The scouting report on the Carolina Panthers for most of the season has been pretty simple: a team that plays good defense and dominates the clock with a strong running attack and is extremely solid on special teams.
But now the Panthers have added a new dimension to their resume, boasting a respectable downfield passing game that took many by surprise in Saturday night's 29-10 win over the Dallas Cowboys in the first round of the playoffs at Ericsson Stadium.
The dual threat of Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad, who has elevated his game in recent weeks, makes the Panthers a more dangerous team as they enter the divisional round of the NFL playoffs this Saturday against the St. Louis Rams.
"In the last couple of weeks we went totally against our tendencies," Muhammad said. "And the coaches feel comfortable with it. They saw that Steve and I can make plays in the passing game.
"We've been pitching for it all year long. But you know how that works -- if you've got a good thing going you ride it. And Stephen Davis has been playing some great ball. With (the receivers) coming on strong now, I think it's going to make us a lot more versatile in the playoffs."
Quarterback Jake Delhomme praised offensive coordinator Dan Henning and his staff for implementing the best game plan of the year for Saturday night's win over Dallas.
"They came up with some good things and they did a good job of giving us opportunities to take advantage of certain coverages."
Delhomme, who turned in a career night in first postseason start by throwing for 273 yards and a touchdown, has been clicking well with Smith all season and now seems to be on the page with Muhammad.
Together, they combined for seven catches for 238 yards and one touchdown against Dallas, the league's top-ranked defense. And they will almost certainly need both receivers to step up this week against St. Louis, one of the league's highest-scoring teams.
"Steve makes plays day in and day out for me," Delhomme said. "He's explosive with it in his hands as we saw (Saturday night) on that 70-yard catch-and-run. That is no slight towards Moose. He's come up with some huge catches for us." Muhammad said a game like Saturday night would do wonders for Delhomme's confidence.
"With Steve and I making some big plays down the field that just makes his job a lot easier and Stephen Davis' job a lot easier, too," Muhammad said.
Muhammad, of course, would like to see the Panthers continue to throw more. And, quite frankly, his preference is not unlike that of any other receiver in the league.
But as head coach John Fox pointed out, there are reasons the Panthers didn't go to air earlier in the season and why there's been a slow and fairly steady increase in the number of passes Delhomme throws each week.
"There's a lot more that goes into it than just your receivers," Fox said. "There's protection, there's a young quarterback, there's a lot of elements that go along with passing the ball efficiently. We match up better sometimes against some teams than others. Sometimes what they're doing to us dictates that we throw the ball more. It varies."
But Fox has been around long enough to know that come January you need to have a balanced attack on offense to succeed in this league.
"You can't live just running the football, I've said that all along," Fox said. "You've got to be able to do both in this league to be successful offensively. And I think we've come a long ways in that part of it."
SERIES HISTORY: 15th meeting. Series tied 7-7. These former NFC West rivals meeting for the first time since 2001 when the Rams swept the Panthers 48-14 and 38-32.