Tuesday, December 30, 2014

9 key and strange numbers for Carolina Panthers

As the playoffs approach, here are nine key numbers I find interesting from the regular season for the Carolina Panthers:

4 -- The Panthers enter the playoffs with a 7-8-1 record and the No.4 seed in the NFC. Do you know where they would have been seeded had they been, say, 11-5? Still No.4. Seattle, Green Bay and Dallas took the first three spots with 12-4 records.

7 -- The Panthers have started seven rookies toward the end of the season, and the speed and energy from that group has been essential.

10 -- Despite a run early in the season where Carolina gave up 37, 38, 24, 37 and 38 points in consecutive weeks, the Panthers' defense rebounded to finish 10th in the NFL in total defense. In the final four games, Carolina allowed fewer points (43) than it did in one horrid Monday night game Nov.10 at Philadelphia (45). The biggest reason is Luke Kuechly, shown above and my choice for Panther MVP this season, but there have been a lot of contributors.

29 -- This is Cam Newton's rank in completion percentage among NFL quarterbacks. He's only completing 58.5 percent of his passes.

32 -- This is punter Brad Nortman's rank in net average (36.5 yards), which makes him dead last among NFL punters. This is mostly not Nortman's fault, because Carolina is the worst in the NFL in allowing punt-return yardage (the special-teams coverage units needs a serious offseason upgrade, but little can be done about it now). Think former Panther Ted Ginn Jr., who returns both kickoffs and punts for Arizona, is licking his lips right now?

63 -- The Panthers went an astonishing 63 days between victories and still made the playoffs. They won their first two games and also won their last four, but went 1-8-1 in between. Between Oct.5 and Dec.7, they did not win a game.

115 -- The Panthers' defense had this many yards returning Matt Ryan interceptions Sunday in the 34-3 win over Atlanta. The Panthers' offense gained 114 yards on Cam Newton completions. In other words, Ryan threw for one more yard to Carolina players than Newton did (and one more touchdown, too).

539 -- Newton's rushing yardage. He was third in the NFL in that statistic for quarterbacks, trailing only Russell Wilson (849) and Colin Kaepernick (639), despite the Panthers trying hard to keep him in the pocket for much of the season to protect him from further injury.

1008 -- In the season of the tie -- Carolina's only one in its 20-year history came on Oct.12 vs. Cincinnati -- this seemed fitting. Both Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin ended up with exactly 1,008 receiving yards, tying for the team lead.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Panthers thump Falcons, will host home playoff game

ATLANTA -- Following a December they will always remember, the Carolina Panthers jumped into the NFL playoffs on the last day of the 2014 regular season Sunday with a 34-3 pounding of the Atlanta Falcons.

Carolina will host Arizona in a first-round NFC playoff game Saturday at 4:35 p.m. on ESPN. Single-game playoff tickets went on sale at 8 p.m. Sunday -- only about 30 minutes after the game ended -- and were almost immediately sold out except for single seats. (There are plenty of tickets available on Stubhub.com and other resale sites, but generally at about twice face value). The Panthers get to host the game, despite their 7-8-1 overall record, by virtue of Carolina winning the NFC South on the season's final day.

If the Panthers can beat Arizona, they will play either at Seattle on Sat., Jan.10th at 8:15 p.m. or at Green Bay on Sun., Jan.11th at 1:05 p.m. The opponent would depend on the result of the Dallas-Detroit game on Jan.4th. If Dallas wins that one, the Panthers would go to Seattle. If Detroit wins, the Panthers would go to Green Bay.

That Carolina is even in a position to contemplate such things is remarkable. When the month began, the Panthers were 3-8-1 and in the throes of a six-game losing streak. But they won their last four games in a row and have made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in team history.

It was a startling turnaround, one in which two close home games were sandwiched by two whopping road victories. The run started when Carolina pulverized New Orleans in the Superdome, 41-10, on Dec.7. Then it concluded with this "win-and-you're-in" game at Atlanta.

As in the New Orleans game, Carolina played so well in the first half that the game was basically decided after 30 minutes. In both cases, Carolina led 24-3 at halftime and the home team was booed off the field.

In this game, much of Carolina's best work was fueled by its defense. Roman Harper had a 31-yard interception return for a touchdown that pushed a 10-3 Carolina second-quarter lead to 17-3, and Thomas Davis's 33-yard fumble return set up another TD only minutes later.

Then came Tre Boston's 84-yard interception return in the third quarter, which made it 34-3 and sent a lot of Falcons fans out of the Georgia Dome before the fourth quarter even began. It was the first time in their 20-year history that the Panthers have had two defensive scores in the same game. With all that, Cam Newton's one touchdown passing and one TD running seemed to be almost lost in the wash, but Newton also played very well just when he needed to -- as did Carolina's offensive line. By the end, Newton was inciting the 5,000 or so fans remained -- most of them chanting "Let's Go Panthers!" -- to get even louder. It was a remarkable Sunday.

Now comes the even harder part: winning a home playoff game.

The Panthers have whiffed on their last two tries, losing by 20 to Arizona following the 2008 season (that was Jake Delhomme's six-turnover game) and by 13 last year to San Francisco (when goal-line offense and silly penalties undid the Panthers).

This time Arizona would seem to be the ideal opponent, given that any team the Panthers faced would have at least 11 wins. The Cardinals will be playing a backup quarterback and have struggled offensively in recent weeks -- at one time sporting the NFC's top record, they will go into the playoffs as a No.5 seed.

Carolina, meanwhile, is a No.4 seed and somehow still alive after this wild December, which also included Cam Newton's car crash and close home wins against Tampa Bay and Cleveland.

Only 12 teams are left out of 32 as the playoffs begin. Quite remarkably, Carolina is one of them. But after this December, it would not be wise to count these Panthers out against anyone.

Friday, December 26, 2014

My pick for Falcons-Panthers

Hi! Hope your holidays are going well and you are ready for a big Sunday.

Think you have never seen anything like this before for the Carolina Panthers, with a "win-and-you're-in" scenario dominating the storyline for the final week of the season?

Well, in fact you have -- but maybe you were younger or just not paying that much attention.

On the last day of the 2005 season, the Panthers were 10-5 but still needed to win to secure a playoff spot. Yes, it was a very different sort of season. They blew into Atlanta and whipped the Falcons, 44-11, giving them momentum for two straight playoff road wins as well (at the New York Giants and at Chicago) before a loss to Seattle in the NFC championship game.

On the other hand, on the last day of the 2004 season, the Panthers had rebounded from a horrid 1-7 start the year after their lone Super Bowl appearance to get to 7-8. They needed one more win to get in, against New Orleans at home. Then the Panthers stunk it up and lost 21-18.

So this has happened before, albeit not under these circumstances, where the winner of a game between two losing teams will win the NFC South.

-- If it comes down to a field goal, I would rely on Atlanta's Matt Bryant over Carolina's Graham Gano. Bryant is a machine. He hasn't missed from under 50 yards all season, and he's even hit seven of 10 from 50-plus. Gano, on the other hand, has had a couple of crucial misses this season, including two in the Falcons' 19-17 win over Carolina in November.

-- Best matchup Sunday? It has to be Atlanta Pro Bowl receiver Julio Jones, who has three straight 100-yard receiving games, against Carolina cornerback Josh Norman. Norman says Jones is a "Manimal," but Norman has been very good the past month and is the best chance the Panthers have at slowing down Jones.

-- Whichever team wins will almost certainly play Arizona in a home playoff game next Sunday. I can't think of a more favorable matchup, given the Cardinals' serious quarterback issues.

-- Prediction time. I am 9-5-1 picking the Panthers' outcome this season and have gotten it right the past two weeks.

Matt Ryan has been quietly very good this season -- 28 TDs and only 12 interceptions -- and the Panthers' ability or inability to rattle Ryan will determine the way this game goes. As for the Panthers, they need to run the ball well, which I think they will do. Cam Newton's ability to run in the red zone (see above picture for a previous score he had vs. Atlanta) will be key. My pick: Carolina 24, Atlanta 20.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Panthers-Falcons moved to 4:25 pm Sunday on CBS

The Panthers-Falcons "win-and-you're-in" playoff game has been moved to 4:25 p.m. Sunday in Atlanta to get it a wider national audience.

As part of the NFL's new "cross-flex" policy, the game will also be shown on CBS rather than on Fox affiliates, as is usually custom for NFC games. The kickoff was originally scheduled for 1 p.m. So in the Charlotte area, the game will be shown on WBTV-Channel 3, The Observer's news partner. There had been some speculation that the Panther kickoff would be moved all the way to Sunday night, but Pittsburgh-Cincinnati took that prime-time slot on Sunday Night Football. The game was originally scheduled for a 1 p.m. kickoff.

At 6-8-1, the Panthers have a half-game lead over Atlanta (6-9). The winner of the game will win the NFC South. New Orleans (6-9) is out of the race due to various tiebreaker scenarios.

The Panthers also went to Atlanta last year with a lot on the line. Carolina needed a win to secure a first-round playoff bye, and barely eked one out, 21-20. In the most recent meeting in the I-85 rivalry, however, Atlanta won, 19-17, in Charlotte.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A perfect Sunday for the Panthers (Carolina win, Saints loss)

The roulette wheel season of the Carolina Panthers took two spins for the good Sunday, as the Panthers edged Cleveland, 17-13, and Atlanta beat New Orleans.

Just like that, New Orleans was out of the NFC South race. The Panthers and Falcons will now play one game to decide the division next Sunday in Atlanta, with the winner hosting a playoff game in early January (likely against Green Bay, Detroit or Seattle) and the loser done for the season.

Carolina played a very unimpressive second half for the first 20 minutes, going down 13-10 when Cleveland's Brian Hoyer beat the Panthers on an 81-yard touchdown pass that shocked the stadium.

The Panthers, roused from their slumber, then came back on an excellent TD drive thanks mostly to quarterback Cam Newton, who scrambled around and hit Jonathan Stewart for a nine-yard TD pass that proved to be the improvisational difference. Cleveland got the ball back once, punted at midfield, and Carolina then ran out the clock thanks in large part to a big 30-yard Jonathan Stewart run.

I don't believe the game would have been nearly as close had Johnny Manziel stayed in it -- he made exactly one good throw during his time. But Manziel got hurt in the second quarter on a designed run when he was crushed by Carolina's Colin Jones and Luke Kuechly, and Hoyer came in and looked better. (Newton afterward said the Panther fans who cheered Manziel's injury were "classless" and that "We're better than that" -- he was absolutely right on both counts).

In the meantime, the Falcons went down 7-0 in the first 20 seconds, then scored 20 straight points and whipped the Saints, 30-14, in New Orleans. That knocked the Saints (6-9) out of the race. Carolina (6-8-1) and Atlanta (6-9) both stayed alive, with the Panthers now a few percentage points ahead in the standings entering the final week.

It was the Panthers' third straight win. Like last week against Tampa Bay, it wasn't very impressive. However, it again got the job done, leaving the Panthers a trip down I-85 next Sunday to decide the NFC South.

Friday, December 19, 2014

My pick: Panthers to beat Browns, Manziel

There is no magic number in the NFL, but with 20-20 hindsight you can see for the Carolina Panthers that 20 comes close.

If the Panthers score 20 or more, good things happen. They are 4-1-1 when they do that this year. When they score 19 or less, they are 1-7.

The only time the Panthers won with a score under 20 was last week, when Carolina ground out an ugly win, 19-17, over Tampa Bay.

Against Cleveland, 20 should be more than enough. I just can't see the Browns getting out of the teens against Carolina's resurgent defense and rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Manziel will undoubtedly play better than he did last week against Cincinnati -- a horrific 30-0 loss in his first start -- but I remain unconvinced he will ever be more than a mediocre NFL quarterback. He does have Josh Gordon on his side, however.

-- It will be pretty hard not to scoreboard-watch on Sunday, with the Atlanta-New Orleans game going on exactly at the same time as this one. The Panthers badly need Atlanta to win, because then Carolina can control its own destiny in the final week of the season if it can also beat Cleveland.

-- Memo to Chicago Bears: If Jimmy Clausen is the answer, you are asking the wrong question.

-- How long ago was it that Cleveland and Carolina played? So long that Jake Delhomme was the quarterback for Cleveland and Clausen for Carolina. That was in 2010. John Kasay uncharacteristically missed a 42-yard field goal as time expired, leaving Delhomme to beat his former team, 24-23.

-- Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen will both likely go over 1,000 yards for the season Sunday against the Browns. Olsen has 960 yards and Benjamin 952. Look in particular for quarterback Cam Newton to target Benjamin. The Browns have had trouble against big receivers -- Benjamin's rookie classmate, Mike Evans, hit them up for 124 yards and two touchdowns when Tampa Bay played the Browns.

-- Prediction time. I am 8-5-1 picking the Panthers this season after (barely) picking them correctly to beat Tampa Bay last week. I think this game was decided in Carolina's favor the day the Browns decided to start Manziel. My pick: Carolina 23, Cleveland 13.

Josh Gordon (12) might give Johnny Manziel (2) his best shot of being significantly
 better  in his second start for the Browns. ( Jason Miller, Getty Images)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Updated playoff picture with new odds

The Chicago Bears proved to be that kind of quasi-friend you cannot trust on Monday night for the Carolina Panthers.

Will the Atlanta Falcons be any better for Carolina?

New Orleans trounced Chicago 31-15 Monday night to retake control of the NFC South at 6-8. Carolina is 5-8-1, still a half-game back after winning two straight and needing Drew Brees on his back more (see picture) rather than throwing for 375 yards and 3 TDs like he did Monday night. Atlanta is 5-9, but plays at New Orleans Sunday in a very key game for both clubs.

Of the three teams, only Carolina doesn't control its own destiny. The winner of the New Orleans-Atlanta game in the Big Easy Sunday only needs to win its final game on Dec.28 to capture the division. That's because Chicago did the Panthers no favors Monday night, as Jay Cutler looked absolutely awful and the Saints never trailed in a game that was never in doubt.

Because of that outcome, the Panthers need to simultaneously beat Cleveland at home and root for Atlanta on Sunday. Both games start at 1 p.m. If Atlanta and Carolina win, then the winner of the Panthers-Falcons Dec.28 game will win the division (Atlanta wins the tiebreaker vs. New Orleans if both teams finish tied at 7-9 due to what would then be a season sweep of the Saints).

But if New Orleans beats the Falcons, all the Saints have to do is win against lowly Tampa Bay (2-12) in the season finale to win the division at 8-8.

It's far from an ideal situation for the Panthers, who now have to pin their hopes not only on going 2-0 in their last two games but also on getting some help. But let's be honest -- the Panthers made their own bed and now must thrash around in it.

That bad home loss vs. Atlanta earlier in the year when Riverboat Ron turned into Reluctant Ron at the end? Getting two punts blocked to lose at Minnesota? Wasting a great defensive effort against Seattle? If Carolina had won just one of those games, the Panthers would have avoided this predicament. Here are my updated odds of winning the division:

NEW ORLEANS (6-8). 50 percent (up from 40 percent last week). The Saints looked very good Monday night and play Atlanta at home Sunday. I don't see the Saints losing at Tampa Bay Dec.28 -- although I believe the Bucs are actually playing better than woeful Chicago right now, so there would be a small chance. Still, the Saints are in the driver's seat. And if New Orleans wins Sunday AND Carolina loses, the Saints clinch the berth with one week still to go.

CAROLINA (5-8-1). 30 percent (down from 35 percent last week). The Panthers should beat Cleveland at home Sunday, but going to Atlanta and winning on Dec.28 is no sure thing. The Falcons are such an inconsistent team that to need two exact results from them to make the playoffs (a win and a loss, in that order) is tough to count on. Then again, Atlanta did beat New Orleans earlier in the season.

ATLANTA (5-9). 20 percent (down from 25 percent last week). Despite the Falcons' loss to Pittsburgh Sunday, they are far from out of it. Two straight wins and the Falcons take the division at 7-9 -- but they play at New Orleans and home vs. Carolina in those games. Atlanta is such an on-and-off team that this doesn't seem likely, but having the right to control your own destiny at 5-9 is a wonderful and bizarre thing if you are on the Georgia side of the I-85 rivalry.

Remember, there is also a consolation prize. If the Panthers don't win the division, they will pick about a dozen spots higher in the 2015 NFL draft.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Ugly Panther win improves playoff chances

It is always better to win ugly than to lose pretty, and the Panthers managed to keep alive their playoff hopes with a just-enough sort of win against Tampa Bay, 19-17, Sunday.

Carolina spent most of the game in Tampa Bay territory. But backup quarterback Derek Anderson only got Carolina into the end zone once, meaning that Graham Gano's four field goals and the Panthers' defense ultimately made the difference in this one.

That Panther D had the game's biggest play, sacking Bucs quarterback Josh McCown at his own 4 in the third quarter with Carolina trailing, 10-9. That led to the Panthers' only touchdown -- a slant from Anderson to Jerricho Cotchery.

McCown was mostly terrible, throwing the ball too late or too early on numerous occasions under a serious pass rush. Panther defensive end Charles Johnson is the team's highest-paid player and earned his money Sunday, constantly getting into the Bucs backfield. But McCown made one huge play with a 16-yard TD run that brought Tampa Bay to within 19-17 with 3:11 left.

Carolina missed Cam Newton for sure, but Anderson did enough to win (his one interception was negated by a very fortunate roughing-the-passer call). He also utilized tight end Greg Olsen beautifully. Needing to kill the clock on the final drive, the Panthers almost blew it with Jonathan Stewart's second fumble of the game, although this time Stewart recovered it. And Anderson then threw two nice passes to Kelvin Benjamin for first downs that meant Tampa Bay ultimately only got the ball back at its own 10 with no timeouts and 0:23 left on the clock. Luke Kuechly's interception sealed it two plays later.

As for Carolina's playoff chances: Atlanta (5-9) did its part, losing to Pittsburgh, 27-20. If New Orleans (still 5-8) loses to Chicago Monday night, the Panthers (5-8-1) will become the unlikely leaders of the NFC South and need only to win their last two games (against Cleveland and Atlanta) to secure a playoff spot for the second straight year. Cleveland also lost badly Sunday, 30-0 to Cincinnati, in rookie Johnny Manziel's awful first start. It will be interesting to see whether that experiment only lasts for a week.

Friday, December 12, 2014

My pick: Panthers to beat Buccaneers again with Anderson

So how long should Carolina quarterback Cam Newton sit out?

I think the answer is pretty obvious.

If Carolina beats Tampa Bay, I expect Newton to start against Cleveland at home on Dec.21. We have repeatedly been told that Newton's back injury from Tuesday's "somebody's supposed to be dead" car crash is not something that's going to get worse by playing. If he can tolerate the pain, he can play the game.

Newton -- who has already been declared out for the Tampa game -- can certainly tolerate pain.

"He's got all kinds of bumps and bruises and has never said a word to anyone about anything," said quarterback Derek Anderson, and Anderson was referring to all the injuries Newton had before his truck flipped Tuesday.

If the Panthers lose Sunday, they will drop to 4-9-1. Although that wouldn't technically eliminate Carolina from playoff contention, realistically I think that would be it for the team's playoff hopes.

Atlanta and New Orleans (both 5-8 entering Sunday) would each have to go 1-2 in the final three games for Carolina to catch both of them at that point.

So if the Panthers lose to Tampa Bay, I would start Anderson (shown in the above picture celebrating with Greg Olsen after a TD vs. the Bucs in September) at least against Cleveland and likely at Atlanta, too, on Dec.28 to close out the season. Newton is too valuable a commodity to risk in meaningless games.

On the flip side, if Carolina wins Sunday, I would think Newton should and will play against Cleveland. That would be fun, wouldn't it? Newton vs. Johnny Manziel? The question would be which defensive lineman mimicked which quarterback's signature gesture first after a sack.

-- Watch for Carolina to try to play a fair amount of press coverage on Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans. Like Kelvin Benjamin, Evans is a big rookie target that the Panthers believe should not get a free release off the line often.

"We just have to be physical with him," Panther safety Thomas DeCoud said. "Bigger-bodied guys may not change direction as well, especially off the press. We have to get our hands on those guys and be tight in coverage."

-- In the Panthers' first game against Tampa Bay, running back Jonathan Stewart rushed nine times for only 20 yards. But he's playing at a high level right now, and I wouldn't be surprised if Stewart had a second straight 100-yard game Sunday.

-- Prediction time. I never saw Carolina's 41-10 win over New Orleans coming, and if you did, please proceed directly to Vegas. That miss dropped my record to 7-5-1 predicting the Panthers on the season. Anderson is going to do enough Sunday to beat the Bucs a second time this year. My pick: Carolina 24, Tampa Bay 13.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Updated Panther playoff picture -- with odds!

I was talking to cornerback Josh Norman after Carolina's 41-10 thumping of New Orleans Sunday about the weird NFC South division race. Said Norman (at right): "Somebody is trying to give us a gift! All we have to do is take it!"

In the season of giving, this does seem true. Somehow, at 4-8-1, the Panthers find themselves only a half-game back in the chase to host an NFC South playoff game. Let's take a closer look at the three remaining contenders.

I have affixed my own personal odds to each team as to how likely they are to win the division. Teams are listed in current order of NFC South standings.

1) ATLANTA (5-8). 25 percent chance of winning division.

Future schedule: Pittsburgh (8-5), at New Orleans (5-8), Carolina (4-8-1).

Comment: The Falcons hold the tiebreaker edge by virtue of a 4-0 record against NFC South opponents and are technically in first place right now. However, they have the toughest schedule remaining, which is why I think they are the least likely of the three teams to win the division. Atlanta's offense is rounding into form -- witness the 30 second-half points scored on Green Bay Monday night -- but its defense can be torched (which is why the Falcons still lost 43-37 Monday night). I think the Falcons will go to 5-9 vs. Pittsburgh Sunday, losing control of the division.

2) NEW ORLEANS (5-8). 40 percent chance of winning division.

Future schedule: at Chicago (5-8), Atlanta (5-8), at Tampa Bay (2-11).

Comment: Despite that startling 31-point blowout Carolina just put on the Saints, the Saints control their own destiny and have the easiest schedule remaining of the three teams. Panther fans should cheer hard for the Bears (minus star receiver Brandon Marshall, who's out for the year) to beat New Orleans at Soldier Field Monday night. The Atlanta-New Orleans loser on Dec.21st will likely fall out of the race. In my way of thinking, it would be better for the Falcons to win that one for Carolina's purposes.

3) CAROLINA (4-8-1). 35 percent chance of winning division.

Future schedule: Tampa Bay (2-11), Cleveland (7-6), at Atlanta (5-8).

Comment: I think the Panthers will need to win all three of their remaining games to get in -- 6-9-1 is not going to do it, because either Atlanta or New Orleans will undoubtedly finish 7-9. Despite one of the most complete performances in Panther history Sunday, you have to wonder if the on-and-off Panthers are capable of keeping the accelerator pressed all month. With this team, even woeful Tampa Bay is not a sure win on Sunday.

But if Carolina can go 3-0, they can take care of knocking out Atlanta all by themselves on the final day of the season at the Georgia Dome. What they have to hope for is that the Saints don't also go 3-0, because that's the part of this the Panthers can't control. The Saints are public enemy No.1 for the next two weeks for Carolina fans.

Still, it all looks a lot better for Panther fans than it did just a few days ago. I would have put their chances at winning the division at about five percent on Sunday morning. Then came the rout against New Orleans, and suddenly it was time to recalibrate everything.

To look a bit ahead: The winner of the NFC South will be the No.4 seed in the NFC playoffs on Jan.3 or Jan.4. That much is certain. That team will then host a playoff game against the top wild-card team, which will likely be either Dallas, Philadelphia, Seattle, Arizona or Detroit. Whatever team it is will have won 3-5 more games than the NFC South winner, but we all know that doesn't matter once you get into the playoffs.

What is certain, though, is that if the Panthers do win the NFC South, they will drop from a first-round draft pick that would likely be in the Top 10 to the No.21 pick at best in the 2015 NFL draft. It's a whole lot better to get a top offensive tackle in the top 10, so Panther fans should be careful what they wish for -- or at least gracefully accept the consolation prize of an early pick if Carolina doesn't go 3-0.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

5 reasons Panthers pulled off an incredible blowout win over Saints

NEW ORLEANS -- Where did that come from?

The Carolina Panthers shellacked the New Orleans Saints 41-10 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Sunday, winning so convincingly it was hard to believe they hadn't won for two months. It was one of the most astounding and inexplicable games I have ever covered in 20 years following the Panthers, who entered the game 3-8-1 and on a six-game, 63-day losing streak. It also means Carolina will be only a half-game back in the NFC South -- trailing New Orleans and Atlanta -- IF Atlanta loses to Green Bay Monday night.

So let's try to explain it. Here are the top 5 reasons the Panthers won big:

1. Quarterback Cam Newton played unbelievably well. Newton had one of those games that makes you remember why he can be so spectacular, throwing for three TDs and running for another while committing zero turnovers. Look at him in the picture above -- literally laughing at the Saints defense as he runs for another first down (photo by Observer's Jeff Siner). Newton toyed with the Saints' defense, which had held him to a career-low 10 completions on Oct.30th in the Saints' 28-10 win in Charlotte. Just when I wondered if the "Cam 2013" model was still available in Sunday's newspaper, here he came.

2. Defensive secondary. The release of Antoine Cason seemed to be an addition by subtraction, as the extremely young Panther secondary played great football against Drew Brees. And linebacker Thomas Davis was everywhere. It also helped that Brees' receivers had to have dropped a half-dozen passes -- tight end Jimmy Graham in particular was terrible.

3. The fight. Never underestimate a big scuffle in terms of what can do -- either positively or negatively -- for a team. In this case, the fight after Newton scored on a one-yard dive and tried to do his "Superman" thing seemed to energize the Panthers.

4. No monster mistakes. There was nothing for Carolina like the two blocked punts that ruined last week. Instead, the Panther defense was the one causing the turnovers (the Saints lost the ball twice in their first three plays). Much of this was due to offensive line play, which gave Newton all sorts of time as he didn't throw an interception for the first time in nine games.

5. Game-planning. Give the coaches some credit on this one, too. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula repeatedly threw the ball on second-and-1 and third-and-1 and ran Newton on all sorts of designed runs. The defensive game plan was just as -- if not more -- solid. And the special teams, while allowing a couple of 30- and 32-yard punt returns, had no huge errors. By the time Jonathan Stewart sprinted 69 yards for a TD on the Panthers' first play of the second half, amazingly enough, the game was all but over.

Friday, December 5, 2014

My pick for Saints-Panthers Round 2

When you explain football to a child, one of the first words you use is "touchdown."

It is one of football's basics, those six points you get when you reach the end zone. And when you put the Panthers' 3-8-1 season in simplest terms, they just haven't been getting there often enough in 2014 (the picture to the right is just one example why, showing Kelvin Benjamin dropping what would have been a TD pass against Seattle).

Remember the last time Carolina played New Orleans on Oct.30th? The Saints led 14-0 at halftime. The Panthers' defense forced two early turnovers, and the Panthers' offense converted those turnovers into... well... punts.

The Panthers' offense wasn't great last season, either, but that fact was often hidden by the NFL's No.2 defense and a few fantastic fourth-quarter drives that produced points at exactly the right time. That team scored 42 touchdowns in 16 games.

This team has only 24 through 12 games, which places it in front of only the New York Jets, Oakland and Jacksonville in terms of TDs scored this season. That's company you do not want to keep in today's NFL. Even 2-10 Tampa Bay and 2-10 Tennessee have scored one more TD apiece than Carolina has this season.

This is not a historic low for Carolina. The record for fewest TDs ever by a Panther team came in 2010, when Jimmy Clausen and company sputtered to only 17 total TDs in 16 games. That team sometimes looked like it couldn't have scored if the other team had forgotten to put a defense on the field at all.

But this one has not been much better. From the regression of quarterback Cam Newton to the purge of receivers to the overpaid running backs to the uninspired playcalling to the unstable and overmatched offensive line, this has been an incredibly forgettable offense to watch.

-- Could the Panthers' offense have a last gasp Sunday? There's a chance. New Orleans is 31st in the NFL in yards allowed. But the Saints still whipped Carolina 28-10 in Charlotte not long ago and made Newton endure one of his worst days ever in the NFL (10 for 28, 151 yards, 1 interception and a 39.4 QB rating).

-- Of the Panthers' primary rivals, no team has historically been a better match than New Orleans. Check this out. The teams have played 39 times, with Carolina holding a 20-19 edge. If you combine all the points from all the games, the difference is one touchdown -- New Orleans leads, 817-810.

-- Prediction time. I am 7-4-1 picking the Panthers' outcome this season after correctly selecting Minnesota to beat Carolina last week. This one may be close for a half, but not much longer than that. My pick: New Orleans 34, Carolina 17.