PANTHERS AFTERMATH – PATRIOTS

Whew. That's the word heard all over Panthers territory following Carolina's exhausting victory over the defending Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots. Whew. Thank goodness that's over. We're worn slap out.

FIRST AND TEN

"And thank goodness that monkey's off our backs. Now maybe we can really exorcise the demons of last season's one and seven team and get back to true Panther football."

If that wasn't a direct quote from head coach John Fox, then it was a direct quote from coach John Fox's head. Or should have been.

Forget that the Panthers finished the 04-05 campaign with a 6 and 2 record. They missed the playoffs primarily because they fell apart early on and didn't recover until it was too late. At the end, Carolina was the best team not to make it to the post season. Including the Saints. The failure hurt.

The entire offseason was spent covering that wound with as much salve as possible – healing broken and torn body parts, adding depth and speed to critical skill positions and talking non-stop about how focused and determined the squad was entering the new season. For a while there the wound scabbed over pretty good.

Only to have it ripped wide open again by the Saints in last Sunday's debilitating loss.

Getting beaten by New Orleans wasn't really that big a deal. But the massive hit to Carolina's psyche was. The pain was just too fresh.

The real healing began Sunday at Bank Of America stadium against a classic football team that hadn't lost more than two games in two seasons, including the playoffs.

Whatever happens the rest of the year, it doesn't matter. The specter of last season is finally, truly dead.

Whew.

A FEW OBSERVATIONS FROM SUNDAY'S CONTEST

* I wouldn't be surprised if Keary Colbert has only the Miami game to keep his starting job. The possession receiver position is already taken by the exceedingly competent Ricky Proehl. If Colbert doesn't start bringing down some balls, the coaching staff might decide to give Rod Gardner a shot.

* Speaking of Proehl, Jake Delhomme would be clueless on the field without his thirty-six-year-old safety blanket.

* And speaking of Delhomme, he's in absolutely no danger of losing his starting job…but maybe he should be. Delhomme's mechanics stunk up the field for the second game in a row.

* I think Tom Brady was scared. ‘Course that sorta thing tends to happen when you get punched in the mouth.

* Game MVP: Ken Lucas. The man can flat out hit. He's a pretty good pass defender, too. Had double-digits in tackles. Lucas' rundown of Troy Brown in the first half after Ricky Manning fell asleep, again, on a third down play was the key event of the day. Even if New England did score a resulting touchdown, Lucas' effort set the tone for the rest of the team.

* Sunday was the most animated I've ever seen Mike Trgovac. Think last week's criticism stung a little bit?

* Thank goodness the game wasn't on the Fox network.

* I was surprised New England got away from the running game as early as it did.

* Willie McGinnest makes us other old guys smile when we see him play.

* Will Witherspoon's interception was…well, totally cool. Timely, too.

* Note to Mike Maser: a counter-draw running play works best when you pull your guard, not your tackle. Makes Richard Seymour look like Javon Kearse.

* Don't you know that Chris Gamble is going to take some ribbing this week for getting caught from behind on a punt return…by a tight end? Even if it was Ben Watson and his 4.6 speed.

* Reading Stephen Davis' lips as he sat on the turf, helmet off, injured, he said, "It's my knee." I admit that at that moment, based on the look on his face, I thought Davis' season was done. I'd still like to know how he made it back on the field.

* "Little Bill" Belichick should have thrown the red flag. Sometimes you throw away a timeout to let your team know they're not alone. John Fox does it all the time.

* Anybody else isolate on Brad Hoover? Game ball based on what I saw.

* Holy cow! We got this guy AND a sixth rounder for Todd Sauerbrun? Jason Baker can punt folks.

* I'm going after Colbert again. Keary doesn't pursue the ball as if he owns it. There are other parts of his game that he does well, including the all-important blocking skill - and this is just one fan's opinion - but I think Delhomme will forget about Colbert if he continues to look average.

* Rudy Gay went mano-a-mano with Steve Smith and more than held his own until he got hurt. Lots of people don't know that Gay subbed for an injured Ty Law late in 2003 and is now one of the league's best cover corners.

* I think Julius Peppers needs to stop dancing at the line of scrimmage so much. Allows offensive linemen and chip-blockers to get into him too easily.

* I think at least three of the Patriots illegal procedure penalties were fan-related. Looks like the one and seven crowd is gone, too.

* The Panthers need about two more straight-up football players like Kris Mangum. No, maybe four.

* Mangum's new nickname: Mister Giterdun.

* Special Teams are going to win a game for Carolina sometime this season.

* Mike Rucker is back.

* So are the Carolina Panthers and their milk money.

FOURTH AND GOAL

The Panthers began the 2000-2001 season with a one and one record after a Monday Night win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Led by a rookie quarterback and an indifferent head coach, the team promptly went on to lose fourteen straight games and finish 1-15. The scars of that season will remain with the franchise forever.

The Panthers have always been susceptible to trends. Even the current regime isn't immune.

Every season under Coach Fox, including the Super Bowl season of 2003, Carolina has gone through a period where they sort of lose themselves. The 2002 squad started with three straight wins then lost their next five before righting the ship and finishing the season 7-9. In 2003, the Panthers managed not to lose three games in a row but struggled with consistency. Then the lull happened again last season in a big way.

Somehow the team finds a way to block themselves, despite all efforts – whether from injuries, turnovers or a rash of untimely penalties.

The hope is that this season will be different; that the lapses of focus will be momentary, or that each unfortunate event will be nothing more than a bump in the road and not the dog pile it has often become.

TOUCHDOWN

There is one huge difference in the franchise under Fox versus what came before under Dom Capers and George Seifert: after a lull, the Panthers always – always – spring forward.

That's the mark of an exceptional leader and the major reason why I think the Panthers won't fall flat this Sunday in Miami against the Dolphins.

Carolina proved itself against the best football team in the league. It banished the ghost of last season's failure and created a template for the rest of the season.

I truly believe the deserving win Sunday against the Patriots was just what Carolina needed to spring forward past the psychological pain that haunted them all summer. You can reach Chaz at chazestes@yahoo.com

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