PANTHERS MORNING AFTER

Life is good when you're winning. But winning is even better when you're good. That's what the Carolina Panthers are these days: a good football team.

FIRST AND TEN

A little over a month ago, Carolina was at the bottom of the NFC South hurting from a sixth straight loss and looking at the potential for massive turnover in personnel in the offseason. The injured list contained enough broken bodies to dress half a team and the media had turned on the Panthers like a nest of fire ants. The only suspense left was how high the draft pick was going to be.

I guess the Panthers don't know how to read their own bad press. Good thing, too. It's hard to win with an inferiority complex.

Just ask the Saints. They know. Carolina laid on another South Division butt whipping, taking New Orleans behind the woodshed for a 32 to 21 victory that cemented the Panthers as a bona fide playoff contender and the Saints as a team searching for a soul.

New Orleans isn't a bad football team. Their problem is they don't know it. The Panthers do, and that's the real difference between them.

A FEW OBSERVATIONS FROM SUNDAY'S CONTEST

- Carolina won the coin toss for only the second time all season. They scored on their initial drive, a John Kasay field goal. Objective #1, score first, accomplished.

- Nick Goings has excellent vision and quickness in the hole, but lacks lateral speed. His most effective runs were between the tackles. Goings also lacks change-of-direction speed, but I like the fact that he runs toward contact rather than from it.

- Todd Fordham had two holding penalties and two sacks allowed before half time.

- The Saints might be drafting for a QB this summer, though I think Aaron Brooks is an excellent player. I just believe Brooks has run out of time in New Orleans.

- The same could be said for Jim Haslett. I fear he may not last the week.

- With 1:42 remaining in the second quarter, Mike Minter failed to catch an easy interception, allowing the Saints to go in for a touchdown.

- Jake Delhomme twist-tripped Saints defensive end Will Smith after Smith dropped Delhomme for a sack and began doing his little celebration dance over Delhomme's prone form. I laughed out loud when Jake did that, mostly because Delhomme's action personified his competitive nature and that, if he could have gotten through the facemask, Jake would have bitten Smith in the leg. The funniest part was that the referee, who saw the whole thing, should have penalized Delhomme for being unsportsmanlike, but kept his flag in check because Smith deserved it.

- With 58 seconds remaining in the first quarter, Muhsin Muhammad took a Delhomme quick out and broke three tackles en route to a touchdown. The entire drive took 6 seconds.

- Carolina's second quarter touchdown put the team up by 19 points. Why didn't Fox go for the two point conversion to make it a 21 point spread? Because 2 opposing TD's and 2 opposing field goals equals 20 points and Fox needed the point-after conversion for the possible tie.

- A fact I didn't know: Mike Minter's hometown is Charlotte.

- Jake needs to work on selling his screens. His play-action-pass fakes are bad enough, but his screens are just awful.

- Dante Wesley was a beast on special teams.

- Panther defenders were not getting into the passing lanes in the second half.

- John Kasay set a career high with 6 field goals. If you didn't pick Kasay for your fantasy squad, you're probably crying in your cereal bowl right now.

- Delhomme was not getting the quick-strike throw calls in the third quarter - leading to lengthy routes and extended blocking duties for the offensive line. Todd Fordham's troubles against Charles Grant may have had something to do about the play calling. Apparently, Henning decided that Fordham needed help and called for the running backs to double Grant often. This eliminated a dump-down option for Delhomme.

- Jamal Broussard is absolutely too easy to tackle.

- The key play of the game, in my opinion, was at the 12:20 mark of the fourth quarter when Delhomme handed off to Brad Hoover for a four-yard gain and a first down. The drive ended with 7:32 left in the game and a Kasay field goal. The score itself was secondary. The converted third down allowed the Panthers to run an additional five minutes off the clock, effectively taking away a potential Saints scoring drive. What little life was left in New Orleans prior to that third down conversion blew away like a puff of smoke in a sudden gust of wind.

FOURTH AND GOAL

The Panthers welcome the wildcard-leading St. Louis Rams to Bank of America Stadium Sunday in a key contest of playoff hopefuls. Shadows of last season's NFC divisional playoff game linger in the minds of both fan bases. The Rams will be looking for redemption and for an edge in record heading into the final month of the season. The Panthers will be riding their regained confidence and their belief that the playoffs are theirs to lose.

Make no mistake, though. For both these clubs, the playoffs have already begun.

You can reach Chaz at chazestes@yahoo.com. Discuss this column by clicking < ahref="http://mb2.scout.com/fpanthersinsiderfrm15">here for the message boards.

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