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.