Thursday, January 30, 2014

Greg Hardy says Panther negotiations yet to begin

Like quarterback Cam Newton, Panther defensive end Greg Hardy is also in New York, taking a bite out of the Big Apple. Both men have logged some serious time on airplanes in the past week, having played in the Pro Bowl in Hawaii Sunday.

"I'm here to see everybody and be seen," Hardy told me Thursday afternoon. He sported a gray suit with a name tag attached that read "Kraken!"

Hardy, an unrestricted free agent, said he and the Panthers have not begun contract negotiations.

"They are still working on their cap situation as I understand," he said. "We're playing the waiting game right now.... If they can afford me, man, I'd love to be there. That's my team. My family. We got a good thing going right now."

I continue to hope the Panthers will manage to find a way to keep Hardy, who tied a team record with 15 sacks in 2013. The franchise tag would be one possibility. But it is possible that Hardy will also be allowed to walk away for big money somewhere else.

As for his "Kraken" nickname, Hardy said more and more people are referring to him that way now, which, he said, is "what I want."

Cam Newton says he will respond to Kaepernick mocking his Superman celebration

When San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick mocked Cam Newton and his Superman touchdown dance in the playoffs after scoring against the Panthers, Newton did not have much to say about it in the postgame.

On the set of NFL Network's "NFL AM" show in New York Thursday, Newton said a little bit more -- playfully.

"He hurt my feelings, and I think so highly of Mr. Kaepernick," Newton said with a big laugh.

Cam said there "will be" some sort of response to Kaepernick at some point but that people would have to wait and see what it would be.

Newton then lavishly praised all the current young quarterbacks in the NFL, including Kaepernick, Andrew Luck, RG3 and Russell Wilson. "I don't have no hate in my blood for nobody," Newton said. He added that he was "envious," but in a good way, of Wilson getting Seattle to the Super Bowl in his second season.

Newton is in town for the Super Bowl, and as part of that is doing some promotional work for Pizza Hut. Here's the link to Newton's appearance Thursday morning.

Deaf Seattle fullback inspires at Super Bowl

NEW YORK -- Listen up.

This is a Super Bowl story worth hearing.

They called Derrick Coleman "four ears" on the playground sometimes when he was growing up because of the hearing aids jutting out of his ears.

When he first started playing football as a kid, the feedback in those hearing aids was so intense that it hurt. His mom solved that problem by cutting up a pair of pantyhose and wrapping it around her son's head under his helmet.

On Sunday, Coleman (pictured above in a shot I took this week during a group interview) will suit up for Seattle. He is a backup fullback who is believed to be the first legally deaf offensive player in the NFL. His journey to this game has inspired many. A Duracell ad on YouTube that chronicled his story has been viewed more than 13 million times. If you haven't seen it yet, you should watch it here.

"Everybody has problems," Coleman said this week. "Nobody is perfect. I wear a hearing aid. Some people have glasses. Some people have depression. Everybody has something. But as long as you don't let that get in the way of what you want to do, you can do anything."

I will be writing a lot more about Coleman in my column coming in Friday's newspaper and online.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

5 things the Panthers should do in 2014 offseason

Bank of America Stadium is under renovation, as this picture I took Wednesday from The Charlotte Observer parking lot makes obvious. Check out the logo on the left -- gone! There have been men crawling all around the top of the stadium like ants like this week, and I hope they are being paid well to do it.

In the meantime, the Panthers themselves are under renovation, too. As the wounds from the 23-10 playoff loss to San Francisco slowly get cauterized, I am asked more and more by Carolina fans to look forward, not back. So here quickly -- and without a lot of explanation since we've got the whole offseason for that -- are five things I would do in the next six months if I were Panther general manager Dave Gettleman. I have already advocated extending the contract of coach Ron Rivera, so this focuses on what the Panthers should do on the playing field.

1) Find a big-time wide receiver. Can you imagine what Cam Newton would be like if he had a Dez Bryant or a Calvin Johnson or a younger version of Steve Smith? Many of the Panthers' passing-game problems would evaporate. I don't want Smith to go anywhere, but there has to be a reliable option on the other side, and it's not Brandon LaFell. The No.28 overall pick should be used either on a wide receiver or on an offensive lineman. Free agency also is an option. I would be fine with Gettleman re-signing Ted Ginn, but as a No.3 receiver, not as a No.2.

2) Improve the offensive line. Left tackle Jordan Gross is still on the fence about returning to the team. I think Gross will eventually say, "Yes, I'll come back," but either way, the Panthers must replace him before long and they also need an upgrade at right tackle. Those running backs that the Panthers have plowed so much money into -- you just can't let those guys get hit two yards behind the line of scrimmage on every other down. If I were Gettleman, I'd try for "hog molly" offensive linemen twice in the first three rounds of the May 8-10 NFL draft.

3) Figure out how to keep defensive end Greg Hardy. I think the franchise tag may be the likeliest bet.

4) Upgrade the defensive secondary -- but don't turn it completely over again. Re-signing safety Mike Mitchell and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn to medium-sized contracts would be a good start.

5) Extend quarterback Cam Newton's contract. One way or the other, this must happen. The Panthers still have him under contract through 2014, but the two players they most can't afford to lose in the next few years are Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

3 quick thoughts on the Super Bowl -- and a prediction

What an exhilarating end to Championship Sunday, as Seattle edged San Francisco, 23-17, on the strength of forcing three Colin Kaepernick turnovers in the fourth quarter. That dramatic game made up for what was sort of a yawner in the AFC title game, as Denver led the entire way and beat New England, 26-16.

So let us look ahead to Feb.2nd, when Denver and Seattle -- No.1 seeds in their respective conferences -- face in what should be a very entertaining Super Bowl in (yes, it's actually happening) New Jersey.

1. The most compelling storyline will be Peyton Manning vs. Seattle's "Legion of Boom" secondary. That's Denver's No.1-ranked scoring offense vs. the Seahawks' No.1-ranked scoring defense. That's cornerback Richard Sherman -- who made a great play to tip the ball on the decisive interception vs. the 49ers and then acted about as classlessly as you possibly can in his celebration and interview -- vs. Denver's big-time trio of receivers. That's going to be a barnburner.

2. Former N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson will start in the Super Bowl in only his second season as a pro. Wilson has had an absolutely stunning pro career thus far, even though he did have a number of shaky moments Sunday. Look for his rise -- and his parting of ways with former N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien -- to be dissected once again.

3. John Fox has been very close to a Super Bowl win a couple of times, most notably with the Panthers in the 2003 postseason. Now he has Manning playing as well as any quarterback ever has. Denver scores points in bunches, and it needs to because its defense remains somewhat vulnerable.

Here's a note to the Panthers: There have been 10 postseason games so far. The winning team has scored at least 23 points in every game. So 10 points -- what the Panthers scored in their loss to San Francisco, and their win vs. the 49ers in November -- just doesn't cut it. The offseason has to be about improving firepower for Carolina, both with a better offensive line and a better corps of receivers.

Fox already has all that, though. And I think the coach who still owns a house in Charlotte -- and who rehabbed there after his midseason health scare -- is about to get his first Super Bowl ring. I called both the title games right in my previous blog post, and for the Super Bowl I'm going with: Denver 31, Seattle 23.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

My picks: Denver, Seattle to advance to Super Bowl

OK, let's get this out of the way.

I have been terrible so far in 2014 on NFL picks. Shaquille O'Neal at the free throw line would have a much better chance than me at making one. I am shooting 20 percent so far.

My 2013 NFL season was a good one. I believed in the Panthers long before most did, picking them before the season began to finish 10-6 and make the playoffs. They ended up 12-4. In individual Panther games, which I picked each week, I ended up 12-4 as well (no, I didn't pick Carolina to win every time, that's just how it worked out).

But 2014 has been awful, and I hope no one has bet any money and gone down in flames with me. I am 1-for-5 so far, missing 3 out of 4 in the wild-card week and then incorrectly picking the Panthers to upset San Francisco last week (I didn't make a prediction on the other 3 for some reason).

So take these picks at your own risk, but I believe Denver and Seattle will both justify their No.1 seeds and win at home Sunday to advance to the Super Bowl.

Denver, to me, is just a little more complete team than New England, which has been ravaged by injury but still gotten this far in one of Bill Belichick's best coaching jobs. There will be a ton of scoring in this one, but I'm going with Peyton Manning over Tom Brady and picking: Denver 38, New England 34.

In the NFC game, defense will be much more prevalent. On a neutral field, I think I would pick the 49ers -- they are playing extremely well and certainly have a shot at going all the way. But the Seahawks in Seattle are a different breed -- tougher, more confident... just plain better. First read this great and funny Rick Reilly piece about Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll and their feud, and then give me Seattle, 20-17.

Of course, given my track record in 2014 so far, that probably means we will see a New England-San Francisco Super Bowl.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Panthers must extend contract of coach Ron Rivera

Panther coach Ron Rivera is about to finish up the third year on his original four-year contract, which was worth a reported $11.2 million.

If he does not get an extension in the offseason, a veil of uncertainty would float over the 2014 season. You may remember that the last time the Panthers didn't extend a coach's contract when it got close to expiring, they let time run out on head coach John Fox -- who posted a 2-14 record in his terrible lame-duck year of 2010.

Rivera doesn't deserve that uncertainty. What he deserves is a new deal.

The coach did a tremendous job in 2013, getting the Panthers to 12 wins, an NFC South division championship and their first playoff spot since 2008 after a 1-3 start. The home playoff loss to San Francisco should not overshadow those accomplishments.

Rivera is a popular coach. Among players, staff, fans or media, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who has had personal contact with Rivera and doesn't like him. But I'm not writing this because he's a good guy. I'm writing it because he's a very good coach, and one who has steadily gotten better since his rookie year as a head coach in 2011.

Rivera's teams have improved from 6-10 to 7-9 to 12-5 this past season. He has morphed from a by-the-book conservative coach to "Riverboat Ron" -- a coach who gambles when necessary and isn't nearly as predictable as he used to be.

Rivera also makes no secret of the fact that he is still learning to be a great head coach. That is a plateau he has not reached yet, but one day I believe he could.

Doing things like taking players to dinner and asking them their honest opinions about everything that goes on with the team is more evidence of that. Rivera isn't a "my-way-or-the-highway" type guy, and his players appreciate that. It is part of the reason they have bought so completely into his philosophy.

Rivera plans to start his series of candid dinners beginning Wednesday with offensive tackle Jordan Gross and several of his teammates, as he tries to get impressions of what went right and wrong in 2013.

How much money should he make with this extension? I don't pretend to know, but he should get a substantial raise -- enough to put him in the top half of head coach pay in the league.

A coach with obvious job security is more attractive to the best free agents, who want to know that the team they are about to sign with isn't about to pull the plug and install an entirely new system one year later.

Panther general manager Dave Gettleman praised Rivera in an end-of-season news conference Tuesday. "I have ultimate faith in Ron," Gettleman said.

But the general manager also would not discuss Rivera's contractual status Tuesday nor entertain questions about whether the team would extend the head coach's contract.

This is a no-brainer, though. It is much less complicated than, say, the Greg Hardy contract situation.

Rivera's pay won't count against the salary cap. He's the captain of a ship that is finally pointed away from the icebergs and toward the islands. It's time to give the man a contract extension.

Monday, January 13, 2014

What does future hold for Panther Jordan Gross?

As Carolina offensive tackle Jordan Gross began to entertain questions about his expiring contract and possible retirement Monday, he stopped the interview to offer an announcement.

"They just offered me a new 10-year deal so I think I'm going to take that," Gross joked.

In reality, Gross, 33, may have played his last game for Carolina Sunday in the Panthers' 23-10 home playoff loss to San Francisco. I hope that is not the case. Gross is still the team's best tackle, whether he's playing on the left or right side, and this team would immediately get worse at an already iffy position if he decides he's had enough. They need more tackles, not less.

But Gross -- one of the best and most insightful players the Panthers have ever had --sounded perplexed at what his future holds on Monday. Although he is a two-time Pro Bowler and has started almost every Carolina game for the past 11 years since joining the team as a baby-faced rookie in 2003, he doesn't have an outsized view of his own place in the organization.

"You'd like to think you're irreplaceable and there's no way anybody could live without you," Gross said. "But that's not the truth. Every year, players much more important than me leave teams for one reason or another. And those teams survive and somehow make it the next year. There's a saying I've heard for the NFL, 'Everybody's useful. Nobody's necessary.' And that's really the truth of it."

Gross said he isn't interested in moving and will not play anywhere but for the Panthers in 2014. With his 2013 contract done -- he took a pay cut to stay with Carolina -- he now faces what he calls a "crossroads" in his life.

Gross will need to have some conversations with Panther head coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman sometime in the next few days, and then he will also have to think about what he wants.

"I'm looking forward to doing a bunch of drop-offs at school with my kids and taking a deep breath," Gross said. "If I'm playing, I'll play here. I just don't know yet."

Sunday, January 12, 2014

5 things that went wrong in Panther playoff loss to 49ers

Carolina ended its season Sunday with a home loss to San Francisco in an NFC divisional playoff game, falling short of their Super Bowl goal before more than 70,000 loud but ultimately disappointed fans.

Here are 5 things that went wrong:

1) The 1-yard line. The Panther offense got there twice and couldn't punch the ball in, as San Francisco's defense absolutely stoned the team on everything it tried. Cam Newton's fourth-and-goal quarterback sneak from the 1 was, I thought, the right playcall and the right move by Ron Rivera to go for it. But the offensive line couldn't do its job.

And the next time the Panthers finally had to kick a field goal after two more plays from the 1 also got nothing as the O-line was again pushed around.

2) Loss of composure. The Panthers' defense had two really bad early penalties, with safety Mike Mitchell called for a late hit after a third-down stop (that gave San Francisco a field goal) and Captain Munnerlyn with a head butt. And then Josh Thomas threw a punch at a 49er receiver with 4:02 left to provide the final killing blow to the Panthers' chances -- again after an unsuccessful third down for the 49ers.

3) Anquan Boldin issues. The 49ers' receiver was trash-talking (and had a head butt of his own that should have been called that wasn't). But more than anything, he was whipping the Carolina secondary. By the third quarter, when San Francisco took a 20-10 lead, Boldin already had 122 yards in reception yardage. Panther DBs had major issues all day even besides those three awful unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, as Drayton Florence was called for pass interference in the end zone and safety Robert Lester (in after an injury) apparently blew a deep coverage on Boldin and missed terribly on a tackle that allowed Frank Gore to go on a 39-yard gallop.

4) 12 men on the field. With the Panthers holding a 10-6 lead deep in the second quarter, the 49ers put 12 men in the huddle on first-and-goal from the 1. It should have been a five-yard flag. The officials didn't catch it. I thought most of the controversial calls Sunday the officials did the right thing on (Vernon Davis's toe-dragging TD included) but this one was a very big miss. It's quite likely Carolina would have gone into halftime ahead 10-9 instead of down 13-10 without it.

5) Colin Kaepernick. His stats weren't much different than Cam Newton, but he got his team into the end zone twice and Newton only got there once. Kaepernick did what I thought was a bush-league move when he mocked Newton's Superman pose after scoring on a rushing TD before doing his own "kiss-the-bicep." A lot of defensive players have done that after sacking Newton, but that seems different to me somehow. One quarterback mocking another just doesn't seem like the right play. But give credit to Kaepernick -- he never turned the ball over and he got his team another win on the road. And Kaep ultimately bested Newton, who threw a late interception with the Panthers down 23-10 but driving that all but sealed the game for San Francisco with 4:22 left.

Bottom line: Panther fans will be angry and disappointed after this one for awhile. But this wasn't the Arizona playoff game from five years ago. This was a game all the way. The Panthers had an excellent season, winning the NFC South and winning 12 regular-season games. They are in fine shape to post back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in 2014. This one will sting, but it shouldn't take away from what was overall a much better season than almost everyone expected.

Poll: What was the Carolina Panthers' biggest problem in the playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers?

Thursday, January 9, 2014

My Panthers-49ers prediction

So where will Sunday's game be won or lost?

By the two quarterbacks, the two defenses and two players whose names we don't know yet.

Carolina's Cam Newton and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick will be the acknowledged stars on Sunday, and much of their teams' fortunes will depend on how they do.

But it's not all about the quarterbacks. These are two of the three best defenses in the NFL (with Seattle being the other). The Panthers were No.1 in the NFL in sacks and No.2 in both scoring defense and total defense. The 49ers were No.3 in scoring defense. Not only do these defenses make you punt frequently, but they often cause the sort of turnover mayhem that decides a playoff game (you know what I'm talking about if you remember Jake Delhomme's six-turnover monstrosity in the Arizona game five years ago).

And then there's the X factor. Every big game has a couple of players emerge that you weren't sure could handle this big stage -- the guy who recovers the fumbled punt or comes in as the sixth defensive back and makes the big interception. A couple of those players will emerge Sunday and ultimately tilt the balance.

-- Do not miss The Observer's special Panthers section on Sunday while you are waiting for kickoff. It will be a stunning array of stories and photos that will include a complete regular-season review, all you want to know about the Panthers-49ers matchup, a column based on a revealing interview I had with Ron Rivera and much, much more. Check it out on newsstands or online.

-- I will be signing copies of my new Panthers book "100 Things Panthers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die" at the Birkdale Village Barnes & Noble in Huntersville on Saturday from noon to 1:30 p.m. The book's first printing sold out and I am sorry for those who were frustrated around the holidays trying to find one, but the second printing is now hitting local stores and online retailers.

I will be joined during that time slot at Barnes and Noble by WBT radio host Keith Larson, who will be signing his excellent book, "That Season of Hope."

-- To say interest in the Panthers' first playoff game in five years is high would be quite an understatement. Not only were the single-game tickets gone in three minutes, but I have received calls I have never gotten before this week.

My colleagues at The Observer and myself do a fair amount of sports radio, but mostly for radio stations in the Carolinas. This time I went on what the producers assured me was the "No.1 sports radio show" in Dublin, Ireland, where the host (they called him a "presenter," and he had quite an accent) asked a number of knowledgeable questions about "Riverboat" Ron Rivera and Newton's development. I spoke Southern, he spoke Irish, and we got along just fine.

-- Let's move on to the prediction.

I don't think 10 points will be sufficient to win this game -- the Panthers can't get away with another 10-9 victory as they did two months ago, when DeAngelo Williams (above) scored the game's only TD. San Francisco has wide receiver Michael Crabtree back, and covering him will be a key for the Panthers' "Legion of Whom" secondary that has to prove itself one more time.

I think the Panthers' defense is ultimately just a bit better, but Newton will have to play as well as Kaepernick does. If he doesn't, the Panthers will lose. If he does and those two young stars cancel each other out, the Panthers should have just enough in front of what should be one of the loudest crowds in franchise history.

My prediction: Carolina 20, San Francisco 16.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Who needs Ric Flair anyway? Certainly not the Panthers

There has been a lot of back and forth about Ric Flair giving the San Francisco 49ers a motivational speech Saturday night in Wisconsin. In the speech, Flair told the team his "heart' was with the 49ers, predicted they would beat Green Bay and also that the 49ers would come to Charlotte and beat Carolina.

So my question is: Who cares?

Flair is a washed-up, 64-year-old former star of a very fake "sport" who doesn't even live in Charlotte anymore.

He can give a speech to anyone he wants to, but he is not the Panthers' No.1 celebrity fan and has not been for a long time. Not even close. I give you two alternatives -- both of whom are in their athletic prime, don't get in trouble with the law and love the Panthers.

No.1 is Stephen Curry, who grew up in Charlotte, went to Davidson, still has a home in the Queen City and is an NBA star for Golden State.

No.2 is John Isner, the best American tennis player out there. He grew up in Greensboro, is friends with Steve Smith and is such a huge Panther fan that he will watch them in the middle of the night overseas on his laptop and can discuss their depth at offensive line in remarkable detail.

Those are the sorts of fans the Panthers need to be proud of, along with the 73,000 who will fill Bank of America Stadium Sunday.

Flair? He's yesterday's news -- Ric, 1976 called, and it wants its "Woooo" back. Panther fans don't need Flair, and he obviously doesn't need them, although he tried in a backhanded way to make nice with the team in a brief interview with my buddy, Observer sports columnist Tom Sorensen. The way Flair claimed his heart was also with the Panthers was an insult to any Panther fan's intelligence who saw his motivational speech.

As wide receiver Steve Smith aptly put it Monday, Flair has burned his "Golden Gate bridge" with the Panthers. Or as one wrestling fan wrote me, brimming with rage about Flair's speech: This wrestler has turned "trader."

He meant "traitor," but I liked the double meaning. Flair traded in the Panthers for the 49ers. And what Panther fans should be saying right now are two words:

Good riddance.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

First thoughts on Panthers vs San Francisco, Round 2

Two months ago, the Carolina Panthers made sure the rest of the NFL world was paying attention to them by edging San Francisco, 10-9, on the road at Candlestick Park.

Now to advance in the playoffs, the Panthers will have to repeat that victory. The 49ers will come to Charlotte next weekend for a sold-out 1 p.m. playoff game at Bank of America Stadium to face the Panthers in the NFC playoffs. The winner will face the New Orleans-Seattle winner Saturday in the NFC title game on Jan.19th. If New Orleans and the Panthers win, the game would be played in Charlotte. If Seattle wins, the Seahawks will host that game, regardless of whether Carolina or the 49ers win.

The 49ers had to beat Green Bay, 23-20, on a last-second Phil Dawson field goal Sunday night to punch a ticket to CLT. (Nevertheless, that win was impressive enough that the 49ers are now the only road team that is a consensus favorite among sportsbooks this week -- they are favored in most by a point or two over Carolina). San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick had a big fourth quarter, running the ball for major yardage when he had to (he ended up with 98 yards rushing) and hitting tight end Vernon Davis with a 28-yard TD strike to offset Aaron Rodgers' own set of big plays.

The teams looked very evenly matched, and while I went into the game thinking the Packers would be a far better matchup for Carolina, by the third quarter I had decided it didn't matter much. Both of them would present their own set of problems for a Panther team that had a hard-earned weekend off and will now try to avoid the repeat of the playoff debacle five years ago at home against Arizona in Jake Delhomme's six-turnover fiasco.

A few things to consider as we start sinking our teeth into Panthers-49ers, Round 2:

-- Carolina will never allow Kaepernick to have that much time in the pocket, because the Panthers' pass rush is so much better than Green Bay's. Greg Hardy (above) has been almost unblockable in his past two games and will be a huge key.

-- Kaepernick -- who threw for only 91 yards last time and was sacked six times for 45 yards in losses, resulting in a paltry 46 net yards passing -- will have more weaponry. He didn't have Michael Crabtree the first time the two teams played (who Jim Harbaugh called "the greatest catcher" ever following the win). Kaep also lost Davis to a concussion in the second quarter. He did have Frank Gore, who will be a tough out for the Panthers once again.

-- After a slow start, Rodgers and Green Bay moved the ball pretty effectively against San Francisco. Quarterback Cam Newton will have some work to do, but if he gets Steve Smith back, he probably can generate more than 10 points as he did in the first game and definitely will need to do so.

-- Panther cornerback Drayton Florence has gotten the defensive backs and, eventually, the whole team doing the old Ric Flair "Wooooo!" after wins. But Flair, a Charlotte resident, gave a speech to the 49ers Saturday night, said he was a big 49ers fan and then predicted San Francisco would beat both Green Bay and then Carolina. (Flair also said during the speech he didn't know that the Panthers had beaten the 49ers earlier in the season until very recently, so it's not like he keeps up with the NFL.) In any event, probably safe to say we won't see Flair back on the B of A stadium scoreboard that he long ago used to appear on regularly anytime soon.

-- The 49ers looked to come out of the game without too many health issues, other than being very cold. The early forecast for next Sunday at 1 p.m. in Charlotte will be a lot different than it was in Green Bay, with a high of 56 degrees and a 30 percent chance of rain. Think about that when it gets down into the single digits Monday -- warmer weather is around the bend.

-- Lastly, remember this picture? Our Joseph Person snapped it when Stephen Curry -- another famous Charlotte resident when he's not hitting treys for Golden State -- visited the Panther locker room following the Panthers' victory over the 49ers Nov.10th. Safe to say that Steph won't be giving any motivational speeches to the 49ers this week.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Picking the NFL wild card games

Since the Panthers are off this week, I'm going to take a shot at picking the wildcard games instead. These games are very important, because someone always gets hot. The Super Bowl winner has played on the first weekend of the playoffs in each of the past three years. UPDATE: The Observer has just scheduled a fun, free event next Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. You can talk football with former Panthers Mike Rucker, Mark Carrier and current Panther radio analyst Eugene Robinson and eat FREE pizza, but you HAVE to pre-register here.

Normally, I only pick the Panthers' outcome, both on a weekly and a "before-the-season" basis. (My colleague Tom Sorensen picks all the games each week). My results were decent this year. I picked the team to go 10-6 in early September, before the season began, and to make the playoffs. They went 12-4.

On a week-by-week basis, I got the Panthers right 12 out of 16 times, or 75 percent of the time. My best pick was probably choosing the Panthers to lose at Arizona back when no one thought the Cardinals were much good, or picking them to beat the Jets by 10, which they did. My worst one was probably picking Carolina to win at New Orleans.

In any case, I think Carolina will wind up hosting Philadelphia next Sunday at 1:05 p.m. in the NFC playoffs in Charlotte, because I think Philadelphia beats New Orleans this weekend. The Eagles are relatively healthy and both Nick Foles and LeSean McCoy are playing extremely well. More importantly, they are playing in Philly, and the Saints are only 3-5 on the road. My pick: Philadelphia 27, New Orleans 23.

In the other NFC game, I like San Francisco to beat Green Bay on the frozen tundra, which would send the 49ers to Seattle next weekend (assuming Philadelphia also wins). The 49ers have really rounded into form the past month and are a serious Super Bowl threat despite their No.5 seed in the playoffs. My pick: San Francisco 24, Green Bay 17.

In the AFC, I believe Kansas City will pull a mild upset and edge Indianapolis on the road, 20-16, and that Cincinnati will beat San Diego, 28-20.

-- If you haven't voted in my poll yet for what you believe was the most important play of the Panthers' 2013 regular season, please do. Here's the link.

I asked 16 Panther players that same question this week and those results will be published soon online and in The Observer, but I would like your input, too.

I can tell you one thing: from the early results, it's almost a sure thing that the players and the fans aren't going to pick the same play at No.1. (The fan vote has Domenik Hixon's diving catch -- above in the picture -- to win the home game vs. New Orleans as a runaway No.1 so far).

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Panther New Year notes on tickets, uniforms and playoffs

Happy New Year, everyone!

A few Panther notes as everyone makes their 2014 resolutions -- and also, I want to thank all of you for making this blog part of your day.

I also know a few of you probably missed Sunday's story about what happens to all those footballs Cam Newton hands to kids in the stands (the great Jeff Siner picture above comes from that story -- it's a pic of Newton and 15 of the kids he has handed footballs to over the years).

That story ended up getting around 2,500 "likes" on Facebook, which is more than I've ever gotten on a story before -- here's the link if you missed it. Now onto some other notes from a New Year's Day I am spending partly at Bank of America Stadium:

-- The three-minute sellout of the remaining 7,000 or so Panther playoff tickets on Wednesday morning wasn't a big surprise to me -- I had predicted on Twitter it would take five minutes. What does surprise me considerably is that Green Bay is having monumental trouble selling out its playoff game against San Francisco Sunday (and Cincinnati and Indianapolis are having trouble, too). You can still go to the Panther game, obviously, but only if you're willing to pay several times face value for tickets.

If you are thinking about buying Panther tickets on the secondary market for their 1:05 p.m. playoff game on Jan.12th, buy your tickets from a site that guarantees the tickets to be valid, like the NFL's Ticket Exchange or There will likely be hundreds of counterfeit tickets floating around for a game of this magnitude -- don't get caught with one of those. I have heard too many sad stories of people who have had that happen this year.

-- The Panthers will wear the uniform voted the best in NFL history (in an unofficial online poll in 2013) in their playoff game. The black-on-black combo (seen at the bottom of this blog) was most recently worn in Carolina's win against the New York Jets. The electric blue socks, remember, were Steve Smith's idea. I feel confident Smith will play on Jan.12 in the playoff game, but it's still unclear how effective he will be. The Panthers are holding him out of practice this week.

-- Panther coach Ron Rivera said that if he could make one New Year's resolution for his entire team, it would be to "stay focused." Not real creative, but very true.

I certainly think Panther defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is ready to be an NFL head coach, but for his sake I hope he doesn't wind up in Washington (he interviews for the Redskins job Saturday). I wouldn't wish working for Dan Snyder on anybody.