Once upon a time this season, the Carolina Panthers were 2-0 and everyone was smiling.
Since then, they have fallen on hard times, going 1-4-1 over the past six games. Somehow that still is good enough to lead the NFC South, but that will change Thursday night at 8:25 p.m. if Carolina (3-4-1) gets beaten at home against New Orleans (3-4).
Every season has a few pivot points. This is one of them for the Panthers.
I believe New Orleans remains the Panthers' biggest competition in the division, and I don't think there's much way Carolina can beat the Saints in New Orleans on Dec.7. So this is one the Panthers have to get. Otherwise, New Orleans moves into first place and Carolina spins into second with a difficult Monday night game Nov.10 at Philadelphia coming up.
-- I was so sorry to hear about Mo Collins, the former NFL player and West Charlotte high school coach who died Sunday at the age of 38. Collins was a former first-round draft pick out of Florida who played offensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders for six years. He also was a true Charlottean who came back to his community after his own playing days were done and tried hard to make things better at his alma mater.
-- The NFL Network's pregame show on Thursday night will have a feature on Cam Newton and some of the kids he has given "touchdown footballs" to over his career. Newton posed with and talked to more than a dozen of those kids just before Christmas last year for a long Charlotte Observer story I wrote -- one of my most personally gratifying stories ever. One of the pictures from that December photo shoot with Observer photographer Jeff Siner is above.
NFL Network contacted me recently, wanting to do their own version of the "Cam and the kids" story, and so I put the network in touch with some of the same families. The resulting feature will air sometime between 6-7:30 p.m. Thursday.
-- Speaking of TV, our news partners at WBTV will be broadcasting this game live locally. WBTV is doing its own live pregame show from 7:30-8 p.m. Thursday, which will feature Delano Little, Leah Rubertino and a couple of Observer reporters.
-- OK, prediction time. I am now 5-2-1 picking the Panthers this season, having correctly forecast Carolina to lose the past two weeks.
New Orleans was very impressive against Green Bay Sunday, but the Saints are 0-4 on the road. In a high-scoring game, I think the Panthers will pull this one out. My prediction: Carolina 30, New Orleans 28.
-- Michael Jordan's one-day takeover of the Hornets' Twitter feed Tuesday was an excellent idea and should be revisited at key times during the franchise history. I would try to persuade MJ to do it again, for instance, the day before the Hornets play their next playoff game. Jordan doesn't regularly tweet, but he proved to be quite good at it and he loved taking pictures with his smartphone (as he's doing here).
Of course, his tweets will always lead to more questions: For instance, when he tweeted a picture of Al Jefferson's locker, fans wanted to know why every Hornets' locker apparently had a microwave in it. Those aren't microwaves; they are personal safes like the kinds you find in some hotels.
Incidentally, I did ask MJ for his take on the UNC academic scandal Tuesday, but he wanted no part of that question and declined to comment. When I pressed and asked him if he was disappointed in the university, he said, "I don't know what to feel, to be honest. It's a tough question for me to answer. That was 31 years ago when I was there in all honesty, and I didn't have those situations."
-- Re-sgning Kemba Walker was no surprise, but it was a necessity. Walker is the Hornets' engine and has the exact sort of mentality you want from your point guard (accountable, driven, smart, unafraid). By the NBA's crazy money standards, he is well worth the four-year, $48-million extension. Said Jordan Tuesday: "I love the way he plays.... He's a cornerstone of what we are, who we are trying to be."
-- Lots of good stuff in the newspaper and online today to get you ready for tonight's 7 p.m. game vs. Milwaukee. Here's my column about Jordan on the eve of the season's first game. Our great beat writer Rick Bonnell has this and this in today's newspaper. And The Observer has a new app providing Hornets' updates, photos, scores, videos and more for both smart phones and tablets. Search "Hornets McClatchy" to find the app easily in the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store.
Well, here we go again. Carolina and New Orleans were the class of the NFC South in 2013, and their two meetings both had huge playoff implications. Now they each sport a far worse record than they did that season, but Thursday night's game in Charlotte will determine who will lead the division going into November.
New Orleans put together its best game of the season Sunday night, dismantling Green Bay, 44-23. But that was at home, where the Saints are generally at least 14 points better than they are on the road.
Here's how the standings look at the top of the NFC South right now. Carolina's tie with Cincinnati actually puts it .009 ahead of the Saints, who have played one fewer game:
Carolina 3-4-1 .438
New Orleans 3-4-0 .429
If the Panthers win Thursday night, they will go to 4-4-1. New Orleans will be 3-5. But if Carolina loses, the Saints go to 4-4, Carolina is 3-5-1 and suddenly the late-season game in New Orleans (where the Saints are much tougher to beat) will become almost a must-win for Carolina. I don't like the Panthers' chances in the Bi Easy; far better to go ahead and win in Charlotte Thursday night and not let the Saints get running room in front of the division.
Carolina has already lost as many games as it did in all of the 2013 regular season, but it is not without hope. The 13-9 loss to Seattle Sunday featured a return to the defensive form of 2013 for the most part -- although it was another home-cooked heartbreak -- and the Panthers have a win against one division leader (6-2 Detroit) and a tie against another (Cincinnati).
But Drew Brees was hot Sunday night, and the Saints' defense intercepted Aaron Rodgers more in one game (twice) than he had been picked off all season coming in (just once). It should be a showdown.
Note to TV viewers: Thursday night's game can be seen locally on CBS affiliates. In the Charlotte area, our news partner WBTV (Channel 3) will carry the game.
It was deja boo all over again Sunday. For the third straight year, Carolina lost a low-scoring home heartbreaker to Seattle.
This time the final score was 13-9, following 16-12 in 2012 and 12-7 in 2013. In every case, the Panthers had their chances, and in every case, they ultimately failed to close the deal as Russell Wilson and the Seahawks simply made more plays at the end. The picture above shows Kelvin Benjamin's drop of a TD pass -- Carolina's best chance to dent the end zone Sunday.
On Sunday, Carolina played defense like it was 2013 for most of the afternoon. A team that averaged 27.9 points per game allowed the first seven weeks had given up only two field goals when Wilson got the ball back with just under five minutes left and trailing, 9-6, after Graham Gano's third field goal.
But then came a nine-play, 80-yard march ending with the game's only touchdown -- Wilson's 23-yard strike to tight end Luke Willson with 0:47 to go. The Wilson-Willson tandem beat rookie safety Tre Boston on the play. Wilson has thrown a second-half TD pass in all three games that has proven to be the game-winner.
Carolina needed a miracle touchdown then, but after not scoring one all day, they weren't going to go 80 yards in the final 42 seconds. The Panthers went nowhere, and Seattle left Charlotte once again with a victory. The Panthers' offense under Newton has now scored only one touchdown in 12 quarters against Seattle over the past three years. "I think we left 21 out there," offensive tackle Byron Bell said, referring to Carolina's three trips inside the red zone without a single touchdown.
To be fair, Carolina played a whole lot better this week than the Panthers did in that beatdown they took against Green Bay last week. And the Panthers (3-4-1) are still in front in the NFC South, with Atlanta losing again Sunday and New Orleans yet to play.
But that's little consolation Sunday after a lot of good football goes to waste. Carolina played well for a lot of the game, but Newton had two really bad turnovers, the defense had a bad letdown in the final five minutes -- and the Panthers left the field to a chorus of boos after failing to complete a single pass on their final series, including an ill-fated screen pass on 4th-and-25.
"I have to be better, and I will," Newton said. He better be -- New Orleans is in town Thursday, and the Panthers are now 1-4-1 over their last six games.
Cam Newton said this week he will throw at Pro Bowl Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman Sunday -- and he had better.
If you don't go after Sherman at least to some extent, you shrink the available field to throw in by a third. It makes it too easy for Seattle's safeties to cover everything else, and too difficult to ever get big chunks of yardage.
And Newton will need at least one explosive play today from one of his receivers. In 2012 and 2013 in previous home games against Seattle, Newton hasn't had a pass play of more than 27 yards in either game. That contributed mightily to the fact that Carolina's offense has only scored one TD combined in those two games (the only other TD was a pick-six interception return by Captain Munnerlyn) and that Newton has thrown for less than 150 yards in both of them.
Russell Wilson, on the other hand, threw for 320 yards in Seattle's 12-7 win last season.
-- I thought Panther safety -- and former North Carolina defensive back -- Tre Boston had a good point when he was talking about UNC's academic fraud scandal this week. He said it had devalued his own degree, which he said he obtained in 3.5 years with no "paper" classes.
"Luckily I'm playing here," Boston said. "But one day I'm going to have to use that degree out in the world and I don't want somebody to be like, 'Hey, you were there when all the academic fraud stuff went down.' So it's kind of sad."
-- You know that Russell Wilson once starred at N.C. State. But do you remember that Seahawks kicker Steven Hauschka went there for a single season in 2007 after transferring from Division III Middlebury College, where he originally played soccer? And how about J.R. Sweezy? The Seahawks' starting right guard is from Mooresville and started as a junior and senior in Raleigh as a defensive tackle before the Seahawks converted him to the offensive line.
-- I am 4-2-1 picking the Panthers' outcome. The Seahawks' defense has gone downhill some from last year's No.1 unit, but it hasn't dropped nearly as far as Carolina's. My prediction: Seattle 30, Carolina 20.
GREEN BAY, Wisc. -- The Carolina Panthers put their fans back into full panic mode Sunday, getting eviscerated, 38-17, by Green Bay in a game which will also be remembered as the one in which middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was kicked out.
Other than Kuechly's third-quarter ejection -- for striking an official after coming out of a pileup (he said later he didn't know it was a ref) -- this was one of the least dramatic and most thorough beatdowns in Carolina's 20-year history.
By the end of the first quarter, Green Bay led 21-0 on the scoreboard and 172-5 in total yardage, and after that it was really just a matter of playing out the string.
The Panthers are 3-3-1 and still alone in first place in the NFC South after Atlanta and New Orleans both lost Sunday. But those three losses have been so excruciatingly bad that they feel worse than a .500 team. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (three TD passes) had his way with Carolina all afternoon, but just as troublesome was Carolina's inability to muster any of the offense that had led the Panthers to 37 points the week before in Cincinnati.
Other than tight end Greg Olsen, who had a 100-yard receiving day, the Panthers hardly had any offense worth noting. They didn't score a touchdown until the fourth quarter, when they were already down, 38-3. The last two TDs made the score sound somewhat respectable, but anyone who watched it knows this was a complete whipping.
The Panthers have now given up at least 37 points in four of their last five games. When they are bad, they are very, very bad -- and the worst culprit of all is the defensive secondary. It showed up on the Packers' very first drive, when Jordy Nelson first beat Antoine Cason up the sideline and then sidestepped Roman Harper so thoroughly that Harper couldn't even get a hand on Nelson. Poof -- 59-yard touchdown with less than four minutes gone, and the rout was on.
What can Carolina do? Not a lot, except get better from the inside-out. The Panthers are mostly stuck with the players they have got. They next play a home game against Seattle, the defending Super Bowl champions who have come to Charlotte and won each of the last two years. Seattle lost Sunday, too, and also looks vulnerable -- but not nearly as vulnerable as the Panthers.
If you are an NFL running back, this should be a good game in which to play. While most of the pregame headlines have involved Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton, the game may end up being decided by the likes of Eddie Lacy and Jonathan Stewart.
Green Bay has allowed the most rush yardage per game in the NFL -- 154.5 per contest, which is awful and dead last in the league. Carolina, though, has allowed the two longest single runs in the league (89 and 81 yards). Opponents have averaged a startling 5.5 yards per rush, which is also dead last in the league. If there isn't at least one 100-yard rusher in this game, it will be surprising. (As for the picture that accompanies this blog, I couldn't resist even though it's not that relevant. That was one of Steve Smith's best catches ever, and it set up the game-winning TD the last time Carolina played at Green Bay, in 2008).
-- Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have been Carolina's best two defensive players this year, but neither of them yet has a fumble recovery or an interception. While their tackles have been money, their own personal takeaways have been non-existent. If Carolina is to beat Green Bay, that's probably going to need to change.
-- Do you remember that Cam Newton's career high in passing yardage came against Green Bay? It was only the second game of his NFL career. He threw for 432 yards vs. the Packers on Sept.18, 2011, but the Panthers lost anyway, 30-23. Carolina led 13-0 in what was Newton's home debut before giving it all back, helped in part by Newton's three interceptions.
That's one place Newton has improved significantly. He only has two picks this season, albeit with 10 games to go. In his first three seasons, he had 12, 13 and 17 pickoffs.
-- The first time the Panthers ever played in Green Bay was memorable to all who were there, as I was. Carolina lost 30-13 in the NFC championship game to the Packers in the 1996 postseason, but what I remember most from that day is how cold it was. It was three degrees, and the wind chill was minus-17. The temperature Sunday is supposed to be around 50 degrees, with a chance of rain.
-- It's safe to say that no forecaster in America got the Carolina-Cincinnati exactly right -- a 37-37 tie wasn't on anyone's radar. Like the Panthers, I am now a modest 3-2-1 predicting their outcome. I don't like the matchup of Aaron Rodgers vs. a very mediocre secondary. My pick: Green Bay 33, Carolina 27.