Prediction: Carolina 21, New England 18.
Riverboat Ron Rivera now has his own unofficial poster.
Jim Kennedy, a 27-year-old freelance graphic designer in Raleigh who is a Panther fan, designed the above image with Adobe Photoshop. He put it a few places online Tuesday night and it took off, enough so that Rivera's college-aged daughter Courtney was among the many who retweeted it on Twitter.
A few of Rivera's braver players have started calling the coach "Riverboat Ron" to his face -- offensive tackle Jordan Gross likes to do it because he says it almost makes Rivera "blush." Quarterback Cam Newton says he doesn't do it, however, joking that if he did so he might get a memo from general manager Dave Gettleman.
Rivera, who became gambling on fourth down more often after the Panthers started 0-2 this season, has had fun with the nickname. He joked in his Monday press conference that the only thing he tells offensive coordinator Mike Shula on the headphones during games is "This is Riverboat Ron, let's go for it."
The Panthers, winners of five straight, are 5-for-7 on fourth downs this season.
Kennedy, a 2008 N.C. State graduate, said he was inspired to design the image after watching Carolina's 10-9 win over San Francisco Sunday.
"I was excited after the big win," Kennedy said. "I just had that image in my mind, and I wanted to create it and share it with folks. But I sure didn't expect all this. The interest in it has really exploded."
A few stats and notes as everyone starts getting ready for Monday Night Football and a visit by the New England Patriots (7-2), who play Carolina (6-3) in Bank of America Stadium Monday at 8:40 p.m.
1.Something's gotta give: Points scored by Patriots in last game: 55. Points allowed by Panthers in last five games combined: 57. (Above that's Charles Johnson and Mike Mitchell, two of the primary reasons why, sacking Colin Kaepernick Sunday).
2. The Panthers plan to wear black jerseys and silver pants on MNF and not the popular "black-on-black" combo, which in an online vote won (somewhat dubiously, but still) the title of best uniform in NFL history this past offseason. There's a small chance that the pants color could change to black between now and Monday. The jersey color, by rule, cannot.
3. The Patriots often show up at key times in Panther history. There was George Seifert's last game in 2001 before 50,000 empty seats, which was a 38-6 New England win. There was the 2003 Super Bowl, won in a cliffhanger by New England, 32-29. And there's now.
4. Neither the Panthers nor New England has a receiver in the top 40 in the NFL in reception yardage. However, New England has five receivers with 280 or more receiving yards and Carolina has four.
5. If the game comes down to a field goal, expect it to be made. Both Carolina's Graham Gano and New England's Stephen Gostkowski have only missed a single kick all season. Combining extra points and field goals, Gano is 38-for-39. Gostkowski is 46-for-47.
Carolina's 10-9 road win over San Francisco was huge on a lot of levels, as it moved the Panthers to 6-3 and very much in the playoff race with their fifth straight victory. (If the playoffs started today, the Panthers would be the No.5 seed and play at Dallas in the first round). Here were seven of the most significant things the Panthers did to win it:
1) A close win -- finally. The Panthers were going to have to show they could win a close game at some point to really differentiate themselves from previous teams, and they finally did it. In a nailbiter not decided until the final 30 seconds, coach Ron Rivera improved to 3-14 in games decided by seven points or fewer.
2) The defense. Has it ever been better? Has Colin Kaepernick (91 yards passing, 1 INT) ever looked that bad? The Panthers had him under pressure the entire afternoon, and defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson were seriously disruptive. Carolina held the 49ers to three field goals, and two of those came after turnovers that were no fault of the D. And the second half was a scoreless masterpiece pitched by the Panthers with Drayton Florence's interception the exclamation point. San Francisco had 45 total yards in the second half. And get this: six different defensive players shared Carolina's six sacks. Now that's a great team defensive effort.
3) Mike Tolbert. As I tweeted after Tolbert ran over San Francisco safety Eric Reid and knocked him from the game: "Mike Tolbert vs. brick wall. Who you got?" The best response came from someone wondering if there would be a second brick wall behind the first, just in case. Tolbert showed class coming over to check on Reid after trucking him. His most significant play of the game, however, was an enormous fumble recovery after Jonathan Stewart's fumble on Carolina's very shaky last drive (which also included a fumbled snap).
4) Graham Gano. I know he missed his first field goal of the year earlier. But he more than made up for it with a 53-yarder, on the road, to give Carolina the only points of the second half in a game where any points were gold coins.
5) Cam Newton/Steve Smith connection. Both had their issues. Cam looked nervous early, throwing everything high and completing only one of his first seven passes for five yards. His lone interception was an awful throw. Smith made a terrible drop on a third-and-12. But several times later in the game they connected for big first downs, and it was No.1 to No.89 on the pass that set up Gano's field goal. Smith led the Panthers with six catches for 63 yards.
6) DeAngelo Williams. He scored the game's only touchdown on a vintage DeAngelo cutback run (that's the above picture), bouncing off one tackler for a 27-yard TD. A quiet game otherwise, but that TD made the difference and was also the only play that went over 20 yards from the line of scrimmage for either team in this old-school defensive struggle.
7) Ted Ginn Jr. With a couple of key catches plus one big punt return to help set up that final field goal (he had three punt returns for 65 yards altogether), Ginn got a little revenge against his former team. In fact, this was a game about redemption in several ways -- Florence's interception made up for his earlier turnover when he let a partially blocked 49er punt brush his leg and Gano, of course, missed the 48-yarder before nailing the one from 53. My streak of picking six consecutive Panther outcomes ended -- I had picked the 49ers to win, 17-13 -- and far more significantly, the Panthers had won a game that will now give them and especially that defense some very deserved attention.
Now comes New England Monday night -- the Patriots are 7-2 and will come in off a bye (as the 49ers did). Have you noticed how often the Patriots come up at key moments in Panther history? They were the final nail in George Seifert's coffin, whipping Carolina 38-6 in front of 50,000 empty seats in Charlotte to end the Panthers' 1-15 season of 2001. They edged the Panthers 32-29 in the 2003 Super Bowl. And now this. In the meantime, here's a picture of Hardy sacking Kaepernick taken by our own Jeff Siner, as the above picture was as well.
It has been a long time since a Panther contest has had a national "big-game" feel, but it's about to happen twice in an eight-day span.
As I've said before, the Panther need to at least split these two upcoming games -- at San Francisco Sunday at 4:05 p.m. and then at home vs. New England and Tom Brady on "Monday Night Football" on Nov.18th. Going into the final six games of the season at 6-4 makes the 10-6 record likely needed to ensure a playoff berth much more likely.
-- Of the two opponents, I think the 49ers are slightly better. Carolina will really have its hands full with the NFL's No.1 rushing offense, paced by running back Frank Gore. The 49ers' defense is also incredibly stout, which is a big reason why San Francisco has won its past five games by 24, 31, 12, 14 and 32 points.
-- Of course, the Panthers are on their own four-game winning streak, and they have won those games by huge margins as well. Quarterback Cam Newton (above) will try to fly into San Francisco and grab what would be a signature victory for the third-year quarterback. Both of these teams have scored at least 30 points in at least their last four games, but I don't see either one doing that Sunday. The defenses are just too good. I think the first one to get to 17 will win.
-- Unusual stat: The Panthers lead the all-time series against San Francisco, 10-7, and most surprisingly they are 5-3 on the road at Candlestick. The most memorable of those games was the first one, when the expansion Panthers upset the 49ers, 13-7, in November 1995.
-- Candlestick is closing after this season, and what a history that vintage stadium has had. It has hosted the Beatles and a papal mass as well as all those years of Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jerry Rice and their five Super Bowl wins.
-- San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh never threw an official pass for the Panthers, but he did briefly play for Carolina in the 1-15 season of 2001 -- his 15th and final season in the NFL, backing up Chris Weinke. He told me this once when I asked him about that time in his life: “I didn't get in any games that year. I signed late, and they had eight games to go. I loved it – loved the coaches that were there and the organization. I especially loved throwing to Steve Smith. We were both on the scout team at that time. It didn't take me long to realize that he was really good. I just kept throwing the ball to him and we were making plays and having fun.”
Smith was a rookie that year and was only used as a kick returner -- that's how long ago it was.
-- I've hit on my Panthers' pick six weeks in a row, and thank you for noticing enough that I've had some folks lobby me to choose the Panthers this week to spring the upset in San Francisco. Sorry, guys, I just can't quite pull the trigger on that one. My prediction: San Francisco 17, Carolina 13.
A thoughtful reader named Rod Petticrew of Charlotte asked me a question this morning: When was the last time the Panthers and Bobcats had a winning record at the same time?
They both do right now, you know. After the Bobcats edged Toronto Wednesday night at home, led once again by Kemba Walker (above) and Gerald Henderson, they are 3-2 heading into Friday's home game with the New York Knicks. The Panthers are 5-3 and on a four-game winning streak, thanks in part to Cam Newton's improvement.
Good question, Rod. It turns out it was six years ago, almost to the day. A quick check of both teams' media guides reveals that on Nov.3, 2007, the Bobcats were 1-0 and the Panthers were 4-3. The Panthers lost the next day, going to 4-4 on their way to a losing season, and it has never happened since.
It also happened for two days starting on Nov.5, 2005. The Bobcats beat Boston to go to 2-1 on the season. The Panthers were in the midst of one of their playoff seasons -- 5-2 at that time and 11-5 at the end of the regular season. (Originally, I thought this was the only time it had happened, but alert reader Jonathon Wylie of Charlotte spotted the "one day in 2007" overlap.)
Alas, the above .500 party didn't last long. The Bobcats lost to Utah on Nov.7, 2005. That dropped them to 2-2, and they never climbed above .500 the rest of the year.
So exactly three days of the two biggest pro teams in Charlotte at over .500 -- in nearly 10 seasons! Until now.
The Bobcats had that one fine playoff year in 2009-2010, but the Panthers were never over .500 that season. The Panthers, in fact, haven't been over .500 in the regular season since December 2008 until now, so that cuts out a whole swatch of possibilities. And we all know the Bobcats have only had one winning record in their history, so they've usually been underwater, too.
As Petticrew wrote: "I would personally appreciate if you could try to drop a reminder to the Charlotte sports public that we may be watching something special in development with both the Panthers and Bobcats. When perennial losers take their first steps into winning, it's often overlooked."
Consider it done, Rod. Enjoy this while it lasts, Charlotte. The Bobcats and Panthers are in very rare territory right now. I think this deserves a Steve Smith TD dance (see below).
Going to extremes at the midpoint of the NFL season with the 5-3 Panthers:
Best call by unsung coach: On fourth-and-1 from the 14 Sunday, the Panthers ran a beautiful play-action pass and Cam Newton threw to a wide-open Greg Olsen for a TD (the end of the play is pictured above). Little-known fact -- that call was actually made by tight ends coach Pete Hoener, according to offensive coordinator Mike Shula.
Biggest surprise (defense): Safety Mike Mitchell has tied for the team lead with three interceptions and has added an element of physicality.
Biggest surprise (offense): Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. has two touchdowns of 40-plus yards and has also made several tough catches in traffic, which is supposed to be his weakness. Both Ginn and Mitchell were key offseason pickups by new general manager Dave Gettleman -- and came cheaply.
Worst turnover: DeAngelo Williams' fumble inside the 10 against Seattle cost the Panthers a chance to beat one of the NFL's premier teams. Williams has rebounded nicely, though, and is on pace for a 1,000-yard season.
Best bounce: How did Brandon LaFell ever recover that fumble Sunday? No way that ball bounces to him in 2011 or 2012.
Best trend: "Riverboat" Ron Rivera changed his stripes after the 0-2 start and now seems to go for at least one fourth-and-1 on every game. The Panthers are 5-for-7 on fourth downs this season, and the confidence instilled by Rivera's gambling has permeated the franchise. Even when they inevitably don't make one, this is a positive sign of Rivera's growth as a coach.
Worst loss: Buffalo, 24-23 in Week 2. The Bills (3-6) just aren't very good, and to allow them to go 80 yards with no timeouts and a rookie quarterback was really bad even for a banged-up Panther defense. Plus, Rivera could have put the game away by simply going for a fourth-and-1 before any of that happened.
First-half MVP (offense): Quarterback Cam Newton, who is playing the best he ever has and has the stats to back it up. Newton's leadership skills have also taken a leap -- he is no longer the occasionally pouty player he was in his first two seasons.
First-half MVP (defense): Linebacker Luke Kuechly doesn't have as many tackles this season as teams try to account for him more, but he already has three interceptions and shows an uncanny knack for the ball.
First-half MVP (special teams): Graham Gano. You can't do any better than 36-for-36 on kicks -- Gano has made all 24 of his extra points and all 12 of his field goals (including four from 50-plus). And 81.4 percent of his kickoffs have gone for touchbacks. (Gano is shown below, getting congratulated by Rivera).
Best stat Part 1: Nothing matters more than points in the NFL, and the Panthers are No.2 in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing only 13.2 per game. Only 9-0 Kansas City has done better, although the offenses the Panthers are about to play are very high-powered.
Best stat Part 2: The Panthers' defense has allowed three points in the first quarter -- total! -- over the first eight games. The offense gave up a safety, but overall the Panthers have outscored teams 38-5 in the first quarter and 58-28 in the second. That's why it seems like they are almost always playing from ahead.
Best way to get to 10-6: My preseason prediction for the Panthers (10-6) is still possible, although it will be difficult. To get to 10 -- which I think will put the Panthers in the playoffs -- the simplest way would be to go 5-3 in the second half like this:
1) Beat Atlanta and Tampa Bay one more time each.
2) Split with New Orleans.
3) Go 2-2 in these four difficult games: at San Francisco, New England, New York Jets and at Miami.
One note on comments for those who have forgotten or never heard my policy on them: I moderate all comments. You don't have to agree with me, but I don't ever post those that include profanity, as a number of young people also read this blog. Also, even if your comment is clean and well-reasoned, I may not get to posting it right away if I'm working on something else and not online at the time. Thanks, as always, for reading.... Scott
Five things I liked about Carolina's 34-10 win over Atlanta, which improved the Panthers to 5-3 at the season's midpoint:
1. The defense. Because it's so good, the Panthers can win even when the offense is sometimes struggling. The D allowed only 10 points and scored seven on its own on Drayton Florence's 38-yard interception return that cinched it. Luke Kuechly's early INT also set up the Panthers' first TD.
2. It wasn't just No.1. Cam Newton was extraordinary for the first three games of this four-game winning streak, but he fell to earth Sunday. Newton had two interceptions -- the first ones he had thrown since Oct.6th -- and overthrew a number of other passes, especially when targeting Steve Smith. But Newton was good enough -- one TD throw and another TD run -- and the Panthers showed they are a good enough team to win without him at his absolute best. Also, a shout-out to offensive coordinator Mike Shula for a heckuva call on fourth-and-1 from the Falcon 14, when he called a play-action pass for a TD to a wide-open Greg Olsen (shown above, celebrating with Newton).
3. Brandon LaFell. LaFell made several big catches in traffic, holding on when he got drilled. But his best play was almost his worst. He had a 30-yard catch-and-run to convert a key third down with Carolina clinging to a 17-10 lead. But then he lost a fumble. And then the ball got knocked right back to him -- while he was on the ground! -- and he recovered at the Atlanta 8. It was a huge play -- and very lucky -- as Newton scored one play later.
4. Graham Gano. Ridiculously good all year, Gano hit from 55 yards this time on his most significant kick to stretch a 14-10 lead to 17-10. He also made four extra points, which means he is now 36-for-36 on the year on kicks (24 XP, 12 FG).
5. Panther fans. It was loud at Bank of America Stadium, and for once the people trying to buy tickets outside outnumbered the ones trying to sell them. A month-long winning streak will do that for you.
There is sometimes a big difference in sports in the games you should win and the games you actually win.
The Panthers hope that difference doesn't bite them Sunday against Atlanta in a game they definitely should win -- but a game that is dangerous.
The Falcons are 2-5 and seem to have lost their mojo, as well as star wide receiver Julio Jones. They are a desperate team with a quarterback (Matt Ryan) that still knows how to beat the Panthers, having gone 7-3 against them in Ryan's career.
Paced by quarterback Cam Newton (above) and a stingy defense ranked No.3 in the NFL in total yards allowed, Carolina (4-3) has won four of its last five and enters November with a winning record for the first time since 2008. Atlanta has lost four of its last five.
This game should be easier than the next two for Carolina -- at San Francisco Nov.10 and home against New England Nov.18 on Monday Night Football. But if the Panthers mess this one up at home, it's a major black mark on a season that has so much promise.
-- The Panthers should have some confidence going in given that they drilled Atlanta, 30-20, in the teams' last meeting in December in Charlotte. That was the game where Newton scored on a 72-yard touchdown run and somersaulted into the end zone -- still one of the best plays in Carolina history.
-- Watch out for Atlanta receiver Harry Douglas Sunday. Douglas has been the go-to guy by default the past two weeks for Ryan given that Jones is out and Roddy White has also been hurt, and he's got enough speed to hurt the Panthers if they aren't careful.
-- If you want one stat on why Newton has been better this season, check out his quarterback rating on third downs. He's at a startling 122.7, highest in the league on the NFL's most critical down.
-- Expect the Panthers to pound the ball at Atlanta Sunday, as the Falcons have had trouble stopping the run all season. Assuming Jonathan Stewart plays, we will probably see a little less of Mike Tolbert.
-- I've picked the Panthers' outcome correctly the past five weeks in a row. To go for the six-pack, I will say Carolina beats Atlanta, 24-13.