The Panthers had their moment in the spotlight last night and for the first time in years, they responded. The Quenn City was alive and bumping the whole day yesterday and last night. Carolina has taken hold of the second seed in the NFC and of the NFC South by beating Tampa Bay last night 38-23. It also puts them only one game behind the Giants for home-field advanatage throughout the playoffs with those teams facing off in two weeks. Sure, there are doubters but last night Carolina put itself into position for at the very least a first round bye and showed they have perhaps the strongest ground game this side of New Jersey. Since Catfish and I discuss the NFL in our upcoming podcast(to be posted soon) I am going to focus on this game and what it means to both teams, the division and the NFC playoff picture.
Before this season began there was an understanding here in Charlotte that if head coach John Fox and GM Marty Hurney did not produce a playoff team this year, they would be shown the door. In his 7th year with the team, Fox had begun to wear on Panther fans as a coach that had taken the Panthers as far as he could. He took them to the Super Bowl in 2003 and the NFC Championship game in 2005. The last two seasons had been incredibly lackluster, but with Jake Delhomme returning this year and the drafting of Jonathan Stewart and the trade for the chance to draft Jeff Otah, all the cards were on the table. Win or find another job. He has done the former, guiding the Panthers to a 10-3 mark thus far.
Fox is not a flashy coach and has never been mentioned as a mastermind on gameday, but what he is a hard-nosed coach who believes in playing strong but conservative and practicing the staples of NFL success: running the ball and defense. The formula works when you have the personnel to do it. This year Fox does have the players and the Panthers are winning where it counts, in the trenches.
The offensive line deserves as much, if not more credit than the running backs of Carolina. Jordan Gross, Travelle Wharton, Ryan Kalil, Keydrick Vincent and Jeff Otah have played magnificently all year, and especially the last couple of weeks. We can forget Jeremy Bridges for the moment, cough. Wharton played perhaps his finest game of the year last week at Green Bay as he opened up holes for Williams and Stewart and made a block that sprung Delhomme for a TD and recovered a Jonathan Stewart fumble in the red zone after he hustled down the field on Stewart's long run. Last night, the Bucs could not stop the running game even when they knew it was coming, which is something not often said about a Tampa defense. Tampa has given up big yardage on the road, but most of it was in the air, they had only allowed one rushing TD coming into last night's game.
Once the big guys up front make the hole, it is up to the backs to run through it and this year DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have done that. Williams averaged 9.8 yards per carry last night and had two TDs. Stewart was at 7.7 and added two TDs of their own. They combined for 301 yards which set a franchise record. The Panthers have a two-headed running game again fo the first time since they used Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster except this time I believe these two are better.
On the defensive line after wondering where the old Julius Peppers was and searching for him high and low, Pep has turned in one of his best years ever.
The big cat has 12.5 sacks on the year and in a true return to form last night, blocked an extra point and sacked Jeff Garcia 1.5 times, including one rush from the left where he simply blew through right tackle Jeremy Trueblood. Perhaps it is a coincidence that Peppers is playing so well in a contract year, but he has once again become the focal point for opposing offensive lines.
The Panthers were a bit shaky in the secondary last night if there was a weak spot in their game. Ken Lucas got burned deep twice as Antontio Bryant had 200 yards receiving and two TDs. Another dull spot in an otherwise bright performance was Delhomme's two INTs but Jake appeared accurate and hit Steve Smith on a beautiful TD pass in the third quarter. Smith who traditionally plays well against the Bucs and the rest of the NFC South had 9 catches for 117 yards.
In previous years the Panthers were seen as road warriors who struggled at home, but this year they are undefeated at Bank of America stadium and I even think I saw some people in the notorious wine and cheese section of the stadium standing and cheering. I even thought I detected some arm flailing from the affluent portion of the crowd. The NFC South's contests have been dominated by the home teams this season and if the Panthers want that number 1 seed they will have to win in New Orleans the last week of the season.
Above all this was a defining game for the Panthers. They had taken some criticism for their performances against lowly Oakland and Detroit and then for their double-digit loss in Atlanta two weeks ago. The team was on the brink of being fighting for their playoff life as they traveled up to Lambeau. With that big win on the road combined with the division win last night, the Panthers have played their way into an advantageous position in the NFC. If they can hold this momentum, the team can become a Super Bowl threat. They are certainly not the Giants, but then again the Giants were not the Giants last year. Their match-up against New York now becomes the biggest game in the conference in the last two weeks. The one certainty appears to be that Panthers will be playing January football.