FIRST AND TENI can't help but think that, despite the fact that the Carolina Panthers gave up 343 yards passing to the Arizona Cardinals and committed 12 penalties for 85 yards, sunnier days are ahead for this franchise. Winning makes everything a little easier to swallow.
Building off last week's resounding victory over San Francisco, John Fox and his beleaguered coaching staff unlocked the shackles that had been weighing down the offensive and defensive units all season and let the boys play some football. As a result, the Panthers players found joy in the game again and went out and captured their second victory in a row.
It was a dominant game against a gritty opponent who was eager to rise above a .500 record for the first time in…well, recent memory, and who was working to earn a share of its conference lead. The Cardinals were focused and determined coming into Charlotte and it showed in their pre-game body language.
Who would've thought that the Panthers would lay on a first quarter spanking led by starting running back number five, an injured list that can't grow much fatter and a banged-up quarterback who probably should have stayed out a week to heal his fractured thumb?
That first quarter, where Carolina scored 14 unanswered points and cranked up the pressure, left the Cardinals gasping for breath and scrambling around the field scowling at each other and throwing their hands up in the air in frustration. Arizona couldn't get a rhythm because new starting quarterback Shaun King couldn't find his receivers and because most of the time there was a Carolina Panther in his face.
The second quarter didn't go much better for the Cardinals as the Panthers racked up two more touchdowns to go ahead by 24 points at half time.
Panther fans sitting at home were pinching themselves.
The second half brought Carolina and its fans back to Earth a little, but the kid with the fractured finger, the backup fullback and the old warhorse wide receiver made enough plays to stay ahead of the turning tide. Arizona scratched out 10 points in the third quarter, and that was it for the game.
Several second half scoring opportunities for the Cardinals were snuffed out by an excellent Panthers defense who forced four turnovers, two interceptions by first year starting safety Colin Branch, one by rookie Chris Gamble on a nifty one-handed grab in the Cardinals end zone, and a fumble recovery by rookie Jordan Carstens brought on by a vicious blind side hit on King by linebacker Mark Fields.
The Karma was so good for the Panthers that late in the fourth quarter, John Fox tossed his headset to a ball boy and trotted out Rodney "Methuselah" Peete at quarterback to hand off to Nick "Going, Going, Gone" Goings who added a few yards to his impressive final total of 121 yards.
It was a good old fashioned Carolina Panthers butt-kicking. And it was sweet.
OBSERVATIONS FROM SUNDAY'S CONTEST· Ricky Proehl's quarterback rating is 39.6, and that's generous. His third quarter pass on a surprisingly fun swing play on a fake punt was nearly as bad as the pass Todd Sauerbrun tried to throw on a fake punt about three years ago.
· What's gotten into the coaching staff? All of a sudden, the Panthers are blitzing on every down, the quarterback is going deep, the offense runs two reverses back-to-back and there's a swing play on a fake punt. Madness.
· Personally, to answer the previous question, I think Jerry Richardson took John Fox aside after the Raiders loss and told him to cut loose before he withered on the vine.
· I think Muhsin Muhammad is a beast and I'm going to miss him next season. I still think he'd make an All-Pro tight end in the Wesley Walls mode.
· Mark Fields and Will Witherspoon were all over the field on Sunday, but it was Vinny Cuircui's quietly excellent play on the inside that allowed the outside boys to take their shots at Shaun King.
· Colin Branch's cast is gone. Think it made a difference?
· Ricky Manning gets beat deep too often for my taste.
· Brandon Bennett actually got the first carry of the game for Carolina, going hard off left tackle for 11 yards.
· Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers missed a 50 yard second quarter field goal attempt wide left because his weird practice-kick motion prior to the snap was too close to the count, forcing Rackers to hurry the repetition and hook the ball left.
· Emmit Smith passed the late great Walter Payton for second place on the all-time career rushing list, and it hardly got a whisper from the networks.
· Shaun King's passer rating was 56.8 despite throwing for 343 yards.
· The Panthers offensive line did an outstanding job of protecting the quarterback and opening holes for Nick Goings. This was their third straight week of excellent play since Todd Fordham took over for Matt Willig at right tackle and rookie Travelle Wharton replaced first year starter Tutan Reyes, who moved over to right tackle when Doug Brzezinski went on the IR. I especially like the experience Wharton is getting. His versatility at guard and tackle will allow the Panthers to take some chances in the offseason.
· Will Dennis Green be looking for another quarterback in the June draft?
· Josh Scobey impressed me with his toughness. I'll be watching this kid.
· For the first time all season, Mike Trgovac looks like he's having fun.
· If I'm Scott O'Brien, I look for a return man this summer. I think Darren Sproles would make a fine fourth round choice.
· What was up with all the dead grass in the middle of the field? No explanation necessary; I was just wondering.
· I think Jake Delhomme is showing real leadership this season.
· The game appears to be slowing down for Chris Gamble. I think he's finally showing us why he was so highly regarded coming out of Ohio State. He's still a rookie so he'll get burned occasionally, but he's beginning to understand the relationship between his body and the rest of the field. This is essential for instinctive play. Before the coaching staff turned him loose one-on-one, Gamble was thinking too much.
· Michael Gaines was absolutely mauling linebackers on Sunday.
· I saw Sean Tufts in on every special teams tackle.
· Larry Fitzgerald will be a special player in this league. He reminds me of Jerry Rice in the way he goes after balls.
· Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson is a player. The way he swiped a second quarter interception out of Muhammad's hands was an athlete's defensive play. He's a big hitter, too. Need some of those in Carolina. I'll be watching him, as well.
· Todd Sauerbrun averaged 42.2 yards per punt on five punts, and a couple of them were pitiful. Could our big mouth punter be getting fat and happy? Earlier this week, Sauerbrun told reporters that he thought he'll wind up being the greatest punter of all time. Hogwash. He won't be because he's too inconsistent.
· Colin Branch literally ran out of gas on his interception return. Now he and Julius Peppers will have something to talk about during practice this week.
FOURTH AND GOALWin #2 in a row and the Panthers are on a roll.
Ex-Panthers defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio tells his Jacksonville Jaguars every Sunday to keep "chopping wood". I think he learned this motivational tactic from John Fox who personifies the phrase. Fox knew that if his team kept chopping away at the losing streak, eventually it would have to fall. And fall it did.
We'll see in the coming weeks as the Panthers head into the thick of conference play if the franchise can continue the mantra and its return to health. You can reach Chaz at email@example.com. Talk about this column on the boards by clicking here.