Tuesday, December 30, 2014

9 key and strange numbers for Carolina Panthers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Panthers thump Falcons, will host home playoff game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 26, 2014

My pick for Falcons-Panthers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 19, 2014

My pick: Panthers to beat Browns, Manziel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Updated playoff picture with new odds

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

Will the Atlanta Falcons be any better for Carolina?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Ugly Panther win improves playoff chances

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 12, 2014

My pick: Panthers to beat Buccaneers again with Anderson

So how long should Carolina quarterback Cam Newton sit out?

I think the answer is pretty obvious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Updated Panther playoff picture -- with odds!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 7, 2014

5 reasons Panthers pulled off an incredible blowout win over Saints

NEW ORLEANS -- Where did that come from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 5, 2014

My pick for Saints-Panthers Round 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 28, 2014

My pick for Vikings-Panthers

You know it's going to be cold, since this game will be played outside on the last day of November in Minnesota.

You know it's going to be difficult, since this Minnesota team only lost to Green Bay by three points a week ago and Carolina lost to that same Packer team by 21 this season.

But this game must be won if the Panthers want to be relevant in December. The Panthers keep getting presented one opportunity after another by their lame NFC South brethren -- at 3-7-1, Carolina is still only a half-game back of the division lead.

Somehow, although the Panthers should be out of it, they are not yet out of it. Minnesota, like the Panthers, is not a very good team. But it's plenty good enough to beat the Panthers, even without Adrian Peterson. The Panthers have to force rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater into some mistakes on defense -- I think that's the biggest key.

-- The Panthers and Vikings both have a Charles Johnson. You know the one from Carolina -- the defensive end who has been a mainstay for years. The one from Minnesota, however, will also be a factor. That Charles Johnson had 87 yards worth of pass receptions against Chicago two weeks ago and scored his first career TD last week against Green Bay.

-- There will be a lot of attention on Panther center Ryan Kalil and his younger brother, left tackle Matt Kalil, before and during this game on TV. Matt Kalil had one of his worst days as a pro against Green Bay, getting called for three critical penalties, then skipping out on interviews with reporters after the game and knocking a heckler's hat off the guy's head as Kalil walked to his car after that game. Video of that incident soon surfaced, leaving the younger Kalil apologizing for more than just his play.

-- Division envy: The Vikings would love to be in the NFC South this season. Minnesota's 4-7 record places it last in the NFC North. It would tie for first in the NFC South.

-- Prediction time: My record is 6-4-1 predicting Carolina's outcome, which is not a whole lot better than the Panthers' record. Carolina whipped the Vikings by 25 points a year ago. But that was then and this is now -- the Panthers are mired in a five-game losing streak and aren't built for weather this extreme. My pick: Minnesota 20, Carolina 16.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Hornets, Panthers keep finding ways to lose -- but still are not out of it

If you are a fan of Charlotte's two highest-profile pro teams, you have to be desperate for a win right about now.

The Carolina Panthers (3-7-1) haven't won since Oct.5th and have lost five games in a row. The Charlotte Hornets (4-11) haven't won since Nov.14th and have lost six games in a row entering Wednesday night's home game against Portland.

After a banner season last year, when both teams made the playoffs, things have gone very sour. And yet both teams are far from out of the playoff picture -- the Panthers because the NFC South is so bad, and the Hornets because it's so early and they also are in the right conference (the Eastern, where only five of 15 teams were above .500 Tuesday morning).

The Panthers just finished up their most successful Sunday in more than a month. They had a bye, and thus managed not to lose.

In the meantime, New Orleans and Atlanta both lost, leaving Carolina only a half-game back in the South behind those two 4-7 squads. A win against Minnesota -- the team that Carolina beat to turn the tide in 2013 -- would at least make December interesting.

As for the Hornets, they've got a lot more time to right the ship, but they are a mess right now. I went to the Hornets' game Monday night and sat in the stands with some friends (I had written my column for the day earlier on Jeff Taylor and his apology for his domestic violence conviction). Four things struck me:

1) The early returns on Lance Stephenson have not been good. Coach Steve Clifford again benched Stephenson for the fourth quarter of the 113-92 loss to the L.A. Clippers. Stephenson shot poorly and dribbled too much, and so Brian Roberts and Gary Neal got his minutes.

Stephenson is no savior. That has certainly been established. But he can do a lot of things pretty well (sometimes). One thing he rarely can do, though -- hit an open jumper. And he has got to buy into moving the ball on offense more quickly.

2) Marvin Williams is no Josh McRoberts. Williams can hit an open jumper -- sometimes -- but he is not a connector like McRoberts was. Few can pass like McRoberts, but have you noticed that Williams also never gets to the free-throw line? He does not drive the ball effectively at all. In 15 games this season, Williams has shot exactly two free throws.

3) Cody Zeller is getting better. Zeller still gets bumped around by bigger guys, but at least he's not hesitating as often to use his quickness. He had 17 points Monday and guarded Blake Griffin more effectively than Williams, although really neither one of them had much of a chance.

4) The Hornets really miss the injured Michael Kidd-Gilchrist -- their defensive stopper. While the Hornets' offense has been sporadic, the team has had even more trouble guarding people. That's why Charlotte's losing streak includes losses by 25, 27 and 21 points. Like the Panthers, the Hornets just don't play defense well enough right now.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

My pick for Panthers-Falcons Sunday

Finally, someone the Carolina Panthers can actually beat.

But will they?

The Atlanta Falcons and the Panthers have both won a total of three games this season, and somehow that hasn't knocked them out of contention in the NFC South, also known as the "Misery loves company" division.

The Panthers have a number of players -- quarterback Cam Newton and defensive end Charles Johnson being two prime examples -- who take a special joy in beating the Falcons because of their own Georgia roots. They did so twice last season (this picture of Newton comes from one of those wins).

The Falcons, though, have won a lot more recently than Carolina. They beat Tampa Bay a week ago. The Panthers haven't won since Oct.5th. It's been so long since Carolina won that a spacecraft landed on top of a comet in the meantime. Yes, we can land a spacecraft on a comet, but we still can't teach the Panthers' defensive backs to turn their heads when the ball is coming.

-- If both quarterbacks have 250-300 yard days and throw for multiple touchdowns, I won't be a bit surprised. Both of these pass defenses have all sorts of problems.

-- The ugliest statistic associated with the Panthers is also one of the simplest -- they have given up 281 points this season after giving up only 241 all last year. That's an average of 28.1 points per game. In retrospect, the most telling game the Panthers have played may have been that 37-37 tie against Cincinnati. The Bengals scored those 37 points, remember, without wide receiver A.J. Green.

-- Want to talk more about the Panthers? I will be at the Myers Park Public Library on Tuesday from 6-7 p.m. to talk about the team, answer questions and tell some of my favorite stories after covering the club for the past 20 seasons. It's free. Join us. Pre-registration is encouraged here.

-- Prediction time. I am 6-3-1 picking the Panthers' outcome this season after nailing the team's loss to Philadelphia last Monday night. This one, I believe, will be a shootout that turn outs better. My pick: Carolina 31, Atlanta 28.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

8 numbers Panther fans do not want to know

Unless you have some morbid curiosity, you probably do not want to know these eight numbers in the wake of Carolina's 45-21 loss to Philadelphia Monday night.

.006 -- If Carolina had won Monday night, this would have been the Panthers' percentage-point lead over New Orleans (4-5). Yes, as badly as the Panthers have played for a month, one win would have put them back in first place in the NFC South. Instead, at 3-6-1 after this embarrassment, they are barely hanging onto second and will go to third if they lose to Atlanta at home Sunday.

0 -- Number of recovered fumbles plus the number of interceptions for Panther linebacker Luke Kuechly this season (shown above, in the distance on Darren Sproles' first TD).

1-6-1 -- Panthers' record in the last eight games after a 2-0 start.

5 -- Panther turnovers, including two in the first three plays. Cam Newton had four of them -- a lost fumble and three interceptions (one was a pick-six). The Eagles had zero turnovers.

9 -- Sacks of Cam Newton, which tied the most sacks allowed in Carolina history. Frank Reich, who was a whole lot more immobile than Newton, was sacked nine times in the first game in franchise history in 1995 (but that one went into overtime).

10 -- In 24 carries by the "Double Trouble" tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, that was the longest gain. The two combined for a paltry 2.8 rushing average.

10-for-20 -- This was the Panthers' third-down efficiency on offense, good for a very respectable 50 percent. It speaks to the fact that the Eagles defense can be had -- by a better team.

332 -- Yards passed for by Philadelphia backup quarterback Mark Sanchez, who was helped by the fact he was only sacked once and often had receivers running 5-10 yards free.

Friday, November 7, 2014

My prediction for Monday night and Panthers vs Eagles

Let's talk a little bit about the lack of explosive plays from Carolina's receivers, because that's one of the reasons this team struggles so much getting the ball into the end zone. Here's a disturbing statistic for you Panther fans. Philadelphia's Jeremy Maclin has five catches of 50-plus yards in 2014 -- by himself! The Panthers' entire team has one (Kelvin Benjamin's 51-yarder in the loss to Seattle, which is pictured here).

This is where the departure of Ted Ginn Jr. and Brandon LaFell has really hurt Carolina. Those two weren't as consistent catching the ball as Steve Smith, but they would rip off a 50-yard play every now and then.

And Jerricho Cotchery, the Panthers' other starter at wide receiver? He does have a 47-yard reception -- after the game was decided against New Orleans -- but he has not scored a touchdown all year. The Panthers' third wideout in most situations, Jason Avant, has only one TD. Carolina simply isn't getting enough production from any receiver besides Benjamin. Opponents have figured out that if they pay a lot of attention to Benjamin and Greg Olsen, it's very hard for Carolina to find anyone else to hurt them.

-- Want to talk Panthers with me? I will be appearing at the Myers Park Public Library on Tues., Nov.18th at 6 p.m. for a free talk. I will also have copies of my book "100 Things Panther Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die" available for purchase, but you don't have to buy a book to come join the conversation. You can sign up in advance right here -- pre-registration is encouraged -- or just show up that evening.

-- Here's something I didn't know about the Eagles until the past few days: They have an official offseason basketball squad that plays in charity events. These used to be fairly common in the NFL -- when I covered the Miami Dolphins in the early 1990s, they had one for awhile -- but dwindled out because of the injury risk. The Panthers have never had an official team (although Greg Hardy once claimed he could beat LeBron James in a one-on-one game).

You know who holds the Eagles' all-time record for most points in a single offseason basketball game? Maclin, with 50 points.

-- You can bet Darren Sproles will have at least one huge play against the Panthers Monday night. He was a thorn in their side for years in New Orleans and always plays well when he sees black and blue.

-- Prediction time. I misfired on picking Carolina to win against New Orleans, which dropped my record for the year to 5-3-1. Mark Sanchez will make a few mistakes as quarterback for the Eagles and I think Cam Newton is due for a good game. But ultimately I just don't see the Panthers' defensive secondary holding up against that frantic Chip Kelly offense. My pick: Philadelphia 31, Carolina 20.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Brawl proves that NASCAR new playoff system is working

At a time of year when NASCAR races are often an afterthought, the sport is certainly getting some attention.

The latest comes after the crews of Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon brawled on pit road Sunday after the two drivers collided just before the end of the race in Fort Worth, Texas, knocking Gordon out of contention to win and out of first place in the points standings, too.

It was the second time in three weeks that Keselowski (on the far right in this picture with the white cap on) was involved in a skirmish. It happened at Charlotte Motor Speedway, too, on Oct.11th -- and it proved two things to me.

1) Keselowski has gone too far. When you've got basically everyone in the garage mad at you -- and you have had the normally even-tempered Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth both try to fight you in less than a month -- you're not doing something right.

There's a difference between driving aggressively and driving recklessly, and Keselowski has veered too much toward the latter. He needs to rein himself in (see video of Sunday's incident here). He has become the new bad boy of NASCAR, but more in a Kyle Busch kind of way rather than the Dale Earnhardt kind of way. That's not good.

Gordon, the four-time NASCAR champion, was hopping mad in a post-race interview Sunday. He called Keselowski a "dip----" and also said: "The way he races, I don't know how he's ever won a championship. That's why everyone's fighting him and running him down."
Keselowski -- who like Gordon was bleeding slightly after the confrontation -- said afterward he was just racing hard and wouldn't change his style.
The push Kevin Harvick gave Keselowski that started a scuffle that otherwise looked like it was about to peter out was totally out of line and should result in one of the many fines that will be handed out due to this altercation. What was Harvick doing in there anyway? But it was also a sign of what people think of Keselowski in the garage right now.

2) NASCAR's new format is working. The old Chase for the Sprint Cup was basically another points race -- just a shorter, 10-race one that bunched the field of Chase drivers but still awarded consistency above all else and never officially eliminated anyone. By the last race, in Homestead, things often were anti-climactic. But the "win or else" mentality that has pervaded this Chase is happening because that is the only way to assure advancement into the next round. I think it works better than any previous incarnation of the Chase, and there have been a lot of them since NASCAR instituted its playoff system in 2004. Drivers are eliminated four a time every three races for the first nine races of the Chase. And so there's much more of a tendency to take chances, which is generally good for the race fan (or the casual sports fan whose attention is mostly being taken over by the NFL and, more specifically, his fantasy football team).

I also don't think there's any way Keselowski is going to win another title this year, although he remains in the final eight going into the next-to-last race at Phoenix Sunday (which will then cut the field to a final four). You still need cooperation among your fellow drivers in this sport. And Keselowski is not going to get very much of that.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Rivera is wrong; Hardy should still sit

Ron Rivera is wrong on this one.

It is only natural for Carolina's head coach to want Greg Hardy back on the field. Rivera is a good man who has a lot more balanced worldview than most football coaches. But at heart, he is first and foremost a football coach.

Rivera is paid to win games, and right now he isn't winning them. The Carolina Panthers are 2-5-1 since Hardy stepped off the field this season due to domestic violence charges. The star defensive end was placed on a paid leave of absence before Carolina's third game (he played in Week 1, then was deactivated in Week 2). Now it looks like (although it hasn't been made official) that his jury trial won't start Nov.17 as scheduled and will instead be postponed until after the season.

Rivera thinks that if the trial is postponed, Hardy in essence will have already served his time and should be able to play.

But there's really no new evidence and no compelling reason for the NFL to reinstate Hardy and let him play now as opposed to what we knew two months ago. He should continue to sit.

His court date may ultimately change, yes, but that is the way court dates often work. Remember, at one point while Hardy was still playing, Hardy's people were hoping for exactly this same scenario -- that a crowded docket would push the trial back into 2015, thus assuring that Hardy could play the whole season for Carolina.

Instead, it has gone the other way.

Hardy put himself in this situation. The fact that his was the first real domestic violence case after the Ray Rice punch video -- that was bad timing. The court case being pushed back? Again, bad timing.

But there would be no bad timing had there been no incident in the first place, and if a judge had not already found Hardy guilty in July of assaulting a female and communicating threats in connection with the May 13 confrontation with his former girlfriend. (Hardy appealed that conviction and asked for the full jury trial to which he is entitled).

The Panthers are the ones who have come out the worst on this. They are paying Hardy a whopping $13.1 million as their franchise player this season -- $770,000 every week during the season -- and all they have gotten for that so far is one sack and a mountain of bad publicity.

It is understandable that the team's coach would want to get more out of the team's investment.

But ultimately, not enough has changed to warrant Hardy's return.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

My prediction for Panthers vs Saints and some pregame notes

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.

3 Hornet thoughts on eve of opener

3 Hornet thoughts as the season opener looms:

-- 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.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Panthers and Saints will play for 1st place Thursday

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.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Panthers lose another home heartbreaker to Seattle

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.

Friday, October 24, 2014

My pick for Carolina vs Seattle

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.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Packers crush Panthers in Green Bay, 38-17

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.

Friday, October 17, 2014

My pick for Green Bay vs Carolina

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.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Olsen is right -- Burfict should be suspended

I have never heard Panther tight end Greg Olsen so inflamed, and rightly so, after Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict twisted both Olsen's and Cam Newton's ankles in the end zone on Carolina scoring plays in Sunday's 37-37 tie with Cincinnati. (UPDATE: Burfict has reportedly been fined $25,000 by the league for the two ankle twists but he won't be suspended).

Olsen's quotes in this story by The Observer's Joseph Person bear a close look, because Olsen is a classy guy and a Panther captain and he measures what he says carefully. For him to call out Burfict like that -- and to call for a suspension, not just a fine -- speaks volumes about what the TV replays showed. And after watching the replays, I agree completely with him. I think Burfict should be suspended. What Burfict did has no place in football. He looked like he was using his hands for a screwdriver and Newton's and Olsen's ankles for the screw.

Burfict was flagged for two 15-yard penalties Sunday, but neither time that he "cranked," to use Olsen's word, the ankle of Newton and Olsen, was he penalized. Newton did briefly kick at Burfict to try and get him off the ankle -- the Panther quarterback was not available for comment Monday.

In instances like that that are so clearly premeditated, that he had in his mind that if he had those opportunities that he was going to try to attack guys’ legs, but guys who are coming off ankle problems specifically, there’s no room for it,” Olsen said Monday.

“And I think the punishment needs to go beyond a fine. Guys like that don’t learn from that stuff. He’s been fined 100 times for head-hunting and he did it to (receiver) Kelvin (Benjamin) again. You watch the film, it’s just what he is.”

One hundred times is an exaggeration, but Olsen was obviously fired up. Burfict twice last season was fined $21,000 by the NFL for hits on receivers – one of whom was current Panthers practice squad wideout Stephen Hill, when Hill was with the N.Y. Jets. Burfict was also assessed a $10,000 fine for striking Green Bay tight end Ryan Taylor in the groin. The Cincinnati Enquirer also notes that Burfict had eight unnecessary roughness penalties in 2013 and is tied for the team lead in penalties this year despite having concussion problems. Burfict led the NFL in unnecessary-roughness penalties in 2013. In his college career, the Enquirer notes, Burfict had 22 personal fouls in 37 games.

We are talking about a dirty football player here. Certainly Bengals coach Marvin Lewis struck the wrong tone when asked about Burfict's ankle twists Monday, laughing it off by saying: "Ankle wrenching? Sounds like the WWF."

Olsen said if the league is serious about player safety, it needs to crack down on players who are intentionally trying to hurt opponents. But will it? That's an open question. I believe a two-game, unpaid suspension would send the right message to Burfict -- one game for each ankle crank.

“At some point, if the NFL wants to really say they care about guys’ safety, they’ve got to start putting guys out for weeks because me and Cam were lucky we weren’t out for weeks, or Kelvin’s out for weeks,” Olsen said. “If you’re going to start putting guys on other teams’ out, then the ramifications need to equal that.”

Or, as Panther kicker Graham Gano put it on Sunday night on Twitter:


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Panthers survive, get a happy tie with Cincinnati

Dee-Fense. Dee-Fense.

Where was it?

The Panthers' defense had all sorts of problems again Sunday, but Carolina still ended up tying Cincinnati, 37-37, in overtime in the highest-scoring tie game in modern NFL history.

Cincinnati kicker Mike Nugent missed a 36-yard field goal on the final play of overtime to let Carolina off the hook. The Panthers' defense had allowed Cincinnati to get inside the 20 yet again, but Nugent sent the ball wide right. Both teams had earlier had one field goal in overtime. It was the first tie game in the Panthers' 20-season history, and keeps them atop the NFC South.

The Panthers (3-2-1) gave up points on each of Cincinnati's first three possessions -- a field goal and two touchdowns, including an 89-yard run from Gio Bernard.

A brief flurry of good defensive plays in the third quarter -- including two interceptions of Andy Dalton -- gave Panther fans hope. And ultimately, it was barely enough to squeak out a tie. Panther wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin said after the game his team had come to Cincinnati looking for a "W" but ended up with a "T."

The Panthers almost wasted a dazzling game from Cam Newton, who ran the ball effectively for the first time all season -- he ran for 107 yards -- and was extremely accurate through the air most of the game. Newton threw two touchdown passes -- to his favorite targets Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen -- and ran for another. He had one overthrow for an interception. That miscue led Cincinnati's field goal to go ahead 34-31, which was matched by Gano with a 44-yarder as time expired in regulation. Newton also led a field-goal drive the only time Carolina got the ball in overtime (Rivera did not go for a fourth-and-1 at the Cincinnati 18 in overtime, instead having Gano tie the game at 37).

Gano didn't have a great day. He botched a 38-yard field-goal attempt early in the fourth quarter that would have put Carolina up, 27-17. Instead, it stayed 24-17, and the Bengals shortly were in the end zone again when Mohamed Sanu burned Carolina cornerback Melvin White for a 34-yard touchdown.

Gano, who is normally an automatic touchback machine on kickoffs, also had the misfortune of only getting one kickoff two yards deep to Adam "Pacman" Jones. Jones happily ran it out and ended up going 97 yards, getting tackled inside the 5. The Bengals scored on the next play.

Ultimately, though, the Panthers will happily take this one. That looked like a loss for much of the afternoon, but Carolina ended up grabbing half a loaf of bread right at the end thanks to Nugent and his miss.

Friday, October 10, 2014

My pick for Cincinnati-Carolina

When you think about homefield advantage in the NFL, you don't think of Cincinnati. Green Bay, New England, New Orleans, Seattle, Denver -- those sorts of places spring to mind first. But the Bengals have won a franchise-record 11 straight regular-season games at home in Paul Brown Stadium. They haven't lost a regular-season home game since 2012 in regular season. There is a caveat to this impressive statistic, though. The Bengals lost a huge playoff game at home at the end of last season, by 17 points to San Diego.

While the Bengals have generally been great in Cincinnati, it's not necessarily because they have a preponderance of fans in the stands. Cincinnati narrowly avoided a local TV blackout in Kentucky and Ohio for this game against Carolina, and only did so by barely selling 85 percent of its non-premium seats by the Thursday deadline. Good seats for this one will undoubtedly remain available up through kickoff.

-- Cincinnati receiver A.J. Green is almost certainly out for this game due to a toe injury, so the Panthers catch a major break there. But watch out for Mohamed Sanu, the Bengals' No.2 receiver. He's very underrated.

-- What the Panthers need at running back looks a lot like what Cincinnati already has. Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill are both young backs on rookie contracts who can really play. They have combined for five of Cincinnati's 10 TDs this season.

-- This is only Carolina's second visit to Cincinnati ever for a regular-season game. The Bengals have hosted every other team in the NFL more than that.

-- My predictions for the Panthers (3-2) so far this season have been up and down, much like the team itself. I missed last week, choosing Chicago to upset Carolina in Charlotte but instead watching the Panthers rebound from a 21-7 deficit to win by a TD. I'm now 3-2 picking Carolina's outcomes.

I think this week that Cincinnati at home is too big a hurdle for a Panther team that has struggled mightily against the AFC North already this season. My prediction: Cincinnati 27, Carolina 20.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Return of the Panther D in Carolina's 31-24 win over Chicago

The Panthers' defense turned back the clock all the way to 2013 in the second half Sunday, keying a come-from-behind 31-24 victory over Chicago.

The Panthers were down 21-7 deep in the second quarter, and things were looking grim. But Carolina outscored Chicago 24-3 the rest of the way, in large part because its defense suddenly remembered how to play football.

Carolina forced takeaways on each of Chicago's final three possessions of the fourth quarter -- an interception by Thomas DeCoud and two fumbles ripped from Matt Forte and Jay Cutler. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly had a monstrous game and the Panther pass rush returned, with four sacks. Chicago quarterback Cutler ultimately lost his mojo completely, taking two sacks and losing a fumble on the Bears' final possession when Chicago was trying to score a game-tying TD.

Carolina returns to the top of the NFC South at 3-2, since Atlanta (2-3) lost to the New York Giants. Panther tight end Greg Olsen scored two touchdowns for Carolina, including the game-winner on a six-yard dart rom Cam Newton. The Panthers outscored Chicago 10-0 in the fourth quarter for the win, which was Ron Rivera's first as a head coach over the team where he used to both play and later served as defensive coordinator.

Friday, October 3, 2014

My prediction for Panthers-Bears Sunday

One thing that will be fun to see Sunday -- two of the strongest arms in the NFL. Chicago's Jay Cutler and Carolina's Cam Newton could both throw the ball through a brick wall. Well, that's an exaggeration, but they could throw it through a stucco wall. Cutler has two big -- and big-time -- receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Newton has rookie Kelvin Benjamin, who fits the same mold, as well as reliable tight end Greg Olsen. The ball will be in the air a lot.

But it's worth noting that the Panthers in the past have had terrible trouble playing against Chicago tailback Matt Forte. He has 166- and 205-yard rushing games against Carolina that both rank among the top 10 rushing performances ever for Carolina opponents. If Carolina can't stop Forte, it will be a very long Sunday.

-- I know the Panthers say they are sticking with defensive end Frank Alexander, who this past week trumped his four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy with a 10-game suspension for a second violation of the same policy. I would not stick with him. When a guy gets his second straight suspension and is going to miss the first 14 games of a season and it's not even injury-related -- you can't count on that guy.

-- If you're going to the game, it will be worth sticking around for the halftime show. Country star Kellie Pickler will be performing.

-- Get ready for the pink. The Panthers and Bears will wear all sorts of pink accessories for Sunday's game in honor of breast cancer awareness.

-- If Fozzy Whittaker ever looks healthy again -- and maybe it happens Sunday -- he could actually do the Panthers' running game a lot of good. Whittaker was one of the most impressive parts of August for Carolina. He runs hard enough that with a hole or two he could make something happen for a ground game that has been practically non-existent.

-- I am 3-1 so far picking the Panthers' result each week. Although this is the most winnable game left in the first half of the season for Carolina, the Panthers have too much to overcome at the moment. My prediction: Chicago 27, Carolina 17.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Most creative Steve Smith jersey ever?

This is undoubtedly the most creative Steve Smith jersey I have ever seen. The person in the picture, Panther fan Ross Levin of Charlotte, is a longtime Carolina PSL holder who was very unhappy that Carolina fired Smith in the offseason.

Levin wore this pieced-together jersey to the Ravens game Sunday. He had earlier taken both a Carolina and Baltimore Smith No.89 jerseys to Christie's alterations on South Boulevard in Charlotte and had them cut in half and then stitched together (the other two halves weren't thrown away, either -- they made a jersey for Levin's wife).

Like many Panther fans, Levin was not at all happy when the Panthers decided to release Smith. "It is just amazing to me we boot our superstar," Levin wrote me in a postgame email.

On Sunday at the Ravens game, Levin said received lots of requests for people to take their picture with him and "hundreds of comments" about the jersey. Most, he said, were of this variety: "What idiot would get rid of Smith? This was before the game. It was obvious to this fan base they got lucky to get someone so special. And just could not understand us letting him go. To them, we looked liked idiots."

Smith, of course, had two touchdowns and 139 yards receiving in Baltimore's 38-10 victory Sunday. As for Levin, he said he will use his PSL tickets for the Panthers-Chicago game Oct.5th. And he is planning on wearing his homemade Smith jersey again.

Monday, September 29, 2014

NFC South: Worst division in football?

A Panther fan understandably is looking for a silver lining today, with Carolina having been blown out 37-19 and 38-10 in its last two games.

So here it is: The Panthers remain tied for first place in the NFC South, which in my opinion has become the worst division in the NFL.

The Panthers (2-2) allowed 38 points to Baltimore Sunday and get this -- that was tied for second-best among the NFC South's four teams! Atlanta (2-2) lost 41-28 to Minnesota, which was starting a rookie quarterback and didn't have Adrian Peterson. New Orleans got hammered 38-17 by Dallas -- the Saints trailed 24-0 at halftime and are now 1-3 and reeling. Only Tampa Bay (1-3) salvaged some respect for the NFC South, pulling off an unlikely upset in Pittsburgh. That was the Bucs' first win of the season, and despite that they are only a game out of first place in the NFC South.

Of the NFL's eight divisions, the NFC South is now the only one that doesn't boast a single team with a winning record after Week 4. This has the look already of one of those divisions that could be won with an 8-8 record, or at least 9-7.

The problem in a word: Defense. Atlanta coach Mike Smith said after the Vikings rolled up 351 yards by halftime Sunday: "They did basically whatever they wanted to in terms of controlling the line of scrimmage. That is very alarming."

Carolina coach Ron Rivera and New Orleans coach Sean Payton could say exactly the same thing. And Tampa's Lovie Smith, although he won Sunday, is less than two weeks removed by giving up 56 points to the Falcons.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

My pick for Ravens-Panthers Sunday

Depending on which side of the fairytale you are rooting for, Baltimore wide receiver Steve Smith will either catch 10 passes for 200 yards and three touchdowns Sunday or he will get shut out entirely.

The truth is out there, somewhere in the middle. I expect Smith to make a few big plays Sunday, and I bet the Ravens will throw him a flanker screen sometime in the first series or two to make sure he gets into the game quickly. I wouldn't be surprised if he scores once and does something entertaining that draws a 15-yard flag in the end zone.

But ultimately this game is going to be decided in the trenches, where Carolina lost the Pittsburgh game badly and where it absolutely has to improve in terms of running the ball and stopping the run Sunday. The Panthers absolutely have to close the gap between what they are rushing for this year (72 yards per game) and what they ran for last year (127).

-- Both teams have been very reluctant to discuss their obvious similarity besides No.89 this week. The Ravens and Panthers have taken turns at the epicenter of the NFL's domestic violence earthquake. And both teams have lost one of their best players -- Ray Rice for Baltimore and Greg Hardy for Carolina -- due to nasty off-field events.

-- If Carolina is going to win Sunday, linebacker Luke Kuechly is going to need to make at least one game-changing play. I thought the Pittsburgh game was one of the worst he has ever played for the Panthers.

-- After correctly picking the Panthers in the first two games of the season, I botched it last week just like Carolina did and incorrectly chose Carolina to beat the Steelers. A win on the road over a playoff-bound Baltimore team that blasted the Steelers by 20 points is a tough sell for me, and ultimately I'm not buying. My prediction: Baltimore 23, Carolina 14.