Monday, July 20, 2015

Fireworks show to punctuate Panther Fan Fest this year

Fireworks explode over Bank of America Stadium during the 2014 Fan Fest. (Photo by Rogelio Aranda/Charlotte Observer))

Everyone loves fireworks, right? Which means that in my opinion the Carolina Panthers have upgraded their annual Fan Fest again this year compared to most years in the past. It's still free, but now it will include a fireworks and laser show at the end.

Fan Fest is always one of the best bargains around for Panthers fans, especially those around Charlotte, who generally have to drive to Spartanburg to go to training camp to see the team work out for free. This year Fan Fest will be held on Friday night, Aug. 7, at Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium. Fans will also receive a 2015 team roster photo card with a 2015 schedule. The team stopped doing controlled "full tackle" scrimmages in this event a long time ago -- too much potential for injury -- but seeing Cam Newton flying around like an airplane (below) followed by fireworks and lasers isn't a bad way to spend a free Friday night. Having it on Friday, to me, seems a far better idea than the old Saturday afternoon Fan Fests that were generally an endurance contest due to the heat.

Stadium gates open at 6:30 p.m. with on-field performances by the TopCats, Sir Purr, PurrCussion and the Black & Blue Crew. The Fan Fest Sponsor Village, located at the North Gate, will include tents with interactive games, giveaways, music and inflatables. (And if you have kids, you need to show up early for that).

The Panthers will take the field at 7:30 p.m. for a practice that will last a little less than two hours. The fireworks and laser show will begin at 9:30 p.m.

Strollers and video cameras will be permitted inside the stadium for Fan Fest only. Transparent, plastic, vinyl or PVC bags smaller than 12" x 6" x 12" will be allowed after inspection. All other stadium policies remain in effect. Stadium policies can be viewed here. If you are hungry for real football, the Panthers open the regular season Sept. 13 at Jacksonville.

Monday, July 13, 2015

4 takeaways from Jeremy Lin press conference

What I learned at the Jeremy Lin press conference in Charlotte Monday:

1) Coach Steve Clifford plans to play Lin and Kemba Walker together at times. "He can play with Kemba and that's what I like," Clifford said. While Walker is a point guard only, Clifford envisions Lin as a combo guard who can team with Walker when the team goes with a smaller lineup, which would mean Nicolas Batum would shift to forward (Batum, Clifford believes, can play shooting guard and both forward positions -- the "2, 3 and 4," in basketball lingo).

Clifford notes that one of the trends in the league is "downsizing." Many teams make do with only one true post player on the floor at a time now, and sometimes none (the best example being Golden State, which uses small forward Draymond Green as a center in what I believe is its most effective lineup). This will also be a way for Lin to get more minutes than he would as only Walker's backup. Walker averaged 34 minutes per game last season.

2) Lin believes the primary way he can help the team is to attack the rim. As Lin said in his press conference: "One thing I ... really wanted is to get back to who I am as a player, which is trying to be aggressive, playmaking, always on the attack. I'm always charging toward the rim and that's going to create easier shots for this team."

Lin also had this message for the Hornets' fans: "We want to make the playoffs. And we don't want to just sneak in at the eight spot."

3) Lin also thinks that some of the criticism of his game is outdated and is a residue from the "Linsanity" days of 2012, when he made the cover of Sports Illustrated for two straight weeks but then had his game picked apart after being placed on that high pedestal.

Lin said he was worked on each of the four primary criticisms from those days -- too many turnovers, questionable shooting percentage, inability to go left and defense -- to the point where he believes he is a more "refined" and "all-around" player than he was in 2012 when he briefly set the league aflame.

4) Clifford said the perimeter spots are all set in the starting lineup -- Kemba Walker at point guard, Batum at shooting guard and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at small forward (Lin will be a reserve). The interior rotation, he said, is more uncertain -- although the coach noted that Al Jefferson was "still our best player" and said he believed Jefferson was doing everything he could to return to being the player he was two years ago.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Jeremy Lin signing a good move for Charlotte Hornets

Jeremy Lin? I like it.

The Charlotte Hornets agreed to terms with Lin Wednesday, according to a source, with the signing expected to be made official Thursday (UPDATE: The Hornets now have made it official). Lin has fallen a ways since his "Linsanity" days in New York in 2012 -- he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated for two consecutive weeks in February 2012, and he remains the first American of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA. Lin was courted as a backup this time, behind Kemba Walker at point guard, and apparently he's fine with that since he displayed the Hornets' logo on his Instagram account as a way of "announcing" his signing Wednesday night

Lin will not be the savior for the Charlotte Hornets. He will not, by himself, lead the Hornets to "the promised land," to use the analogy that GM Dave Gettleman used when the Carolina Panthers announced Cam Newton's $103-million signing recently. Lin is a good NBA player but not a great one -- don't overhype this move.

But he will fit better with this team than Lance Stephenson ever did, and at a much more reasonable price. He's shaky defensively but he can score (he has a career average of 11.7 points per game). And the one thing the Hornets have proved this offseason is that they are going to put some more points on the scoreboard even if it means they are less effective defensively.

So at least their games are going to be more entertaining. And I am not a huge fan of Brian Roberts, so making him the third point guard instead of Kemba's primary backup makes sense to me. This is a good move for the Hornets, and hopefully it will be a good move for Lin, too. He did not do well with the L.A. Lakers last season, but he's a fine scorer and really good in the pick-and-roll, and I can see situations where he gets hot in the third quarter and Steve Clifford plays a hunch and leaves him in during the fourth and lets him play alongside Walker.

It gives the Hornets more scoring options, basically, and that's a good thing for such an offensively challenged team (Lin will more or less take the roster spot of Mo Williams). It's not going to be Linsanity around here, but this will be a better team with Lin on it.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Brady gets what he deserves as NFL suspends QB for 4 games

Tom Brady was suspended for four games. The New England Patriots lost a first-round draft pick next season and a fourth-round pick in 2017 and also have to cough up a million dollars. And the NFL handed out on Monday what will not only be a popular punishment for the legions of Patriot haters, but also a deserved one.

As I wrote Sunday, Brady had to be suspended for his role in "Deflategate," no matter how murky he and the Patriots tried to make the water around it. The four-game suspension -- which Brady's agent announced he would appeal -- was exactly what I advocated. Why?

Simply, Brady seemed shady. He wasn't totally forthcoming during the investigation into the footballs deflated before the AFC championship game, and a reasonable man would assume that is because he had something to hide. Basically, the Patriots cheated and got caught -- that's how I and millions of others read it. (The Patriots don't believe they did anything wrong, though).

Remember -- and a retired judge pointed this out to me -- the burden of proof is different in a case like this. The bar is set lower, because while "Deflategate" is a juicy topic it is not a criminal investigation. Brady is an employee of the NFL, and based on its investigation it has determined that there is a preponderance of evidence that more likely than not Brady knew about and agreed with what was going on. Thus, the quarterback violated the integrity of the game.

The suspension of one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history for the first four games of this season will be one of the biggest stories in the league in 2015. New England won its fourth Super Bowl under Brady earlier this year. Now the Patriots will likely be starting Jimmy Garoppolo for a month. The loss of a first-round draft pick is also significant; the fourth-round pick and the million dollars, not so much.

The many fans who are jealous of the Patriots' success will revel in the Patriots' golden boy getting punished. But I am not happy about it for that reason. I am happy about it because Brady and the Patriots deserved it.

This was an obvious skirting of the rules, and no one on the Patriots' side has defended the quarterback with a lot of specifics for very good reason. The specifics would make him look bad. Brady will still be a first-ballot hall of famer, but Deflategate now and forever will also be a part of his legacy.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Was Shaq Thompson a luxury pick? And about those crab legs....

3 thoughts on the first day of the NFL draft:

1) I thought Jameis Winston posting a picture of himself on Instagram with a plate of steaming crab legs Thursday night after Tampa Bay selected him No. 1 showed exactly the kind of immaturity that the Bucs don't need out of Winston. I know, I know, I sound like a grumpy old man, Winston was just having fun given that old accusation of stealing crab legs from a grocery store in Florida, etc. But the guy needs to start acting more like an NFL rookie who needs to learn some things and less like an entitled Big Man on Campus. Pronto. (The picture has now apparently been deleted from Winston's Instagram account -- but it's a little late for that).

2) Pro Football Focus had this to say about Carolina's pick at No.25, linebacker Shaq Thompson of Washington: "They say linebacker, we see safety. Thompson is not good when blockers get on him, but looks a natural in coverage. How that fits in with Carolina in the short term is most interesting, because there’s no way you’re taking Luke Kuechly or Thomas Davis off the field on those passing downs any time soon.

"Thompson had the sixth highest grade in coverage of all linebackers against Power-5 opposition but was down in 25th for his work against the run. Numbers that really sum him up. We can’t fault the Panthers for not going offensive line (biggest need) given the run on linemen, but it does seem like something of a luxury pick when you’ve got some real weapons at wide receiver on the board

So was Thompson a luxury pick? Not really. Thomas Davis is the longest-tenured Panther (he also announced the pick of Thompson last night, which had a bizarre symmetry to it). TD won't last forever, and Thompson may start right away at weakside linebacker if he can beat out A.J. Klein. I'm OK with the pick if Thompson can play, but Carolina still needs help at OL, DB and RB in the next six rounds. As for PFF idea of Thompson playing safety, the Panthers don't plan to do that (nor at RB, either, although he gained 456 yards rushing as a rare two-way player for Washington)

3) Thompson made an interesting comparison last night, saying he was similar to Bucs linebacker Lavonte David in the pros. For those who don't follow the Bucs much, David is one of the few really good players that Tampa Bay has -- kind of a poor man's version of Luke Kuechly. If Thompson can become Lavonte David, everyone in Charlotte should be happy.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Who was best Panther draft pick ever?

Was Cam Newton the Panthers' best NFL draft pick ever? Or was it Luke Kuechly, Steve Smith or someone else? What do you think?

In case you have not seen the printed newspaper lately, I am now producing a full page of "Scott Says" every week for inside our Sunday sports section. It was on page 7B on April 12th.

The most recent one can also be found here online. Rather than one long story, each "Scott Says" page includes numerous items -- on April 12, it was a look back at the Panthers' first-ever draft in 1995 with hall of fame GM Bill Polian, as well as a Q and A with new Charlotte 49ers coach Mark Price and a short column about what the Hornets need to do to get out of their funk in 2015-16.

Also, each full page includes some reader input, and that's where you come in. Just tell me in your opinion -- either in a comment on this blog, or a tweet to @Scott_Fowler, or in an email to, the answer to these two questions:

1) Who was the Panthers' best draft pick ever?

2) Who was the Panthers' worst draft pick ever?

Thanks! Let me know what you think...


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Goodbye and good riddance to Greg Hardy

I have heard from a few disgruntled Panthers fans today who wish that the team had given Greg Hardy another chance. Instead, the Dallas Cowboys will now employ the Kraken.

If you have missed my earlier columns on this issue, here is one of them. To me, this is exactly how it should have turned out for Carolina. Goodbye and good riddance to Hardy, who to me is just too much of a character risk to hijack a salary cap a second year in a row.

As I expected, the price for Hardy was not reasonable at all -- the Cowboys have gambled huge money on him. The reaction in Dallas, understandably, has been swift and stern from media types, but we all know given owner Jerry Jones' past actions that he is going to win at all costs (on and off the field) and figure that can take care of his public relations issues later.

For Carolina, though, this is the way it had to happen. The Panthers were already the No. 10 defense in the NFL without Hardy last season. Time to move on.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Winners to be announced soon in Why Sports Matters contest

Thanks to all who sent me entries in the "Why Sports Matters" contest. I got lots of entries and have had a few unexpected work assignments lately, so my judging has fallen behind. I originally wrote that I would be announcing winners on Wednesday, March 18th. That won't happen, but I will announce the winners in the near future in this same space and also publish them. Thank you for your patience, and in the meantime enjoy the NCAA tournament! (UPDATE: All winners were published in the newspapers of April 12 and April 19th and can also be found at this link.

Friday, March 13, 2015

On Bob McKillop, Dean Smith, Bill O'Reilly and a strange New York cabbie

NEW YORK -- I am in the Big Apple about to watch Davidson in the Atlantic 10 tournament and just wanted to note a couple of things:

1) My story on Bob McKillop and the masterpiece he has painted with the Davidson Wildcats can be found here. One random fact I didn't know about McKillop until we did the interview for this story: he went to high school in New York with Bill O'Reilly, now a celebrity TV host for Fox News. McKillop said O'Reilly's personality has basically not changed at all from then until now.

2) Mark your calendars for Tuesday, March 17 from 11 am to 1 pm. At that time, The Observer is going to have a book launch for our new book celebrating Dean Smith's life. "Dean Smith" More than a Coach" is a 128-page book containing photos and stories from 50 years of The Observer's coverage of the man who was coach of UNC from 1961-97 and who passed away in February. Ron Green Sr., Ron Green Jr. and myself -- who all contributed stories to the book -- will all be there in The Observer's lobby (600 South Tryon Street) for those two hours to sign books and chat with UNC fans. The book is $14.95 and a portion of the proceeds for all books sold that day will be donated to the Dean E. Smith Opening Doors Fund at UNC.

3) If you entered my writing contest in honor of this blog hitting the 5 million mark, thanks so much. I got a lot of great entries and am sorting through them all. Winners will be announced by or before Wednesday, March. 18th.

4) OK, quick New York story. I love New York, but sometimes you just have to shake your head at it. I arrived at LaGuardia Airport Thursday and needed a ride to Manhattan. Hopped in a cab. The driver drove like most New York cabbies do -- badly, in other words -- but I didn't notice too much because it was so common. However, he made the bad mistake of cutting across four lanes of traffic with no turn signal in front of one of NYPD's finest.

So here came the blue lights, and the siren, and the cab had to pull over. You better believe he used the turn signal that time. The policeman came to the car, got the cabbie's license and registration, had him roll down the back window and apologized to me like this: "Sorry for the delay sir, but this man has your life in his hands, and he's being very careless with it." Ten minutes later, the cabbie had a ticket. "I'm giving you one, but you should get four," the cop grumbled.

And here's the best part: For those 10 minutes while we were stopped in that yellow cab on the side of the road, both of us annoyed for different reasons, the cabbie never apologized for our delay. Never spoke a word, in fact. But, until I noticed and pointed it out, he kept the meter running.

Monday, March 9, 2015

On Ginn return, Davidson Speedo guy and Bilas prediction on Kentucky

3 notes on a Monday:

1) I applaud the Panthers for getting Ted Ginn Jr. back after his disappointing year in Arizona. Ginn gives the Panthers another speed threat and had a great knack in 2013 for the big play at the right time (including this TD in 2013 against New England). I thought the Panthers never should have let him go -- they struggled constantly with getting the ball deep in 2014 without him -- but certainly he will be more affordable now. This is a good move, as was the signing of tackle Michael "Blind Side" Oher. Both are affordable veteran players worth the risk. The Panthers are off to a solid start in free agency, but many questions remain.

2) In case you missed this, Davidson had a swimmer named Luke Burton Thursday night who stripped down to a Tuxedo-themed Speedo -- he calls it a "tux-pedo" -- and made a lot of people laugh with his antics while VCU was shooting free throws until he got kicked out of the game (won by Davidson, 82-55 -- the Wildcats are, incredibly enough, Atlantic 10 regular-season champs). My original video of Luke Burton's dance has now climbed to No.5 on the all-time Observer list of most-clicked videos, and Burton's hilarious interview explaining his thinking after he got kicked out is quickly catching up to the original one in hits. You can see them both by clicking here -- the shorter video is at the bottom, and the longer one at the top.

3) I talked to Charlotte resident and ESPN analyst Jay Bilas for a couple of stories last week, including this one on the delights of March Madness. While we were on the phone I asked Bilas if he thought Kentucky would go 40-0, winning both the SEC title and the national championship. He said he thought the Wildcats would, but said while they were unbeaten, they were not unbeatable.

Said Bilas of Kentucky: "If they finish the year undefeated and win the national championship, they will be considered one of the all-time great teams and it will be one of all-time great accomplishments.if they finish the year undefeated and win the national championship, they will be considered one of the all-time great teams and it will be one of all-time great accomplishments.

"They absolutely can. I think they will. They're unbeaten. I'm not one of those who think they are unbeatable. They can be beaten. I look at them kind of like UNLV in 1991. they are the best team. that doesn't mean they are going to win, but they are the best team.

"If this were the NBA and a 7-game playoff series, they would not have to worry. But it's not, and they are subject to being beaten."

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Greg Olsen gets paid first? Well, OK....

The Panthers seemed to skip a few people in line today, signing Greg Olsen to a three-year extension that will keep him with the team until 2018.

Olsen's contract wasn't up until after this season, so it's a little surprising to me that he was the player the Panther paid first -- only because there are more pressing deadlines. But it must have been the most doable contract on their plate, for Olsen has made no secret of wanting to stay and God knows the Panthers need him. He and Wesley Walls are the two best tight ends Carolina has ever had, and Olsen's rapport with Cam Newton helped him make his first Pro Bowl in 2014. Olsen is also such a high-character guy that it's hard to measure, although I tried in this column from last September.

Sometimes, we talk so much about problems with the local teams we forget about the solutions that are already there and need to stay there. Olsen, Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly, Cam Newton -- all those men need to get paid, too. And, of course, OT, WR and secondary problems must be addressed.

So good for Olsen. He absolutely deserved this contract. Man, the guy made his first Pro Bowl (at least one year too late) and then immediately scored two touchdowns in it.

But this was just a warmup for what must be to come.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

5 million views for Scott Says blog -- so enter our contest and win a book

The online version of the "Scott Says" blog has existed since 2008, and I am pleased to report that the blog recently surpassed five million page views for its lifetime.

To celebrate, we are going to have a contest. We are going to give away five books -- one for every million page views -- as a small token of appreciation to all the loyal readers who helped the blog reach this landmark.

This is your chance to write something sports-related that will appear on this blog and in the newspaper. All you have to do is answer one question, and answer it in 100 WORDS OR LESS. The question is:


I am looking for personal memories here more than big-picture ideas. Specifics, not generalities. And only 100 words or less, please! More than that and I will certainly read it, but you won't be eligible for the giveaway. There is a limit of one entry per person.

You can submit these via email to me at Also send along your name, hometown and phone number.

I will pick three winners from those entries, and those three folks can choose to receive either a persnalized and signed copy of either The Observer's just-published, celebratory book on the life and career of Dean Smith or of my most recent Carolina Panthers book. Those three winners will also have their entries appear on this blog and in the newspaper at some point.

Don't feel like writing anything?

I can't blame you -- sometimes I don't feel like writing anything, either. In that case, just enter the contest without writing anything. Just by sending me your name, hometown and phone number via email at I will have a random drawing for the last two books between those "non-writing" entries.

The deadline to submit your entry -- whether you choose to answer the question or not, and remember, just one entry per person -- is Sunday, March 8th. I will announce the winners by or before Wednesday, March 18th. Good luck, and thank you again for your help in getting this blog to the 5 million mark. (Note to stat junkies: Of the nearly 1,800 blog entries I have posted here over the years, by far the most popular was this one in Jan.2012, which exclusively revealed the details of the Panthers' new logo. Of the 5,000,000 page views, that blog post was responsible for about 120,000 of them.)

If you are one of the five winners, you can choose from either of these books:

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What next for Panthers after correctly parting with DeAngelo, Bell?

Let us not get overly emotional about the release of Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams. It was absolutely the right thing to do.

Williams was no longer an effective NFL running back. He was one for a long time, but by the end of 2014 I thought he was the fourth-best running back on the roster.

As I wrote back in January, this should be one of the easiest decisions the Panthers make the entire offseason. While I thought the Panthers should have kept Steve Smith around one more year instead of release him before the 2014 season, if anything I think they kept Williams around one year too long. Certainly, he needed to be released by now. I am sorry he doesn't feel like the Panthers supported him when his mother died, but let's not let that cloud the on-field issues.

This column I wrote back in January listed seven things I thought the Panthers ought to do in the offseason. They have now accomplished the first two on my list -- release Williams and don't bring back left tackle Byron Bell, who was simply not good enough last year.

Here are the other five in the list and an update as to where the Panthers stand with each:

1. Sign a tackle – and then draft another. I think the Panthers will do both of these things. My biggest problem with what Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman didn’t do in the 2014 offseason had to do with him trying to get by cheaply at both tackle spots. That was a mistake.

2. Don't completely ignore the dollar store. Gettleman said in January: “Last year we were shopping in the dollar store. This year we’ll be able to move up in class a little bit.”

That’s fine, but the dollar store is a great place to upgrade the mostly awful special-teams coverage and return units. Hello Ted Ginn Jr.?If he comes at a reasonable price, I would like to see it -- as would Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert.

3. Stay far away from Greg Hardy. I think the Panthers will ultimately do this even though the charges against Hardy were dismissed. To me, the risk doesn't line up with the reward.

4. Make inroads with Cam. The Panthers are doing this, having reopened negotiations on a contract extension with Cam Newton.

5. Keep more continuity. Late in 2014, the Panthers had 16 new players among the 24 key positions on offense and defense (I am counting the third receiver and the nickel cornerback as starters, too). Only eight players were the same from 2013.

That's too much turnover -- way too much -- for a team that won 12 games in 2013.

Williams and Bell? They were properly jettisoned. But this team does not need a major overhaul. Last year's overhaul backfired to some extent, and I think Gettleman knows that. This team needs to have far more continuity. As for DeAngelo, he will leave as the team's leading rusher, and he will be missed.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Time for Charlotte Motor Speedway to put SAFER walls everywhere

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- In the wake of the accident that kept Kyle Busch out of the Daytona 500 Sunday, Charlotte Motor Speedway needs to find a way to quickly place soft walls all around the inside and outside of its 1.5-mile track before its series of big races in May.

Like almost all the tracks in the top three NASCAR series, CMS has the SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers in a lot of the spots that drivers hit most often -- like the turns -- but not everywhere.

Texted Scott Cooper, a spokesman for the Charlotte track, in response to my question about where the SAFER walls were at CMS: "I don't know the percentage [of walls covered with SAFER Barriers at CMS]. We have some on inside walls as well as [the] majority of outside."

That's not enough. We saw that Saturday night.

Charlotte should learn from Daytona's big mistake, which I wrote about in this column. The Daytona track has been heavily promoting a $400-million renovation, but what it has not done is cover all its walls with technology that is proven to make drivers safer. That is inexcusable and incomprehensible. Daytona Speedway president Joie Chitwood III said Saturday night that his track would change that for future events and cover every inch of its inside and outside walls with SAFER barriers.

"The Daytona International Speedway did not live up to its responsibility today," Chitwood said. "We should have had a SAFER barrier there today. We did not. We're going to fix that. We're going to fix that right now."

Busch hit an unprotected wall head-first Saturday night in an Xfinity Series race and broke multiple bones due to the impact. He may be out for many weeks.

Where Busch hit the wall was not too far from where Kevin Harvick had banged into the wall in the 2014 Daytona 500 -- also hitting an unprotected wall. Harvick's complaints went mostly unnoticed afterward.

As Harvick said Sunday of Daytona's decision to put SAFER walls everywhere after Busch's wreck: "I think it's a reaction from the track, unfortunately. I hit the same wall a little further up last year at this particular race and kind of voiced my opinion. Unfortunately, I was just a dot on the chart. There was no reaction. Now there is a reaction from the race track. Hopefully, this is a lesson learned."

The barriers are expensive, at a reported cost of $500 per square foot. That means it can cost $2.6 million to install a mile's worth of the SAFER barriers. Tracks throughout NASCAR's top series must install them at least in the corners. But NASCAR does not make tracks line its walls with SAFER barriers on both the inside and outside walls, and only a few of the shorter ones do.

Charlotte Motor Speedway has a chance to get in front of this issue. No matter the cost, the Speedway needs to pony up. Put the SAFER walls everywhere, before someone else gets badly hurt.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

NASCAR does right thing by suspending Busch

NASCAR suspended Kurt Busch indefinitely Friday night after a Delaware official said in a 25-page written opinion that he believed Busch had "manually strangled" his former girlfriend during a confrontation in his motorhome last September.

Busch won't race Sunday in the Daytona 500, and I believe that's a good thing the way things stand now. I am critical of NASCAR pretty frequently -- its championship format still isn't right -- but in the Busch case I thought the organization got it right with this suspension. It waited until there was at least some independent finding of a likely act of domestic violence, and then it acted. You could say that this should have happened sooner, but there was no Ray Rice video in this case. You needed to make sure Patricia Driscoll's story had enough of the ring of truth to act.

Now I hope NASCAR keeps some teeth in this. Busch doesn't need to be back on a racetrack anytime soon, and a quick reversal on appeal would only confuse the process. Busch kept saying he was waiting for answers when myself and some other reporters tried to talk to him in Charlotte, in late January. Now he has gotten some, although not the answers he would want. For now, Kurt Busch is and should be out of the sport. Bravo to NASCAR on this one.

Friday, February 20, 2015

More on Danica, Hamlin and the Hendrick drivers heading into Daytona

4 thoughts from Daytona in the aftermath of the Budweiser Duels Thursday night:

1) If one of the top three drivers for Hendrick Motorsports does not win the Daytona 500, I will be surprised. Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. sit 1-2-3 on the starting grid, with Gordon winning the pole and Johnson and Earnhardt winning the 150-mile twin Budweiser Duels Thursday night. Hendrick looks like it has figured something out.

2) The most entertaining part about Thursday night was the second incident in two days in which Danica Patrick thought Denny Hamlin wrecked her while Hamlin maintained her car is too loose and that every time he comes close to it, the car loses control. Their heated post-race conversation involved an exasperated Hamlin trying to explain to an angry Patrick that it really wasn't his fault. She wasn't buying it. (I wrote my column today on Patrick and her long winless streak in NASCAR's top two series).

Later, Hamlin said of Patrick: "She deserves her spot here, but you have to be able to run close to somebody on a superspeedway... I'm not going to say, 'It's Danica, so I've got to make sure I just leave some extra room.' If you're out here in the Cup Series, you have to be able to handle those situations."

3) The first line of the pastor's prayer before Thursday night's first race was very appropriate for most of America: "Lord, tonight it is cold." And it was, although most of America was even colder.

It's too bad these races -- which were pretty entertaining, and here's our Jim Utter's quick update about them -- weren't held in the afternoon the way they used to be. Temperatures hovered around freezing all night in Daytona, undoubtedly scaring away many fans but also giving drivers a false sense of security about how well their cars handle. When the race arrives Sunday, with temperatures in the 70s, we will see what those cars are really like.

4) Want a low-profile driver who has a chance to at least make the top 10 Sunday -- and maybe more? Try 21-year-old Ryan Blaney. He finished sixth without even trying too hard in his 150-miler Thursday, and confidently said his car had a lot more left in it than he showed on a night where simply finishing in the top 15 got you into the big race. Blaney's composure also is a major plus.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Panthers raise ticket prices for second straight season -- here are the details

The Carolina Panthers have raised their ticket prices for the second straight season, The Observer has learned.

Ticket prices for the 2015 season will increase again this year throughout the stadium. For about two-thirds of the seats, the increase will be modest -- $2 to $5 per ticket per game. For the remaining one-third, increases will frequently be larger than that. The Panthers' average ticket price will again rank in the lower half of teams in the NFL.

Non premium ticket prices for Panthers games will now range from $43 to $160. Ticket prices for new Silver Club seats will start at $250. Renewal packages for PSL owners -- who control about 62,000 of the stadium's 74,000 seats -- will be mailed very shortly. The team is again offering a six-month, interest-free payment plan for ticket renewal.

The Panthers have made the playoffs the past two seasons in a row, winning back-to-back NFC South championships. A bit of ticket history: the team raised ticket prices before the 2010 season, then held them firm for the next four years before last year's increase and now this year's increase. The average price of a Panther ticket last season was approximately $72, and that will rise by several dollars for the 2015 season.

Panthers president Danny Morrison said in a statement: "As we celebrate 20 years of Panthers football, back-to-back NFC South Division championships and Thomas Davis' NFL Man of the Year award, there is excitement about the foundation that has been established for the future," Panthers president Danny Morrison said in a statement. "The fan support has been paramount to this success and has contributed to the unifying and family-friendly atmosphere at Bank of America Stadium..... We will continue to work to provide you the finest gameday experience possible."

Monday, February 9, 2015

A Dean Smith story you have not heard

I was on WFAE, the local public radio station in Charlotte, for an hour today with John Kilgo, David Chadwick, Mick Mixon and Paul Cameron. Mike Collins, the host, was asking us for various Dean Smith stories. Everyone in that room had a pretty deep knowledge of the Carolina basketball program, but no one had heard one of the stories Kilgo told before.

Kilgo, remember, was the co-author of Dean Smith's official memoir , the longtime host of his TV show and was very close to the legendary coach, who died Saturday at the age of 83. We were talking about the cruel irony that Smith -- who had one of the most amazing memories and minds anyone had ever seen -- had slowly deteriorated mentally for many years because of what his family has described as a neurocognitive disorder.

Kilgo said that one of the stories Smith didn't let him publish in his book was this (and I'm paraphrasing a little): In Smith's final game as the Tar Heel coach, in the NCAA Final Four in 1997, UNC was losing to Arizona late in the game. In a huddle, Smith told point guard Ed Cota to commit a quick foul against a certain Arizona player. Cota did, quickly, and before long there was another timeout.

But then Smith, as he told it later to Kilgo, snapped at Cota in the huddle. "What did you do that for?" the coach asked Cota.

"Because you told me to, Coach," came Cota's reply, according to Kilgo.

Kilgo said Smith would later tell him this was the first time his vaunted mind had failed him, and that he knew then that ultimately he would never coach another basketball game.

Greg Hardy free to play somewhere -- but it should not be Carolina

Now that the domestic violence case against Greg Hardy has been suddenly dismissed, he definitely has an NFL future somewhere.

But I do not believe it should be in Charlotte. I don't think he should ever play for the Carolina Panthers again.

Hardy is a free man, yes, and he will be on the open market March 10th when the NFL's free agency period begins. He is 26, in what should be the prime of his career. And he had 15 sacks in 2013 -- the last time he played a full year in the NFL.

But to me, Hardy is too much of a risk for a big contract, and the emotional baggage he carries is too considerable for the Panthers to lock into any sort of financial agreement with him again as they think about their offseason plan.

Somebody is going to pay him. It shouldn't be the Panthers.

Hardy was supposed to go on trial -- again -- on misdemeanor domestic violence charges Monday. Instead, the case fell apart and was dismissed when the prosecution could not secure the cooperation of Nicole Holder, Hardy's former girlfriend and the woman who originally charged him.

District attorney Andrew Murray said in court that his office believed Holder and Hardy had reached a financial settlement. In a press release, the DA's office also said: "The victim appears to have intentionally made herself unavailable to the State. The DA's Office has also been made aware that the victim has reached a civil settlement with Mr. Hardy."

And, the DA's office said, "Without her testimony, in this particular instance, the State could not proceed." The DA's office had all sorts of trouble finding the elusive Holder, apparently, although it's pretty hard to believe in this day and age she could not be found -- even though she obviously didn't want to be found.

This doesn't mean for sure Hardy won't be suspended by the NFL, but I think it's likely he will not be. Roger Goodell could suspend him for detrimental conduct, I suppose, but legally his record is now clear.

So why not have Hardy apologize to Jerry Richardson and his teammates, fall on whatever type of sword a Kraken carries and then simply come back to Carolina at a reasonable price?

Because I don't think he can be trusted, and ultimately I don't think the price will be that reasonable.

Look at how last year turned out. The Panthers paid Hardy $13.1 million, effectively hijacking their own salary cap, and he played in one game. Not because of an injury he couldn't help, but because of an off-field issue. If this were going to be settled out of court, I am sure every Panther fan is asking why it wasn't settled before the 2014 season rather than after it concluded.

The Panthers' defense did OK without Hardy, finishing No. 10 in total defense last season. As a team, with No.76 on the field, it's undeniable they are better. Carolina could technically use another one-year franchise tag on him, this time at a price of $15.7 million.

But it's not always just about talent. Somebody is going to take a risk on Hardy, because NFL teams are desperate for pass rushers in their prime.

The Panthers, though, already know how that can turn out. After Monday, Hardy is free to go elsewhere. And that is exactly what he should do.

Joe Person on Greg Hardy's future:

Sunday, February 1, 2015

3 things Panthers can learn from spectacular Super Bowl -- and 1 thing that is too late to change

We just saw an amazing Super Bowl, with New England winning 28-24 after scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns and intercepting Russell Wilson at the 1-yard line in the final seconds. Here are three things the Panthers can learn from the game, and one that is too late to change:

1) Don't get too cute. What in the world was Seattle doing trying to throw the ball at the 1 with plenty of time left -- 20 seconds and a timeout -- to give Marshawn Lynch at least one more crack at a TD? He had almost scored from the 5 on the previous play. This is a lesson well worth remembering for Carolina. Just because everyone knows Cam Newton is good on the quarterback sneak from the 1? That doesn't mean you try a pass to the second tight end to "fool people." You run Newton up the gut from the 1. That's why Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell's Wikipedia page was briefly hacked Sunday night following the game. (That "update" was quickly taken off by the powers that be, but here's a screenshot).

The play call roused a lot of other reaction too on Twitter, perhaps best symbolized by this one:

2) There is no such thing as too many pass rushers or too many good cornerbacks. That vaunted Seattle defense could not get to Tom Brady on his two fourth-quarter TD drives. It looked tired. And that's the best defense in the NFL. And once Seattle got one defensive back hurt, it suddenly looked very vulnerable. This is a lesson Panther GM Dave Gettleman understands -- I bet he will draft another pass rusher somewhere in the 2015 draft, because he loves them. Here's a little more advice for Gettleman.

3) Throw the ball short against Seattle. New England scored 28 points by basically ignoring Richard Sherman's third of the field and throwing the ball short constantly for 8-10 yard gains by getting its wide receivers and tight end Rob Gronkowski constantly matched up against Seattle's linebackers. Carolina has lost four straight to the Seahawks and will play them a fifth time in Seattle in the 2015 regular season, and the Panthers have never scored more than 17 points in any of those previous four games. This was the blueprint of how to do it. Investing more in your offensive tackles also helps.

As for the one thing that's too late to change, Carolina should never have let Brandon LaFell get away. He's not a No.1 receiver, but he just won a Super Bowl ring and scored a touchdown in the biggest game he's ever played. He was plenty good enough to have stayed in Charlotte and would have given Newton one more weapon on a team that was offensively challenged all year. LaFell got to share the moment with his son afterward -- see Joseph Person's pic below and also follow all of Joe's excellent work on this game elsewhere on

Prediction update: I picked the Patriots to win, 24-20, so I got the point spread right but was slightly off on the final score. This was one of the best Super Bowls I've ever seen, but like every Super Bowl it does leave me somewhat empty. We are now seven months away from seeing another meaningful NFL game.

And incidentally, what about that "Nationwide and the dead kid" ad. Looks like a nice, sweet, kid-friendly ad and then, "Wait, what?? He died in a bathtub? Who green-lighted that one?" Had to be the worst ad Sunday night.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Bill Polian, Thomas Davis take home huge honors

As usual, the Carolina Panthers are not in this Super Bowl. But a couple of Panthers -- one former GM, one current linebacker -- had very big and well-deserved days on the day before the big game.

Bill Polian, who was the Panthers' general manager from 1995-97 and constructed the team that got to the NFC championship in 1996, made the Pro Football Hall of Fame Saturday. And Thomas Davis won the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, which honors exemplary community service by a current NFL player. He is the Panthers' first winner of that award and was also a finalist for it a year ago.

The Panthers have been fortunate that Davis has played his entire career with Carolina. They would have been well-served had Polian stuck around longer than three years. Polian won everywhere he went and had even greater success before Carolina (in Buffalo, where he put together the nucleus of a Bills team that went to four Super Bowls but never won one) and afterward in Indianapolis (where his drafting of Peyton Manning with the No.1 overall pick in 1998 eventually helped the Colts win the Super Bowl). He is the most accomplished GM the Panthers have ever employed, although it wasn't all roses. Polian's last Panther squad, in 1997, got old in a hurry on defense.

There was one other former Panther who didn't have a good Saturday. Kevin Greene, who I believe one day will make the Hall of Fame, missed by an eyelash yet again.

Greene made it to the final cut, but was not selected. Greene only played three of his 15 years in Carolina, but if and when he does get in he will be the first hall of famer who had more than one season in a Panther uniform. He averaged nearly 14 sacks per game in those three seasons. (The late Reggie White, who got in because of his great work in Green Bay and Philadelphia, played one forgettable season in Carolina at the end of his career).

Polian still lives in Cornelius. He and his wife kept an offseason home in the Lake Norman area for years even when he worked in Indianapolis, and now that he is working primarily for ESPN they still make their home only about 20 minutes from the stadium where Davis still does his work.

I have always thought Davis should have made at least one Pro Bowl. Last year and this year he has done the best work of his career -- this after three serious knee operations on the same knee -- and that should be more nationally recognized. But winning the Walter Payton award is a major honor and one that should help Davis do even more good work in this community, as well as in his Georgia hometown. For that, we can all be grateful.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Prediction: New England to edge Seattle in fully inflated Super Bowl thriller

Is there any way both teams can lose?

That's what I keep hearing from Carolina Panther fans when they are talking about this season's Seattle-New England Super Bowl.

Panther fans have no love for Seattle, a team that has beaten Carolina four times in the last three seasons -- including three weeks ago in the playoffs. The Seahawks feature Marshawn Lynch, who likes to make a mockery of press conferences and, based on my own brief personal experiences with him, is an unpleasant person to be around. But that pales compared to New England, the team America loves to hate after Spygate, Deflategate and the fact that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have just won too many darn times already.

There is no lovable underdog in this one -- and no obvious favorite, either. The No.1 seeds from each conference advanced to the Super Bowl.

The upside: It should be a really good game. I will be surprised if we see another blowout anywhere close to what Seattle did to Denver last season. I just don't think the Patriots are nearly that fragile.

-- I hope you have a good place to watch the Super Bowl (kickoff, 6:30 p.m.) and some good food to eat while doing so. It's an unofficial national holiday, and it comes at exactly the right time to liven up a long winter.

And if you feel the least bit guilty about spending money on Super Bowl-related food, here's something to make you feel better. As of late this week, the cheapest Super Bowl tickets available were going for about $8,000 a seat on the most popular resale sites. You will be watching the game for free with what is undoubtedly a better view. So don't sweat a few extra bucks for the seven-layer dip.

-- OK, prediction time. I only predicted the Panthers' outcome each week this past season and ended up with a 12-5-1 record doing that after picking Carolina's final five games in a row correctly. I am going to venture out of that familiar territory to pick the Super Bowl, though.

If Seattle's stupendous secondary can rattle Tom Brady, that will do it and the Seahawks will win their second straight title. I don't think the Seahawks can do that, though. The Seahawks needed an incredible last few minutes in the NFC championship game -- and a dropped onsides kick by Green Bay -- to get to the Super Bowl. And that was against an immobile Aaron Rodgers.

Brady is used to being immobile. It's his standard operating procedure. And the Patriots' defense is better than Green Bay's. Using fully inflated balls, I think the final score will be New England 24, Seattle 20.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Coach K really has 1075 wins if you count USA Basketball

Yes, Coach K has hit 1K as of Sunday, but that does not even count 75 wins he has had at an even higher level of basketball.

Really, he is at 1,075. I have been fortunate enough to cover Mike Krzyzewski while he coached the U.S. men's senior national team at the past two Olympics. That team has won a gold medal in both 2008 and 2012 and has proved emphatically that Krzyzewski is not just a college coach -- he's a basketball coach. He treated the pro players a little differently -- giving them more rope, talking to them more as peers -- and it worked beautifully. He has coached the men's national team since 2005, compiling an overall 75-1 record in various world championships and Olympics. The team's lone loss under Coach K came in 2006.

Coach K's close relationships with LeBron James and Kobe Bryant were key to the past two gold medals for the U.S. As Bryant said after the 2012 gold medal game of Coach K: "He’s brilliant. Very intelligent. Communicates very well. And he’s fun. Doesn’t take himself too seriously. We all have enjoyed him immensely.”

Jerry Colangelo, USA Basketball's chairman, once told me a story. In 2005, Colangelo had been charged with helping the U.S. men’s team rise from the ashes of the 2004 Olympic squad. That team had been coached by Larry Brown and had lost three times in Greece after many of the top NBA players found convenient excuses not to play.

Brown obviously wasn’t going to get to come back after that performance. So Colangelo started asking lots of basketball people who should next coach the team in 2008.

One of those he asked at a meeting in Chicago was Dean Smith, the legendary UNC coach who had directed the 1976 U.S. team to an Olympic gold medal. That was back when the U.S. used only college players – Smith put four of his Tar Heels on the squad.

Colangelo showed Smith a blackboard filled with possible head coaches from the NBA and college ranks.

“Dean Smith said there’s only one college guy up there who I believe I can get the job done, and that’s Coach K,” Colangelo told me. “Which was really a statement, coming from his biggest rival.”

Coach K was recommended by many others, too, of course. But that one carried particular weight with Colangelo. And Smith was right -- Coach K sure got the job done, and still believes he has the energy to do it again. He will return as the Olympic men's head coach for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Appreciating Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon has spent half his life turning left at NASCAR's highest level. Now, at 43, he says this will be his last full-time season as a driver.

Remember Gordon in 1994? He won the first of his 92 Cup races then, at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He had a skimpy moustache -- "It just looked ridiculous," he told me last year, reminiscing for this story -- and incredible talent. He cried through the last 10 laps of that race.

Now in 2015, Gordon will be taking his last laps as a driver. The four-time Cup champion is still near the top of the pack, making the playoffs and coming very close to a spot in the final four last season.

Gordon has always struck me as one of the most thoughtful people in racing. So if he thinks it's time, it's time. He has had some injury problems over the past few years -- mostly chronic back pain -- and he is a doting father. He and his wife have a son and a daughter.

As he told me last year: "My daughter.... lights up when I walk in a room. When I leave she says, 'Where are you going? Don't leave?' A lot of times I wish I didn't have to run off."

He won't have to run off nearly as much after this season, although knowing Gordon I am sure he will stay busy. Third on the all-time win list (trailing only Richard Petty and David Pearson), it would be a fairytale ending if Gordon could win a fifth and final championship in his final season.

That likely won't happen. But who knows? I still remember what Gordon said in 1994, when I covered his very first win at CMS.

Said Gordon then: "This is the highest feeling in the world.... If I only win one Winston Cup race in my career, I'd be happy."

If you want a few laughs and memories, check out our photo gallery of Gordon through the years here.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

5 reasons Panthers lost to Seattle

SEATTLE -- Here is a quick take on 5 of the biggest reasons Carolina lost 31-17 to Seattle Saturday night:

1) Turnovers. Seattle had zero. Carolina had three -- all charged to quarterback Cam Newton. Newton's turnovers were the worst part of this, certainly, but the Panthers' defense really needed to come up with at least one big play on this night, and it did not.

2) The young secondary got exposed. Tre Boston allowed a 16-yard TD pass. Bene Benwikere allowed a 63-yarder. On both plays, the rookies simply lost sight of the ball and were taken advantage of by Seattle's Russell Wilson, who was the best player in this game.

3) Luke Willson. Seattle's young tight end is overshadowed by the quarterback who shares his surname (except for that extra 'L'), but the Panthers couldn't cover him all day. He was targeted four times, caught all four and gained 68 yards with one TD. His numbers were better than Carolina Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen (4-58, no TDs). Willson must love the Panthers -- he scored the game's only TD in October in the final minute to beat Carolina, 13-9.

4) Kam Chancellor. Seattle's star safety was all over the field. He nearly blocked a Carolina kick -- twice! -- by jumping entirely over the Panthers' line. And although that ploy didn't work, he later baited Newton and got a 90-yard pick six for his trouble that clinched the game.

5) Talent differential. Look, Carolina doesn't have as many good players as Seattle does. That's just a fact. When you are asking Philly Brown to make a play on a deep ball against Richard Sherman, or you are asking Colin Jones to figure out how to not allow Wilson to complete a pass -- that's just a mismatch. There were too many of them on the field, and eventually Seattle was bound to exploit a number of them.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

How Johnny Manziel almost wrecked Panther season

I am writing a story for Friday's newspaper and online about the 10 defining plays of the Panthers' surprising season. To do so, I enlisted the help from a panel of 10 current Panthers as well as coach Ron Rivera.

The following play, described by enthusiastic Panther cornerback Josh Norman, ultimately didn't make the final cut. But it was interesting.

The way Norman sees it, the Panthers knocking Cleveland rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel out of the game on Dec.21st nearly ruined Carolina's season. Manziel, in other words, nearly wrecked the Panthers' year by getting hurt.

Needing to beat Cleveland at home to make the playoffs, the Panthers' Colin Jones and Luke Kuechly combined on a hit of Manziel early in the second quarter on a designed run by Manziel. Manziel tried to get up, couldn't (you can see him reaching for his leg in this picture from The Observer's Jeff Siner, which shows the aftermath of the tackle) and left the game with a hamstring injury. Brian Hoyer -- a player Norman considers a far better quarterback -- replaced Manziel and nearly led the Browns to a win.

"We were [unhappy] that he didn't stay in," Norman said of Manziel, who ended up 3-for-8 for 32 yards. "It was like, 'Oh, ----, now we've got a better quarterback.'"

Hoyer threw an 81-yard TD pass in the fourth quarter that put Cleveland ahead, 13-10. If the Browns had held on, Carolina would have finished 6-9-1 and New Orleans would have won the NFC South. Instead, Carolina got a late touchdown on Cam Newton's nine-yard pass to Jonathan Stewart (which did make the "top 10" cut). But Norman said the outcome never would have been in doubt and that the Panthers would have won much more easily had Manziel not been knocked out of the game.

"If he [Manziel] had stayed in, it would been a nightmare," Norman said. "His numbers would have been horrible. The best thing that happened to him was getting hurt. That was going to get ugly real quick."

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Panthers can beat Seattle if these 6 things happen

Oddsmakers have established Seattle as an 11-point favorite against Carolina. Beating the Seahawks in Seattle is perhaps the most extreme challenge in the NFL right now. Here are six things that would have to happen in my opinion for Carolina to get there:

1) Jonathan Stewart has to rush for more than 100 yards. Seattle's secondary is the best in the NFL, so it's no wonder Cam Newton struggles against the Seahawks. Remember what the Seahawks did to Peyton Manning in the last Super Bowl? But Stewart has been on such a roll that a great game from him could be a huge difference and a crowd-quieter (he had 79 yards in Carolina's October loss).

2) Carolina can have no more than one total turnover. Preferably, this number would be zero. I think the Panthers could survive one turnover in some circumstances. More than one? No chance.

3) Never fall behind by more than 10 points. This Carolina offense, against that Seattle defense, in that environment? It's not going to work to have to play catch-up. If the Seahawks get ahead by more than 10, it's over. If the Panthers stay close and don't make big mistakes, though -- in other words, Kelvin Benjamin can't drop a ball in the end zone like he did in October (see above picture) -- they will have a chance in the fourth quarter.

4) Two turnovers from Russell Wilson. You're not going to stop Wilson all the time -- he's just too good. But occasionally he will throw a bad pass, and because he runs so often (and takes some sacks because he is so confident in his running ability) the ball is sometimes available. I think Wilson would need to turn it over twice for Carolina to win.

5) Two big plays by relative unknowns. Remember Fozzy Whittaker's 39-yard touchdown off a screen pass last week vs. Arizona? Or Kevin Reddick's fumble recovery inside Arizona's 5? I'm talking about something like that -- twice.

6) Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have to be "hellacious." That was Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald's word for Nos.58 and 59 last week after both Panther linebackers played a fantastic game in Carolina's 27-16 win. They will have to be just as good vs. Seattle -- and maybe better.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Panthers to edge Cardinals on a memorable Saturday

When you are sitting in the rain and the football stadium where you are sitting doesn't allow umbrellas, it's all a matter of perspective.

Carolina Panther fans will almost certainly have that experience Saturday, as rain looms over the forecast. It will be cold, it will be wet and it could be very nasty -- if the Panthers are losing.

If the Panthers are winning, on the other hand, this will turn into one of those "I'll Never Forget When...." sort of games. Panther fans who sat through the monsoon in December 2013 in Charlotte when the Panthers faced New Orleans were rewarded with a last-second touchdown catch to win the game by Domenik Hixon (shown above). Making it through that game is now worn as a badge of honor among Carolina supporters.

This one could be the same way. Panther fans haven't seen their team win a playoff game in nine years. A little rain would only get them singin' in the rain if that happens. But if Arizona wins and it pours, everyone in blue will just seem as miserable as a soaked cat.

-- Although Arizona is on the road for this game in Charlotte, both teams' dream is to return to Phoenix 29 days from the kickoff. The Cardinals' home stadium hosts the Super Bowl on Feb.1.

-- It wasn't that long ago that the Cardinals were vilified as one of the worst franchises in sports, but that has changed. The Cardinals have played seven playoff games in the past seven seasons. In the previous 74 years combined, they also played in seven total playoff games.

-- A wet field would slightly work to the Panthers' advantage, since they are a far better running team than Arizona. Then again the Cardinals have the best deep threat on the field -- Michael Floyd -- and one slip by the Carolina secondary could change things in a hurry.

-- Why are the Panthers wearing white jerseys in January for this game when they usually wear black once the weather gets cold? I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact Carolina has been more successful in white uniforms than in any other color during the playoffs.

-- Prediction time: I am 10-5-1 picking the Panthers' outcomes this season. I don't think either team will score much more than 20 points in this one.

Arizona has held 13 of 16 opponents to 20 or under this season (best in the league in that category).

Carolina has allowed only 43 total points in the last four games, which is two points less than it allowed in November to a Philadelphia team that ultimately didn't even make the playoffs.

The difference? It will come down to the quarterbacks and their offensive lines. Carolina's Cam Newton should and absolutely has to outplay Ryan Lindley in this one. Newton can't pull a "Jake Delhomme six years ago" Saturday. The Panthers have been handed a tremendous break due to the fact that Arizona must start its third-string quarterback. I think they will take advantage of it.

My prediction: Carolina 17, Arizona 12.