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.