PANTHERS MORNING AFTER – LIONS

There was just one last question still bouncing around league offices the morning after Carolina's most recent come-from-behind victory: Where do the Panthers get off winning that game?

FIRST AND TEN

I take it back: THIS was the Panthers' most painful win in franchise history. I thought last week's migraine-inducing "Escape From Phoenix" was the all-time main pain event. But Sunday's game left a hangover even a Goody's Powder couldn't cure.

At least that's how Jake Delhomme might be feeling today after getting laid out by Lions safety Kenoy Kennedy.

Kennedy had a running head start. Delhomme started his slide too late. It doesn't take too much imagination to see that Delhomme was going to lose that battle. It hurt just watching the play unfold to its violent conclusion. The replays just made it worse.

It wasn't all bad. The Panthers did win. They got to the opposing quarterback. They stuffed the run. They made plays on offense when they had to and made key stops on defense when it mattered most.

They even have a bye week coming up to let the Tylenol really take effect.

They'll need it.

This was supposed to be the soft portion of Carolina's schedule. They have one patsy left, in two weeks against the Vikings, before the "hard" part of the schedule reportedly begins.

As John Fox will tell you, there are no easy games in the NFL; they're all hard.

And the Panthers are doing their best to prove him right.

A FEW OBSERVATIONS FROM SUNDAY'S CONTEST

* See what happens when an opponent takes a five step drop?

* Chris Weinke took center and started throwing bullets…and the Lions didn't know what hit 'em. After nearly four quarters of Delhomme softballs, the Detroit defense simply could not adjust to the sheer velocity of Weinke's passes. Perhaps - and I'm certainly not advocating controversy - but perhaps Dan Henning could use this contrast when future matchups might merit the choice?

* I've gained new respect for the cover skills of Dre Bly. There were some scouting mags who rated Bly a first round draft choice after a stellar junior season at UNC. Despite his senior season decline, I now understand why.

* I think I'm beginning to understand what makes Steve Smith such a remarkable football player – aside from his natural physical ability, his exceptional speed and his burning competitive fire. It's Smith's supernatural out-of-body awareness of spatial relationships on the football field. Smith knows what's going to happen a split second before anyone else does and that gives him a tremendous advantage. There are two other men I've witnessed who had this very rare gift. One is Allen Iverson, whom I've compared Smith to since Smith came into the league. The other missed 49 last-second shots during his legendary NBA career – and, to a lesser degree, put Spike Lee alter ego Mars Blackman on the iconic map.

* Stephen Davis still has good vision in the hole as any back in the league. But he's lost power and it shows. Davis doesn't run over anyone anymore.

* I detest the "if" game, but if Delhomme had not thrown the two interceptions returned for touchdowns by the Lions, this would have been an easy game – like it should have been.

* I support John Fox's decision to go for it on fourth-and-a foot. It was the kind of gutsy call a real man like Fox can make that will pay big dividends for him later on in the season. But what I don't understand is why he didn't hand off to Davis, or play-action and roll out right, instead of "sneaking" Delhomme. Carolina's offensive line is too light to play the odds in that scenario.

* Brett Favre and Peyton Manning are the only quarterbacks in the league who can afford to throw interceptions, as they tend to throw a greater number of touchdowns. Sooner or later, Jake Delhomme will realize that he has not earned that kind of currency.

* Having Deshaun Foster on the sidelines hurt the running game more than some people realize. But having Brad Hoover in civies hurt it more.

* I like what Detroit is doing on defense. Especially up front.

* Joey Harrington is afraid to succeed. Success breeds expectations and Harrington hasn't lived up to expectations that normally follow the #3 overall choice in the draft. He'll have a chance to rehabilitate his psyche with some other organization. His Detroit teammates clearly don't believe in him.

* For the first time this season, the Fox TV crew did a credible job reporting and analyzing the game.

* Special Teams sucked. And it's not Jamal Robertson's fault.

* Where would Carolina be if opponents didn't get penalized so much?

* Al Wallace continues to show why the Panthers pay him starter's money.

THIRD AND GOAL

For all my griping in this column, I think the Panthers are headed in the right direction.

Fundamentally, there are still improvements to make, particularly on Special Teams and in the passing game, but I like the way Carolina tackled Sunday. I also like the maturity the team showed by not panicking in the fourth quarter when the chips were down.

If they can stay healthy, the Panthers should be in the thick of the fight when the playoffs roll around.

TOUCHDOWN

Some folks say that the Panthers are lucky to be 4-2. And they'd be right.

It doesn't change the facts, though.

Carolina squeaked by the Packers, Cardinals and Lions, yet they earned each of these victories and probably should have taken home one or both of the two losses.

Winning ugly is the hallmark of a good football team.

And if Carolina has to win ugly for the rest of the season…so be it.

I won't complain.

You can reach Chaz at chazestes@yahoo.com

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