Monday, December 30, 2013

Onward & Upward

   The Panthers finished out the season in grand style this past Sunday, coming from behind to beat the Atlanta Falcons, 21-20.  The win gave the Panthers a final regular season record of 12-4, their best since 2008, and sealed the NFC South division championship for Carolina, their first since 2008.   The race with the Saints was one which was up for grabs right up until the last week of the regular season.  This was the Panthers second one-point victory this season, the other one coming at San Francisco during their record eight-game winning streak.. [speaking of which, the 49'ers just might be coming to town in a couple of weeks].  

   The Falcons came out firing, scoring the first ten points of the game, before the Panthers finally woke up and led at halftime, 14-10.   The Panthers first touchdown looked to be set up by a long 56-yard screen pass to DeAngelo Williams, but the running back fumbled the ball at the end of play, and the Falcons recovered inside their five-yard line.  However, two plays later, Panthers DB Melvin White jumped in front of Matt Ryan's pass and returned it seven yards for the touchdown.

   In the third quarter, the determined Falcons struck first again, going ahead by 17-14.  The Panthers responded with a methodical, five-minute drive, capped by a 7-yard TD pass from Cam Newton to TE Greg Olsen.   At 21-17 starting the fourth quarter, the Falcons managed a field goal to pull within one point, but the Panthers defense hung tough, holding the Falcons scoreless for last seven minutes of the game, allowing Atlanta to advance no farther than their own 43-yard line. 

   Speaking of defense, ours registered another great game in the sacks department.  Last week, we sacked Saints QB Drew Brees six times, this week we set a franchise /team record with nine sacks of Falcons QB Matt Ryan.   Quite an amazing feat- DE Greg Hardy led the way with four sacks of his own;  he now leads the Panthers with 15 sacks, seven of them in the last two games, and teammate Charles Johnson is close behind with eleven.
   Now-- the Panthers get a week off and prepare for a divisional matchup, at home in Charlotte, with either the Philadelphia Eagles, the San Francisco 49'ers or the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, January 12.  Each of these teams presents a difficult game for the Panthers.  No easy ones from here on out {as if ANY of them have been easy so far}.   My memory reminds me that January 12 was also the day [in 1969] when Joe Namath and the New York Jets [they were actually good back then!] won Super Bowl III against the heavily favored Baltimore Colts [see story in my sports blog].

   More later-- from your Panthers sports reporter.. Go Panthers! =)

Friday, December 27, 2013

About as Great as it Gets

Bob @ the Game
   I was sitting in the stands at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, sometime in the third quarter.  The game between the Panthers & Saints had been somewhat unexciting up to this point, at least to most.  [It still perked my interest, because of all that was riding on the game.  I was in on about every play during this game.]  My previous week's blog post had crossed my mind, being titled by a Ron Rivera quote, "This weeks game is about as BIG as it gets." And I was contemplating what the title of this next post would be.  And I thought about a movie I had seen several
years ago, with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, entitled "As Good As It Gets," and just about settled on plagiarizing the title.  Even though the game was somewhat slow and dull, it still held meaning for both teams.   A field goal had been added to a super 43-yard touchdown run by DeAngelo Williams just before halftime, and the score stood 10-6 Panthers.  While I had been previously tentative about being confident of a victory, now our team had a four-point lead.  And the defense was playing extremely well today.  I was thinking how "good" it would be if we just held on another quarter and eked out a win. 

   It was good.. even though around this time, the sky had fallen out, and over 70,000 of us fans had been thoroughly soaked and drenched by the storm.  It had been overcast the whole game, but except for a few sprinkles, I had hoped the rain would hold off for another hour or so.  Not to happen.  Even with our coats, caps and ponchos, we were a soggy mess.  My pants became a sponge, and we endured the rest of the game with no relief.  I had even brought a change of clothes, and the rain managed to soak into the bag and ruin those garments as well.

   And then it happened.  Not a cloud.  Not a rainstorm.  Not a shower.  But it still came like an unexpected hurricane.  The final five minutes of this game were like an eternity.

   In the middle of the fourth quarter, the Saints were pinned down inside the five-yard line by a great Panthers punt.  Everything seemed wonderful, except the Saints started to move the ball downfield.  One by one, QB Drew Brees' passes were completed for short to medium-length gains.  Plays that were not working all game long were suddenly succeeding.  The ball came all the way down to the Panthers 9-yard line, and I thought, "we can hold 'em".  They may get a field goal, but we'll keep them from crossing the goal line.  Well, two plays later, my feelings had suddenly changed, as the Saints scored and had actually taken the lead, 13-10.

"Riverboat Ron"- ESPN
  So-- what do I do?   Now write a post entitled "As Bad as it Gets?"  No-- I had decided-- we were going to come back and win.  With just under five minutes to go in the game, the Panthers had just gone three-and-out and punted once again to the Saints.  My friend suggested that we leave the stadium early and avoid the rush.  He had given up on the Panthers coming back.  I relented, asking him to stay awhile.  I implored him to not give up, something good was going to happen, just believe.  Somehow I had a tremendous faith in this Panthers team to make something happen.    Once again, with two minutes left in the game, the Panthers again go three-and-out, and despite our pleading from the stands for them to "go-for-it", they decided to give up the ball.  At this time, my friend was imperative, "let's go", but I insisted that we stay.  He said, "okay, but if the Saints get a first down, we're going to go."  I agreed.  But the Panthers held them.

  The rest is sorta "history," as they say.  It was the most unbelievable 32 seconds of football that I had ever witnessed.  At least that I can remember.  

 Panthers Video
Here's some Video Highlights of the game.. from YouTube.. 
a bit better than my videos..

Hixon's catch: ESPN Photo
  A Panthers player would later relate that QB Cam Newton, when entering the Panthers huddle, simply said, "Let's get it done."  And so they did.  First, a phenomenal pass play with Ted Ginn Jr. hauling in a bullet for 37 yards.  Then from the Saints 28, two 14-yard passes, separated by a spiked ball to kill the clock, put the ball into the end zone.  The last play, with a mere 23 seconds left on the clock, went to sub WR Dominik Hixon, who had only caught four previous passes the entire season.  He made a phenomenal catch, pulling in a pass just inches off the turf, to put the Panthers up for good, 17-13.  Later it would be said that the pass was thrown so that no one but Hixon could have caught it.  It was so close that the referees had to review the play to determine if it was indeed a touchdown. 

[If you guys are reading & watching this.. sorry the video is sideways.. I'm gonna get that fixed soon!]

    Have there been greater comebacks?  Well.. maybe.  But this one was for my eyes to behold.  It was an incredible display of will and perfect execution in the midst of chaos.   Our team hung in there, and made it happen, when it counted.  Even though the rest of the game was, for the most part, lackluster offensively, our defense held strong, holding the Saints to a mere 13 points, and leaving the door open at the end for our team to come back and win the game in dramatic fashion.

Luke Kuechly- Yahoo Photo
A word should be inserted here about our great Panthers defense.  LB Luke Kuechly had an awesome game, registering a league-tying 25 tackles, and earning the NFL Defensive Player of the Week honors.  The rest of the defense was almost equally great, with the front line sacking Brees six times and also having two interceptions.

   YES.. this was about "as Great as it Gets"..  however, I'm hoping for even BETTER.  Is that too much to expect?   Well.. not from this fan.   I am a believer.   And I'll keep believing until the very end.   Let's all hope the end doesn't happen until February.


   I had one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life this past Sunday in Charlotte as I was able to attend the Panthers-Saints game.   What a blast!  It was such an exciting game.  Low-scoring, but hard-fought.   My friend wanted to leave, with five minutes to go in the game, after the Saints scored a touchdown and went ahead.  He wanted to leave again, with two minutes to go, as the Panthers decided to kick the ball away to the Saints.  Many others -WERE- leaving.  I told him, "Let's stay. I know something is going to happen.  Just believe."  I must admit, it didn't look good.  But we stayed, and what appeared to be a miracle happened. We got the ball back and scored with 23 seconds left.
    This video pretty much tells the story.   This was at the end of the game, as the Panthers had just scored the go-ahead touchdown with 23 seconds left, and then the PA announcer shared the news that the Panthers were indeed going to the NFL playoffs, the first time in five years.   Everyone was pretty excited, as you can probably tell from the video.  Just watch and listen. =)

   Thanks to Ken for allowing my best friend Fred and I to go to this game together.  We wouldn't have been able to make it without you.   I truly appreciate your generosity and kindness in giving him the tickets.  This was truly a memorable and unforgettable experience for us.  I look forward to being able to "thank you" in person sometime soon.

  Go Panthers!


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

About as Big as It Gets

  Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was quoted as saying this week, "The Saints game this week is just about as BIG as it gets."   Right on, Ron!   Coach Rivera is usually known as being conservative, both in his game plans and in his comments.  But the time for a showdown has finally come.  This writer, I must admit, was a bit down-in-the-dumps after the last Saints game, which was only ten days ago. {see other posts: "Saints Make Life Difficult in the Big Easy" & "Panthers Flag at Half Mast"}.  

  For obvious reasons, it appeared logical that the Panthers had laid an ominous egg, ruining any chance of a division title and home playoff games.  But sometimes logic is not reality.   Lo and behold, here we are, a week later, tied [again!] with the Saints at 10-4, and facing the second "do-or-die" game in two weeks!  It's one thing to control your own destiny, it's another thing entirely to have your rival hand you an unexpected Christmas gift.  But the kinder & gentler New Orleans Saints did just that- granting us a great favor by losing to the St. Louis Rams in a huge upset, 27-16.  The team that devoured us the week before in a 31-13 trouncing looked completely vulnerable, losing three turnovers and being held to a meager 61 yards rushing.

  It's not often that you get a legitimate second chance like this, to once again prove to yourselves and the world that you are the best.  The Panthers honestly looked less-than-the-best in New Orleans, but the team bounced back this week with a convincing win over the New York Jets, 30-20, which effectively eliminated the Jets from the playoff race.  

  Three exciting and dramatic plays were game-changers.  First, RB DeAngelo Williams made a terrific play in the second quarter, scoring on a 72-yard screen pass play, outrunning all of the defenders, and broken by a great block from teammate Brandon LaFell.  This score broke a 6-6 tie, and got the ball rolling.  Next, in the fourth quarter, with the game at 16-13, the defense (which looked ferocious again) stalled the Jets, and forced a 4th down punt. The kick was BLOCKED! --by backup LB Jason Williams and the Panthers took over at the Jets 14-yard line, and three plays later, FB Mike Tolbert scored to give the Panthers a 10-point cushion at 23-13.  Shortly thereafter, DB Captain Munnerlyn denied the Jets any hope of coming back by intercepting a pass and #41 returned it 41 yards for a touchdown to make it 30-13.

Now there's -NOTHING- left for the Panthers to focus on, at least this coming weekend, except the NFC South rival New Orleans Saints.  All indicators show that the Panthers have rebounded well from the Saints defeat, are confident but not cocky, and more than ready to face the Saints again, but this time in Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium...and I'm doubly excited, because I will be there [see tickets], rooting the Panthers on, with about 73,000 other Panthers fans in the stadium on Sunday.

It's easy to get over-emotional or high about Panthers games when you are a devoted fan like myself.  But in all honesty, I cannot think of a bigger game since maybe the 2003 Super Bowl.  Other games (like the 2005 NFC Championship Game vs. Seattle, or the 2008 Divisional Playoff game vs. Arizona) might have been -as big- at the time, but ended up in a loss, and so, they diminish in relative importance. 


  Yes, this game is huge!  It has a lot of implications to our playoff hopes.  It will mean a lot to win this game, for it would basically raise our aspirations from a 5th wild card seed to a division champion and 2nd seed, with a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game.  I took a look at the NFC playoff seedings and brackets, and it appears that if we lose against the Saints, we will probably be 5th (wild-card) seed and travel to Chicago to play the Bears.   If we win, and also win next week at Atlanta, we will win the division title and a 2nd seed, playing the winner of a probably San Francisco-Philadelphia game.

  Stay tuned-- with hopes that the next POST will be one of extreme celebration!

Go Panthers!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Early Christmas

  One of my best friends has had the privilege for the past few months of working for an avid Panthers fan in a town near Lake Norman.  Unfortunately, this man has a debilitating disease and is not able to make the trips to Charlotte to watch his Panthers play.  But he still maintains his PSL license and usually sells his tickets to other fans.

This kind man has blessed my friend and myself by gifting us- not once, but twice- with Panthers tickets.  We were able to go opening day and watch the Panthers-Seahawks game.  It was a beautiful, sunny day in Charlotte, and the only bad thing about it was that the Panthers lost the game.

  This time, he has given us tickets to the Panthers-Saints game, one to which many Panthers fans will be going, and many more will be wishing to go.  This is a wonderful blessing, and I thank him for his generosity to us.

  Hopefully, this Saints game will have a different result.   We shall see.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Saints Make Life Difficult in the Big Easy

    Today I'm looking for the silver lining in the black cloud.. the light at the end of the tunnel.. the kernel of gold in the pan of dirt.. there's good to be found somewhere in the bad, but it's hard to make it out.  My view is a bit fuzzy today as I try to make sense of what would've been a great celebration of victory, but ended up being a huge letdown.

  If you didn't see the game on Sunday Night Football between the Panthers and Saints, don't go looking for a replay on your or your friend's DVR.  It just probably isn't worth watching.  I know that the Panthers coaches and team will be watching the game in detail, going over and over what they did wrong and trying to make sense out of it all.  I deleted the game, and am trying to erase the memory from my conscious mind.

   There were truly no real highlights of the game from our perspective. Saints QB Drew Brees threw for four touchdowns, and Panthers QB Cam Newton was sacked five times.  We started the game ahead 6-0, but those two field goals were all the points that we could muster until late in the fourth quarter when it really didn't affect the outcome of the game any longer.

  Things have gone fantastic for the Carolina Panthers during their recent eight-game winning streak.  The chiseled a piece of history out of the middle of their season.  The team looked horribly inconsistent their first four games, going 1-3 and seemingly without hope of any chance of a berth in the NFL postseason.  Then, all of a sudden, something happened that lit a fire underneath this team and they took off on a magnificent ride, knocking down anyone in their way in the process.

  We had hoped for something better for the Panthers in their last four games.  Granted, what they've done already has almost surely opened the door to a playoff berth.  But we had hoped for something more.  We had dreamed of our Panthers winning the division, coming up from behind to catch the Saints and knock them off of their first place pedestal.  As it stands, the Panthers look solid for a wild card berth, but this only gets them into the playoffs.  It does nothing to help them gain an advantage over the other teams that they will meet there.

  Had the Panthers won on Sunday, they would've gained control of first place in the NFC South.  If they had won their last three games, including one more against the Saints, they would've won the division, and gained a first-round BYE, plus a second-round HOME playoff game.  But it just wasn't to be.  Instead, it appears that the Saints, without some unforeseen catastrophe, will emerge as the team with these postseason perks.

  It often seems a bit unfair that in a division like the NFC South, both the Saints and the Panthers have amassed great records.  I recently surmised from scanning over the NFL that the Panthers would be in first place or tied for first place in six out of the eight NFL divisions.  There are some divisions in which the first place leading team is barely over .500.  Such is the burden we carry.  Nothing we can do about it.  Except move on and do our best.  We can only accept the results of our efforts, knowing we left it all on the field.

  Here's one silver lining for you :  I heard one sports announcer remark about the great turnaround from a year ago.  When we entered the thirteenth game a year ago, we were 3-9, and ended the season on a four-game winning streak to finish 7-9.  This year, when we entered the game with the Saints, we were 9-3, a completely positive flip-flop from last year.  We have shown more consistency and ability to pull out close games.  The team has bonded and played more as a team this year.

   If and when we clinch a playoff spot, it will most likely be the 5th or 6th wild card spot.  We will no doubt be playing most, if not all, of our games on the road.  There will probably be no NFL playoff games in Charlotte this year.  But we can all still take pride in our Panthers team and what they have accomplished this year, up to now, and also what they will accomplish from here on out.

  There have been other teams that have made (and won) the Super Bowl as a wild card team.  They did it by going out and beating who were considered better teams on the road.  So it is not impossible.  More difficult ?  Definitely yes.  But impossible ?  No.  It's been proven possible before, and so we know that we can do it too.

   We get to hang out in Charlotte now for the next two weeks.. Next up.. the New York Jets.. then the Saints come a-knockin' on our door.. this time at home.  Hopefully, we'll be more ready for them this time.  It would be sweet if we could giving them an early Christmas present and send them back home with a "L" in their column.

   OK- so the ride's not over yet.   Buckle up.  Let's get back on track this week and then see what happens.   The Panthers are still on the prowl.  The Panthers have not lost their growl.    The silver trophy and gold ring may still await us on the horizon. 

    So don't lose hope. 

 Keep on pounding, Panthers!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Panthers "O" = Outstanding & Panthers "D" = Dynamic

  The Carolina Panthers are G-r-r-r-eat  

 Let's face it.. not many of us gave our Panthers much of a chance at the beginning of the year.   They had something like 300-1 odds of making it to the Super Bowl.   If we're brutally honest, most people that have been wearing Panthers team gear- tees, sweatshirts, caps- over the last few years have done so, not necessarily out of team pride, but probably from habit.  

  But.. things have changed!    

  Our offense is good.  In fact, it has been very good.  QB Cam Newton has been playing some of the best, smartest football of his brief NFL career.  Wide receivers Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn have served as more than adequate in teaming up with perennial all-pro Steve Smith.  And the Panthers running game with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and the amazing FB Mike Tolbert keep grinding out the yardage, with Newton doing his part with some amazing scrambles and quarterback keepers.

  Absolutely no gripes here about our offense.  They've helped to win some ball games for us.  But I doubt that they would have ever been in position to pull out a victory, if it were not for our amazing defensive team.  The Panthers "D" is rated in the NFL "Top 5" in almost every category.  The most amazing statistic of all is that the Panthers defense is rated #1 in the NFL in scoring, only allowing 13.1 ppg (157 total points allowed).  They also have only given up an avg. of 289 ypg, and only 80 ypg rushing.  

  Congratulations, Thomas Davis!

  It's only fitting that LB Thomas Davis received the honor of NFL Defensive Player of the Month for November.  Teammate Luke Kuechly, only in his second NFL season, has drawn most of the attention and accolades since winning the NFL Rookie of the Year award last year. While Kuechly is well-deserving in his own right, Davis holds the dubious distinction of having missed most of the last three seasons with major ACL injuries to his right knee.  It is nothing short of amazing that Davis is still playing, much less to the high level that he has shown this season.  He is tied with Kuechly for most tackles (63) on the team.  He is recognized as a leader, not just of the defense, but on the entire Panthers team.  

  It would take hours and pages of text to go into all of the many contributions that have been made this season by players on both sides of the ball, but especially our defense.  Our front four has been amazing, continually providing pressure on the opposing team's quarterback, and leaving him little room or time to find passing targets.  Our secondary, much aligned at the start of the season, lost starting S Charles Godfrey and still managed to put together a group that has performed admirably throughout this winning streak.

  I am sure we are leaving many players out that have contributed.  Our kicker and punter have been practically flawless.  There are many subs on the team who have rotated in and out of games and contributed.  Every man on this 53-player roster deserves to be congratulated for his efforts during this amazing and historic Panthers season.

  Let's Go Panthers!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Bucs Outta Luck, Panthers Headed for the Big Easy

  This game was billed as a possible "trap game."  With the Panthers supposedly looking forward to the Saints, and the lowly Tampa Bay Bucs sporting a new four-game winning streak, it was reported that in all likelihood, this game could go down-to-the-wire with the possibility of an upset defeat.  Personally, I didn't give much credence to this proposition.  Every time the Panthers notched another win during their record eight-game winning streak, Coach Ron Rivera and most of the players were heard to say, "The next game is our next biggest game."

  The Bucs game was a blow-out.  Our defense shined, once again shutting out the opposing team in the second half.  Our offense, without much opposition, drove down the field several times for key scores, one coming on a 4th-and-1 on a keeper by QB Cam Newton.   Newton, imitating Superman, dove through the air and crossed the plane of the goal line before the Bucs had a chance to stop him.

  Well- the Bucs now swept convincingly (the Panthers two wins were by 31-13 and 27-6), the next big game -is- in fact, the Big Game.  The Saints helped to put even more significance and create even more hoopla surrounding this game by losing on Monday night to the Seattle Seahawks in dramatic fashion, 34-7.  This trouncing both served to point out some glaring deficiencies in the Saints team, while also demonstrating the power of the league-leading 11-1 Seahawks.  

  I was secretly pulling for the Saints.   While most people follow the principle (and I usually do) : "The enemy of your enemy is your friend," on this occasion, we already hold the destiny of the NFC South within our hands.  Win or lose, the Saints would have only been at best one game ahead of us, with two games in three weeks looming ahead with the Panthers.   However, the one and only chance for us to have any hope of catching the Seahawks was for them to lose Monday night against the Saints, and to lose again next week against the 49'ers.   And then- possibly lose again.  It didn't seem feasible or likely- and now it is almost impossible.  So- even though I was looking forward to us hosting a championship game in Charlotte- whether it is us or the Saints- the road to the NFC Championship will most likely run through the city of Seattle.
But no matter which way the game came out, it ultimately was a "win-win" situation for the Panthers. Now we are in a TIE for the division lead with the Saints at 9-3 heading into OUR BIGGEST GAME of the season, maybe the biggest game in the last ten years.

  I've got my "Keys to the Game" for Sunday.. and by the way, this game will be the NBC Sunday Night Football "Game of the Week", broadcast nationally.   Another big-time game for our Panthers to showcase their talents.  

  So, anyway, here are my Keys to the Game :
  • No (or few) penalties.  The Panthers came within a hair of losing a couple of games recently due to penalties or even penalty flags that were ultimately recalled.  The Panthers can't afford to push their luck against the Saints.  A crucial penalty here or there could make the difference.
  • Getting to QB Drew Brees.   Our defense has been almost flawless over the last several weeks.  We lead the NFL in points allowed (13 ppg).   But I feel that if the Saints QB is allowed time in the pocket, he will make some big-time plays down the field.  So we must apply pressure, and get some sacks.
  • Running Game must do Better.   Hopefully, we will have DeAngelo Williams back; if not, then Jonathan Stewart must pick up the pace.  Kudo's to FB Mike Tolbert: he was phenomenal the past couple of weeks, backing up and then replacing Williams in the backfield.  He had 89 total yards in the Bucs game. 
  I think if we pass these three tests, we will be in position to win Sunday's game.  Notice that I didn't even mention QB Cam Newton.  I could've added "no interceptions", but Newton has played admirably the past few weeks;  while he's had a couple of picks, he's also orchestrated several game-winning drives and passed and run for several touchdowns. So- enough said about Newton.  I think if the other variables are taken care of, then our quarterback will get the job done for us.

 OK-- the Big Easy-- may not be so easy for us.  But there's a lot riding on this week's game- sole possession of FIRST PLACE in the NFC South division.   I do have faith that the Carolina Panthers will pull it out.   Now let's all tune in and watch them do it.


Saturday, November 30, 2013

Hook, Line & Sinker

  WELL-- the Panthers went fishin' down in Miami this past week, and came back with a hard-earned, but much-deserved, win.. 

 Our Panthers are now 8-3.. and still chasing the 9-2 New Orleans Saints for the NFC South division title.

  As has been the case in several games of late, the game came down to the last seconds of the game, Carolina scoring a one-yard TD pass from QB Cam Newton to TE Greg Olsen with only 0:43 left on the clock.  This came on a long drive, highlighted by an earlier 19-yard completion to Steve Smith on a 4th-and-10 "do-or-die" play.

  The game was not executed perfectly, the Panthers falling behind 16-3 late in the second quarter, before coming back to score a late first-half field goal, and the last 17 points of the game.

Our league-leading defense (1st, NFL, PPG allowed) held the Dolphins scoreless in the second half.  Notwithstanding this great performance, we often seemed aloof or willing to "give the game away", allowing one long TD pass and nearly another to Dolphin wide-out Mike Wallace, the last near-miss, which would have lost the game, coming just seconds before the end of the game.

  The reoccurring theme and "modus operandi" for this year's Panthers seems to be tight wins during a record-tying seven-game winning streak.  While I'm sure we would all be content with blow-outs, the reassuring feeling is that this year's version is capable of pulling out these close ones with an apparent new confidence.

  As was the case last week, and probably even more so, fans, analysts and oddsmakers alike are ready to hand the Panthers their eighth win in a row this coming Sunday against the last-place Tampa Bay Bucs.  However, the Bucs are surging, having won three games in a row themselves, and three out of four since losing to us on October 24, their sole loss coming in a squeaker, 27-24, to the powerful Seattle Seahawks. 

  So this one, as the Miami game, is not a "gimme".  Fortunately, we've got the Bucs at home this time.  And even though the last game was a blow-out (31-13), this is definitely a different Bucs team, by evidence of their winning streak and performance over the last four games.  After going 0-8, they may have hit their low point, and are now rising above the ashes to salvage something out of this otherwise disappointing season.  Hopefully, we will not be another victim to their resurgence.

  This game, although not crucial, is very important.  With a win, we will not only win our eighth game in a row (a Panthers franchise record), but more importantly, we will go to 9-3, and go into New Orleans for the nationally televised showdown on December 8 no worse than one game behind the Saints.   The good news is- (drum roll!) if we get by the Bucs on Sunday, the Saints play on Monday night in Seattle against the Seahawks.  The Seahawks will be favored, and if the Saints do lose, we will be in a dead tie with them for our divisional matchup the next week.

  There's always a thorn in the roses, a fly in the ointment, something bad in everything good.  I'm as excited as anyone that we are 8-3, on a seven-game winning streak, and appear destined to make the playoffs for the first time in five years.  However, the thing that may do us in (if we do eventually fall) may lead us back to opening day.   I was there in Bank of America Stadium, when DeAngelo Williams fumbled on the eight-yard line, on an apparent Panthers winning touchdown drive, and we fell to the Seahawks, 12-7.  Our three losses this year have been by a combined 22 points.. a mere touchdown per game.  But the first one may have cost us the most, for even if Seattle were to lose to the Saints, and to the 49'ers the following week, they would still only have three losses, and if we end up in a 13-3 tie with them, they would win the tie-breaker based on their opening day win.  So- then- if we both made it to the NFC Championship game, it would be played in Seattle, and not Charlotte.

  Oh- well.. too much ado over nothing.. we've got a ways to go before we get there. 
So.. first things first.. the Bucs.. and then.. the Saints !


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Panthers Go Fishing

  The Panthers go for their seventh (7th) straight win on Sunday in Miami against the 5-5 Dolphins.  Our team should be "good to go" unless they underestimate their opponents.  The Dolphins started the year 3-0 before going into a slide, only winning two of their last seven games.  Our "fan survey" notwithstanding, this game will probably be no "walk in the park."  The Dolphins, amazingly, are still in the hunt for the AFC East Division title, or a wild card playoff berth, currently only two games behind first-place New England.

  If the Panthers pull this one out, they will go to 8-3, and will get the lowly Tampa Bay Bucs next at home in Charlotte.   Things look good (almost too good) for our Panthers.  But soon up will be two games (AWAY and HOME) against the NFC South leading New Orleans Saints.  Here's hoping the Saints will blow a game for us before then.  But even if not, we should be in good shape to give them a run for the division title.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Panthers Provide Pat Answers

The Carolina Panthers pulled off yet another miracle last night, beating the perennial NFL power New England Patriots on national television, and winning their sixth straight game, 24-20.

 Who (outside of loyal Panthers fans) would have predicted not one... but (count 'em) two... exciting, come-from-behind victories against powerful NFL teams like the 49'ers and Patriots ?  I'm betting that most people were betting against our team, but at this point, all that matters is we are in a great position to end the regular season on a high note, and make the playoffs for the first time in five years.

 What an exciting game it was, going down to the final seconds, as QB Cam Newton threw his third touchdown pass to Ted Ginn with just a minute left in the game, only to see Tom Brady engineer the Patriots into scoring position, but come up short with an interception in the end zone.

  As I had predicted, the Panthers needed more offensive point production in this game to pull out a narrow victory. Newton spread the ball around, throwing his three TD passes to three different receivers.

  Two keys to this game were third-down conversion : the Panther were 8-11 (72%) while the Patriots were only 5-10 (50%), and turnovers : the Patriots lost a fumble and interception, while the Panthers did not lose the ball once.

  This game was not without its controversy : if the game wasn't exciting enough, it all went down to the last play.  After Newton's heroics, Tom Brady and the Patriots went 62 yards with less than a minute to play, and had time for one last play from the Panthers 18-yard-line.  With our defense exerting incredible pressure, he managed a lackluster pass into the end zone which was intercepted by CB Robert Lester.  However, a yellow penalty flag was thrown, allegedly for LB Luke Kuechly interfering with Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski.  After two referees conferred, the flag was picked up off of the turf, and the potential penalty was negated... GAME OVER!

  Our Panthers are now 7-3..  and headed to the playoffs !  (at least that's my opinion and conclusion)  I've believed this for more than a month, but now I'm stating it with confidence!   

  More later on our season... and our upcoming game against the Miami Dolphins.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Unpatriotic Panthers

  Normally, I am a fairly "patriotic" person.  I usually am silent, with my hand over my heart, during the playing of the National Anthem or the pledge of allegiance.  I've always appreciated being an American citizen, and living in what I believe is the greatest country in the world.
This coming Monday, I may still display those actions, but I will be in a different mindset than usual.  I will be feeling very "un-patriot-ic".  I hope that the entire Carolina Panthers team will be feeling the same way : looking for any way to destroy and annihilate the New England Patriots.

  The Panthers' recent game against the San Francisco 49'ers was nothing less than amazing.  It was definitely a defensive struggle.  Only one touchdown was scored.  Four field goals.  A one-point win.   But one point was enough.  I'm not sure that one point will do it against the Patriots on Monday night.  QB Cam Newton was quoted as saying that the Panthers offense will need to score more than ten points to beat the Patriots with their high-powered offense.
  Never say Never- the Carolina defense has been nothing less than sensational over the last few games.  They have been the catalyst for the team's five-game winning streak, ranking 2nd in the NFL (out of 32 teams) both in PPG (points per game) allowed [12.8], and YPG (yards per game) allowed [283].  The Panthers are only giving up an average 82 ypg on the ground. 

  So- who knows?  It could be another low-scoring game.  But don't count on it.  I believe that this time out, the Panthers may need to put their offense in high gear to edge out Tom Brady's squad.  So far, the Panthers have scored touchdowns over 60% of the time when inside the opponent's red zone.  They will probably have to make good on that percentage this coming Monday to come out on top.

  A reporter said before the 49'ers game that it was the most important game for the Panthers in five years.  Now- we come to the NEXT-BIG-IMPORTANT game : the Patriots.  And if the Panthers get by this one, then they face TWO MORE BIG, IMPORTANT games against their division foe New Orleans Saints.  There are big stakes riding on these games.  Stakes that none of us really believed would be there five games ago.  Each game could seriously impact any playoff hopes for the Panthers.

  Will Carolina be up to the challenge?  Well- so far, so good.  

[ note: The 49'ers could've helped us by beating the Saints on Sunday, (11/17) but ended up losing to them on a field goal in the closing seconds, 23-20. This makes Monday night's game even more crucial, as we need to win to stay within one game of the Saints. ]

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

49'ers Become 9'ers- Panthers (Almost) a Perfect 10

  Sunday's game between the San Francisco 49'ers and our Carolina Panthers certainly would not have come close to winning first place in a beauty contest.  In fact, it could have been classified as a very UGLY game in many aspects.  Both teams occasionally looked a bit off-beat, and miscues were the norm.  There were quite a few dropped passes, missed third-down plays and punts.  And both teams had two turnovers, each losing a fumble and having a pass intercepted. 

  In fact, things got a little nervous for Panthers fans in the final two-and-a-half minutes of the fourth quarter, as first RB Jonathan Stewart and then QB Cam Newton fumbled the ball, but the Panthers managed to recover both of them.

  Defense reigned in this game, both teams scoring and gaining well below their season averages in points and yards.   The Panthers held the 49'ers to 151 total yards in the game.  An interesting note is that all of the points scored were consecutive, the 49'ers going up 9-0 before the Panthers ended up scoring the last ten points of the game.

One rare but impressive offensive play in the game came near the end of the first half, when RB DeAngelo Williams cut outside for a 27-yard jaunt down the left sideline into the end zone for the only touchdown of the game.   Williams has more than redeemed himself from week one, when he fumbled away the game against the Seahawks.

  Panthers kicker Graham Gano missed his only field goal of the season but, like RB Williams, he made up for it by kicking what became the game-winning 53-yard field goal with ten minutes left in the game.  Then the Panthers defense settled in and came up with the necessary stops and plays to seal the victory, ending with CB Drayton Florence's interception of 49er QB Kaepernick's long bomb desperation pass in the final minute of the game.

  Entering this game, both the Panthers and the 49'ers were on impressive winning streaks.   Carolina spoiled the 49'ers run, and now are in the midst of their own run at 6-3 with five straight wins and six out of their last seven.   Still one game behind the division-leading Saints, the Panthers can hold their own and will have two separate opportunities in December to unseat the Saints and gain control of their own fate.

  Next up:  the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football  (Nov. 18), at home in Charlotte.   The Panthers are riding "sky high".   It should be an interesting game.  Don't look for either team to dominate.   It should be another close one.  I'm hoping that our team has learned a few secrets of pulling out a game in the closing minutes.   Before the 49'er game, they weren't doing too well at it.   But maybe this is the start of something new and different.   Perhaps our Panthers will still be in uniform in January.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

This Bird Don't Fly

This past Sunday, the Carolina Panthers made believers out of a lot of fans [and a few football analysts] by winning their fourth (4th) straight game in a row, 34-10, over the Atlanta Falcons.  The 2012 NFC South division champion Falcons looked nothing like their former selves from a year ago, as the Panthers, after playing a mediocre first half themselves, destroyed any Falcons hopes by scoring two touchdowns within one minute in the fourth quarter.

One pivotal play seemed to turn a close game in the Panthers' favor.  At 17-10, the Falcons were within striking distance of a tie game in the fourth quarter.  On third down, QB Cam Newton completed a successful pass in Falcons territory to Brandon LaFell, and the usually reliable wide receiver had the ball stripped, but somehow, through a fluke bounce, ended up recovering his own fumble on the eight-yard line.

Now I'm not superstitious.  I hardly ever glance at a horoscope, and only read Chinese fortunes for fun- but the 8-yard line has been both a good and bad omen for the Panthers.  In week one, at home against the Seattle Seahawks, the Panthers dominated most of the game, while still holding a very slim lead.  Then, while on his way to the end zone for a go-ahead score, DeAngelo Williams fumbled away the ball -- and the game -- late in the fourth quarter on the Seattle 8-yard line.

If LaFell had lost this fumble, it too could've spelled defeat for the Panthers. Even though the Falcons would've been pinned inside their own 10-yard line, they would have had the ball.  And perhaps more importantly, they would have denied the Panthers an incredible opportunity to put the game away.  It would've been a completely different ball game.  But alas, this time the Panthers did NOT lose the ball, and Cam Newton ran it in on the next play for a touchdown and a 24-10 lead.  And to top it off, two plays and 30 seconds later, Carolina cornerback Drayton Florence shocked everyone by intercepting a Matt Ryan pass and running it into the end zone for a "pick six" and a 21-point lead.  A field goal was added minutes later for additional icing on the cake.

Now- the Panthers are in high gear, winning their last four games in a row.  However, their next opponent on Sunday, the San Francisco 49'ers, have won five games in a row, and are also playing extremely well.  This undoubtedly is the biggest game in recent Panthers history.  Their last "big game" -in the 2008 NFL playoffs- ended in disappointment, losing to the Arizona Cardinals at home, 33-13, as their former QB Jake Delhomme had six turnovers.  Let's hope this time, the Panthers can play their best game.  Keep your fingers crossed.  They will need it against the 49'ers.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Battle of Midway

The Battle of Midway, in June 1942, was one of the most important and decisive turning points in World War II.  It was the first major victory for the U.S. and Allied Forces in the Pacific.  After this four-day battle, the Japanese naval fleet no longer maintained a superiority over the Americans.

Another "Battle of Midway" will take place this coming Sunday.  Perhaps not as world-changing or historic, but still important to the Carolina Panthers.  It will also happen "on" the Pacific.  They will travel to San Francisco to battle the 49'ers.  This will essentially be the first real test for the Panthers since their opening day loss to the Seattle Seahawks, another Pacific rival.  Carolina dominated and held a small lead throughout that game until late in the second half, when they basically gave the game away on a late-game fumble.

 San Francisco 49'ers VS Carolina Panthers
This Sunday Nov 10

Now we are at the MIDWAY point of the season.  Both Carolina and San Francisco are in second place in their respective divisions, trailing their rival Saints and Seahawks by a mere game in the standings.  It is a pivotal, crucial game for both teams.  A division title and berth in the NFL playoffs is at stake.

If the Panthers beat the 49'ers, and the Saints lose to the Dallas Cowboys, the Panthers and Saints would be TIED at 6-3 for the NFC South division lead.   Pretty exciting, huh?!

I've heard the advice before, "Don't do anything halfway," or "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right."  Well, if the NFL season were to end today, the Panthers would win the sixth (6th) and final wild card playoff spot in the NFC.  But we're only halfway through the season, and there's a lot of football yet to be played.  And -YES- the Panthers have looked -VERY GOOD- over their recent four-game winning streak.  But as we've pointed out previously, their opposition has not been of the highest caliber, having a combined losing record.  In fact, none of the teams they have beaten so far will be in the playoffs.  However, that is not true of their next two opponents.

Will the Panthers be a playoff team?  Will they play up to their names and potential, or will they appear more like oversized pussycats?  Time will tell... in particular, the next two weeks.  I'm taking bets on them -- but if and only if they get by the 49'ers (6-2) this coming Sunday (Nov. 10) and the Patriots (7-2) on Monday Night Football (Nov. 18).  These two teams have a long history and legacy of winning, not just games, but Super Bowl games.  And while the Panthers' current record is only one win less, I'm not sure anyone thinks that Carolina is in the same "league" with them yet. And unfortunately, the 49'ers have had two weeks to get ready for the Panthers.  Cam Newton and the rest of the team can prove us and the rest of the NFL wrong- and I hope they do- this coming weekend.

The Panthers do not wish to pin their hopes on a wild card berth in the playoffs.  The results of this past weekend (a win by the Panthers, 34-10, over the Atlanta Falcons, and an overtime loss by the Falcons, 27-24, to the New York Jets)  has propelled Carolina into the "Driver's Seat" to win the NFC South division title.  They are just one slim game behind the first-place Saints in the standings, with two upcoming decisive games between the two possibly deciding the champion.  If the Panthers can win both games against the Saints (which will be a difficult task), they are almost sure division winners.

Their chances may be much slimmer if they remain as the second (2nd) place team in the NFC South.  The two top runner-ups will be awarded the wild card playoff berths.  The 49'ers or the Seahawks are almost a "gimme" for one of these spots.  The other spot is a toss-up among several other teams.  Currently, the Panthers are tied at 5-3 with the Packers, Bears and Lions, and are just a half game ahead of the 5-4 Cowboys, and one game ahead of the 4-4 Cardinals.  The bottom line is- the Panthers face only ONE opponent for the division title (Saints), but they would be competing with at least 3 to 4 other teams for a wild card playoff berth.

So- the Panthers can control their own fate.  It's up to them- beat out the Saints, or roll the proverbial dice in the wild card race, where only one team wins, and the rest go watch at home.  Let's hope for the best.  Be sure to pass the word to Cam- the 49'ers are wearing "RED" this weekend.


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Pointing the Finger

   It's easy to point fingers when things are going badly, especially for a professional NFL team like the Carolina Panthers.  It wasn't too long ago, when the Panthers were winless at 0-2 and then hopeless at 1-3, that people were pointing fingers in all directions.  Some were pointing to offensive coordinator Mike Shula, saying he was even more conservative than former OC Rob Chudzinkski ; others pointed at Head Coach Ron Rivera for not trusting his players enough to go-for-broke on several 4th-and-1 plays and for allowing the Panthers opponents to come back and win close games in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter.  And many wondered if former rookie phenom QB Cam Newton, now in his third year, could really mature and become the leader that the Panthers will need to guide them back into the playoffs, or would he instead somehow morph into a newer version of former Panthers QB Jake Delhomme, whose last infamous dip into the doldrums was a 2008 home playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals, in which he personally committed six (count 'em) turnovers.  Lately, it has been a roller coaster ride, in which the Panthers (and Cam) play a great game, then look as if they did not show up at all for the next one.  Less than a month ago, Newton threw three (3) interceptions and no touchdowns in a 22-6 loss to the Cardinals.  Seemed like deja vu all over again. (!)

  Remember owner Jerry Richardson's goal/prediction in their inaugural 1995 season-- to win the Super Bowl within ten years?  Actually, they made it TO the Super Bowl in 2003 (with two years to spare) in their eighth season, only to let Richardson's dream fade in the closing minutes by the margin of a single field goal.

 Remember center Ryan Kalil's ill-fated prognostication a year ago?   A full-page preseason ad in the Charlotte Observer predicting a Panthers -- not winning record, not playoff appearance, but -- Super Bowl victory in 2012.  What he also failed to predict was his subsequent season-ending injury that allowed him to watch from the sidelines as the Panthers fell short, of not just the Super Bowl, but the playoffs, finished 7-9.  And Panthers QB Newton was quoted after a loss as saying, "There's no finger pointing in this game, especially not on this team. So if you expect me to point somebody out, or do this, if anything you can point the finger at me."

  But that was THEN, this is NOW, right ?  Well... maybe.  It's a quick jump on-and-off the Panthers bandwagon.  There have been many ups-and-downs over the period of the Panthers' 18-year history.

Many have also been quick to point out that the recent succession of wins by the Panthers have been against teams with combined records of 5-22, the latest against the winless 0-7 Tampa Bay Bucs.  But-- in their defense -- the Panthers did not make their own schedule or select their own opponents, and it is also true that they have typically been a hotter team in November/December.  Remember- they won four (4) straight at the end of the 2012 season.

Cam Newton- Pointing the Finger
  Cam Newton has been quick to give all of his teammates the nod for their recent success (winning three games in a row and 4 out of 5).  And rightfully so.  Even though Newton has shined in moments -- over the last three games (all wins), he has totaled
almost 700 yards passing, with six (6) touchdowns and no (0) interceptions, his teammates have been carrying their own weight.  The Panthers have averaged almost 100 yards rushing.  Their defense ranks second (2nd- behind 7-0 Kansas City) in LEAST POINTS ALLOWED, and third (3rd) in LEAST YARDS ALLOWED.

  The KEY, however, to the Panthers' hopes for a playoff berth this year, in all likelihood, will rise or fall on two sets of games : two this month, and two in December.

  The key November games will be :   

  • Nov. 10 - at San Francisco 49'ers
  • Nov. 18 - HOME vs. New England (MNF) 
  Then two (2) division games in December against their rival New Orleans Saints.
  • Dec. 8 - at New Orleans Saints
  • Dec. 22 - HOME vs. New Orleans Saints 
  The Panthers are currently two (2) games behind the Saints in the NFC South division standings.  If this scenario continues as is until Dec. 8, the Panthers have the opportunity to win the division by running the table on the Saints in their two head-to-head matchups.
  Of course, Carolina also has to play their other five (5) games : three of them are division games against the Atlanta Falcons (twice) and the Tampa Bay Bucs (at home); they also face the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins.   But if they fare well in the other four (4) games, their momentum should carry them through against these weaker teams.
  My prediction :  I believe if the Panthers can go 2-2 or 3-1 in these four crucial games, they have a good or better chance to win their division and/or make the playoffs.  If they go 1-3, then it's doubtful.. and 0-4.. well- then you may want to invest in some Charlotte Bobcats tickets.

Hey, what with all of this finger-pointing going on, maybe Cam Newton will be able to capture this pose sometime in the near future.  As Panthers fans, let's all hope so.