The Panthers on an eight-game regular season winning streak (never has happened).
The Panthers getting "flexed" into a Sunday night game out of what used to be a Sunday 1 p.m. game (happened five years ago, against the New York Giants, but that seems like a long time).
New Orleans and Carolina both 9-3, meeting for the first bout in a two-game, 15-day, home-and-home series (never has happened).
Me going to Cafe du Monde to load up on coffee and beignets, getting powdered sugar all over myself and never being able to entirely brush it off just before a game at the Superdome (all right, that has happened a few times).
-- Look, the Panthers are going to give up yardage Sunday night. No way around it. Drew Brees has thrown for 325 or more yards seven times in his New Orleans career against Carolina. Seven times! You know how many times Cam Newton has thrown for 325 yards or more in his entire career against everybody? Three.
-- On the other hand, do you remember that DeAngelo Williams (shown above on his touchdown run against San Francisco) rushed for a franchise-record 210 yards in the season finale at New Orleans a year ago? The Panthers certainly do. I've always thought Williams is one of the Panther players who excels on artificial turf, which accentuates his speed and cutting ability. I'd be surprised if he doesn't get at least 15 carries Sunday.
-- Look, this has nothing to do with the game, but it's a good cause. If you're feeling lucky about the Panthers' chances of making the Super Bowl, you ought to consider entering a raffle for two Super Bowl tickets, plane fare and luxury accommodations for the big game on Feb.2, 2014. The raffle tickets are expensive -- $100 each -- but they benefit a very good cause (Children's Home Society of North Carolina) and only 1,200 will be sold. And the prize is big-time. Click here if interested in learning more.
-- One more thing unrelated to this game: I am thinking about writing a column about some of the kids and families who have gotten a "touchdown football" from Cam Newton at a Panthers game over the past three years. You know what I mean -- one of the balls that Newton physically hands to a kid in the end zone after a Panther score. As you can imagine, however, no one keeps a list of such families. If you are one of these families or know of one I could contact to talk about what the ball means to them and so on, please email me at email@example.com. This is called crowd-sourcing, people -- help me out!
-- OK, onto the prediction.
The Saints should win this game, really. They are undefeated at home in 2013. By my totally unscientific measure, I believe they are 10 points better at home than they are on the road. They are coming off an awful loss to Seattle that was a nationally televised embarrassment, and anxious to make up for it. Brees is ridiculously good.
All week I have planned to pick the Saints. And yet that Monday night game keeps giving me pause. I know it was in Seattle, but it was a blueprint. And the Panthers should have Charles Johnson back. And they have a ton of confidence. And I just have a hunch. Could be a bad one. Could be too many beignets. But I'm picking: Carolina 33, New Orleans 29.
Matt Stevens is a dreamer, which comes in handy in his work as a graphic designer in Charlotte. So when his friend Ryan Kalil, the Panther Pro Bowl center, asked him recently to imagine what the Panthers' history would look like if the team had been founded a long time ago instead of in 1995, Stevens couldn't stop thinking about it.
As a personal project, with no endorsement from or affiliation with the Panthers, Stevens decided to imagine a logo and brand history for the Panthers if they had been founded in 1955 instead of 1995.
The results are pretty stunning if you're into that kind of stuff. Stevens said he put "about 30 hours" of work into the project, which he then posted on his own blog. I'm reprinting some of his work here, but if you want to know more about how he did all this, I'd recommend checking out this post. The level of detail is amazing, as Stevens not only designed a fake logo, but also a fake game program and fake football cards (Kalil's name is hidden in one of them -- notice the guy on the left is a made-up player named Bryan Lilak (which is "Kalil" backwards.)
Stevens, 42, grew up in Asheville, graduated from UNC Charlotte in 1994 and has lived in Charlotte ever since. After working in small to mid-sized graphic design and branding shops for most of his career, he opened his own company two years ago. His is a small, one-person office in the Cotswold area. He has a wife and three children and did one of the sketches for the program cover while waiting for a pizza at Hungry Howie's on a Friday night to bring home to them.
This sort of "on spec" project thing has worked for him before. He has obsessed with Nike shoes in the 1980s and so he did some creative illustrations about one particular brand of Nikes not long ago. Nike saw them and eventually hired him for a project. He has also done work for Facebook and Pinterest.
"I like to do things I'm passionate about," Stevens said. "And I'm a huge football fan and a huge Panther fan, so this made sense."
Stevens got to know Kalil when he designed a logo for a charitable foundation that Kalil does some work with called "LittleKings.org," and the designer began to realize quickly that Kalil was no dumb jock.
"Ryan has all sorts of creative interests," Stevens said. "Movies, comics, design -- he's into lots of stuff."
After Stevens finished the project, he put the work on his website Monday. Kalil gave it an online boost by sending out the link on Twitter, and the link has since been picked up by one of Sports Illustrated's website and several other national sites. Stevens said his personal website usually draws around 500 hits a day, but that increased to about 12,500 per day this week.
Based on feedback Stevens has gotten, the most popular part of his design seems to be the black Panther on top of the silhouette of North and South Carolina. So he's making a modified version of that one into a T-shirt, figuring he will sell at least a few of them at $30 each. It won't outsell the "Ice Up, Son" T-shirts, but I think it's cool, as is the rest of this stuff. Stevens didn't imagine any results for the team in these 40 "lost" seasons -- I guess he's going to leave that to you. (All the pictures reproduced here are used with Stevens' permission).
Seattle absolutely torched New Orleans on Monday night, blasting the Saints 34-7 in Seattle and sending New Orleans skidding into its key game with Carolina Sunday.
The Saints and Panthers now have identical 9-3 records entering the Sunday night game at New Orleans. Here are the full NFL standings. New Orleans would still win the division if the playoffs started today because it holds the tiebreaker edge.
How can Carolina get by the Saints and win the NFC South and the automatic home playoff game that goes with the title (as well as a likely first-round bye)? Two ways:
1) Beat the Saints twice. That head-to-head advantage would guarantee the Panthers a home playoff game no matter what the results of the two teams' other games were. With the Saints on a "short" week and somewhat beaten up by the physical Seahawks, this is at least possible, although playing in New Orleans is a rigorous test. Here's my column about the New Orleans "sandwich."
2) Split with the Saints and.... win against Atlanta and the N.Y. Jets, and hope New Orleans loses once more in its other December games at St. Louis (5-7) and home vs. Tampa Bay (3-9). In that case Carolina would finish 12-4 and New Orleans 11-5.
So what happens if both teams finish 12-4 and tied in the NFC South by splitting against each other and each winning their other two games? That is a pretty likely scenario, and in that case New Orleans would be the NFC's No.2 playoff seed (with a first-round playoff bye) and Carolina would be the No.5 seed and have to travel for a first-round playoff game (likely to Dallas, Detroit, Chicago or Philadelphia).
The reason: New Orleans would win the fourth tiebreaker after the first three failed to break the tie. That relevant tiebreaker -- best NFC record -- would go to New Orleans (10-2 vs. 9-3 in this hypothetical) because the Saints' two other losses this season were to AFC teams and Carolina lost to Arizona, an NFC team, along with Buffalo. Both, of course, lost to Seattle. (The head-to-head, division and common opponent records would all be tied in this scenario). So the Panthers' best bet, by far, is a sweep of the Saints.
-- One interesting side note to Monday night's game: it gave me a strong sense of deja vu from the biggest game I ever saw in person in Seattle. That was the Panthers' 34-14 loss to Seattle in the 2005 NFC title game.
Like New Orleans, Carolina seemed totally discombobulated early in that one. Both teams fell behind the Seahawks by scores of 17-0, 27-7 and 34-7. It was really over by halftime in both cases. Ed Hochuli even was the head official in both games, for gosh sakes. In both cases, the Seahawks crowd was a huge factor. The only real difference was that Carolina scored a late meaningless TD to make it sound more respectable, and New Orleans didn't. The Saints, incidentally, gave up more points to Seattle in 13 minutes than Carolina did in 60 in the 2013 season opener.
And the Saints' defense really looked vulnerable to the pass, if Cam Newton can be anywhere near as accurate as Russell Wilson was Monday. The New Orleans offensive line also looked vulnerable as Seattle got more pressure on Drew Brees than I have seen in a long time. It makes Carolina's 12-7 loss to Seattle look a little better, although of course Seattle is a totally different team on the road.
The Panthers moved to 9-3 Sunday with their eighth straight win, a 27-6 manhandling of Tampa Bay that was close early until the Panthers began to dominate. Here are five of the things I liked the most about the victory, which included Brandon LaFell (above, celebrating) scoring the Panthers' first TD:
1) Riverboat Ron. I thought the key play of the game was when "Riverboat" Ron Rivera went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1 with 30 seconds to go with Carolina holding a 10-6 lead. No doubt Rivera would have kicked the field goal there earlier in his career and gone into halftime up 13-6. Instead, he goes for the jugular, Newton gets over the top a half-yard before fumbling and Carolina had a 17-6 lead and all the momentum.
2) Team defense. Even when the Panthers play badly on defense, they seem to have just enough to make up for it. Case in point: Drayton Florence gets torched for a 60-yard Vincent Jackson pass. But Florence manages a shoestring tackle at the Carolina 4, and from there the Panthers hold for two plays and Mike Glennon has an awful fumble on the third one. No points, and once again -- after yet another second-half shutout -- the Panthers will retain their overall No.1 rank in the NFL in scoring defense. The run defense was particularly effective.
3) Mike Tolbert. What a banger. With DeAngelo Williams out, he took a larger role and took the old Sam Mills motto ("Keep Pounding") to an extreme.
4) Ted Ginn Jr. He's seemingly good for about one big play a game, but what a big play it can be. Ginn's visit to Darrelle Revis's "Island" resulted in Ginn burning Revis for a 36-yard touchdown and putting the game out of reach.
5) A.J. Klein. Several times in this game the rookie linebacker looked so much like Luke Kuechly that it was tough to tell the difference. Some fans had to catch themselves as they started the old cheer of "L-U-U-U-K-E" after Klein's big sack of Mike Glennon.
As anyone who follows the NFL even casually knows, Sunday is not a "gimme" for the Carolina Panthers, even though they are 8-3 and Tampa Bay is 3-8.
This game looked like a six-inch putt a few weeks ago, but it has morphed into a four-footer with a sidehill lie. The Panthers can't lose focus against the Bucs, who have won three in a row and nearly beat Seattle in Seattle, which was their most impressive accomplishment of all. A few game notes:
-- The Panthers are going to have to rattle former N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon to win (the picture above is of Greg Hardy sacking Glennon in the Oct.24 meeting and was taken by The Observer's Jeff Siner). But Glennon is not easily rattled. Glennon has thrown just one interception in the past six games -- the lowest number of interceptions by any NFL quarterback over that time period. Because he has thrown so few interceptions, Glennon's quarterback rating is slightly higher than Cam Newton's (91.6 vs. 88.3).
-- Carolina is tied for third in the NFL with 15 interceptions -- already four more than the Panthers had in all of 2012 -- but were not able to pick off any of Glennon's 51 throws in the teams' first meeting Oct.24th. That's partly because a lot of them were dump-offs, but still.
-- You better believe Newton will know where No.54 is at all times Sunday. That's Lavonte David, the Buccaneers' most dynamic defender and the closest thing Tampa Bay has to Luke Kuechly. Like Kuechly, David is in his second season and very fun to watch.
-- To quantify the "Riverboat Ron" nickname a little, check this out. Since the Week Two loss to Buffalo, when Ron Rivera was burned by not going for the first down on fourth-and-1 in a loss to the Bills, he has gone for it seven times on 4th-and-1.
Carolina has converted six out of seven, including a key one last week when the Panthers were down by 10 points and on their own 41. On the seventh, Brandon LaFell dropped an easy pass against Arizona.
-- Incidentally, I was on a radio show with former Panther general manager Bill Polian earlier this week. Polian said he never would have gone for fourth-and-10 at his own 20 with 2:33 to go and trailing by three points, as Rivera did last week against Miami. He did go, the Panthers made it, and they ended up scoring the winning TD on the drive.
-- I don't foresee an easy game on Sunday, but I do foresee the Panthers' eighth straight win. Like the Panthers, I am 8-3 predicting their outcome this season. My prediction: Carolina 24, Tampa Bay 17.
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Ricky Berens of Charlotte said Thursday he was retiring from swimming -- this time for good.
Berens said in a phone interview Thursday from Austin, Texas, that his swimming career had "run its course." He has accepted a full-time paid position with the University of Texas athletic department, where he is working with the Longhorns' fundraising arm and its lettermen's club.
Berens, 25, graduated from Texas and helped it win a national championship during his time there. He had been working as a volunteer swim coach for the Longhorns for the first part of 2013 while still pursuing his own swim career.
"I've put off the real world long enough," Berens said. "It's time to pursue some other passions."
Berens originally retired following the 2012 Olympics after winning his second gold medal in the 4 x 200-meter freestyle relay. In an interview with The Observer minutes after that gold medal, he said he was retiring immediately.
But after a few weeks, he reconsidered and decided to give swimming one more season. He swam in the 2013 UltraSwim meet in Charlotte as usual. And he participated in the world championships in Barcelona this summer, anchoring the U.S. 4x200 freestyle relay to another gold medal.
"That was very scary," Berens said. "I had never anchored before. I held off one of the Russian swimmers to win it in what will turn out to be my last competition. Not a bad way to go out."
Berens said Thursday he wants to work in collegiate sports administration as a career and that his eventual goal is to be an athletic director at a college. He promised this retirement would stick and that he would not return for another comeback.
"If you had told me 10 years ago I would go to even one Olympics, I would have said you're crazy," Berens said. "I got to participate in two and win three Olympic medals (two gold, one silver). Everybody always wants more, but I have no real desire to swim competitively any longer. It's time to get on with life."
As you prepare for a Thanksgiving feast of football, food and family, here are three Panther numbers I find significant:
8 -- Although it has been widely reported the Panthers have now tied the team's all-time winning streak record with seven consecutive wins, that's only sort of true. In the regular season, yes, that's right -- the 1996 team was once 5-4 and then finished 12-4 with seven straight. But that '96 team then beat Dallas in its first playoff game, so really it won eight straight. To get to eight, the Panthers will need to beat Tampa Bay at home Sunday at 1 p.m., a task that looks a little more daunting now than it did three weeks ago when the Bucs were 0-8.
15 -- That's the total number of Panther interceptions this season, and that's significant. Last year's team only had 11 all year, and no single defensive back had more than two. This year three players (Mike Mitchell, Luke Kuechly, pictured above after one of his picks, and Robert Lester) already have three. The fact that the Panthers are catching most of the balls they have a chance to catch this season -- not all of them, though, and I'm talking to you, Captain Munnerlyn -- has played a big part in the defensive success.
27 -- The Panthers are now No.1 in scoring defense by a wide margin, allowing 13.7 points per game. How wide is that margin? Kansas City and Seattle are tied for No.2 in the NFL in scoring D. But if KC and Seattle shut out their opponents this weekend and Carolina gave up 27 points to Tampa Bay, the Panthers would still be No.1.