FIRST AND TENTo say the early-season Panthers were a self-destructive and bi-polar bunch, fraught with insecurity and doubt, would be a gross understatement of the facts. Here are some better facts: Carolina is tied for first place in the league's toughest division, the NFC South. They are on a five game winning streak. The franchise is top 5 in the NFL in scoring offense and overall defense, and they are once again the chic-pick of the national glamour press to advance through the playoffs into the Super Bowl.
Also, I've caught John Fox smiling early in the third quarter for the second week in a row. Far as I know, that's never happened before. There's an answer to how the Panthers have reversed their schizophrenic ways; they've discovered balance.
The run game, so absent in the early going of the season, has begun to emerge behind a rapidly improving offensive line. A stronger run game has reduced pressure on quarterback Jake Delhomme to make plays, making him a more effective playmaker. Delhomme's efficient playmaking has improved with the blossoming of the league's newest superstar: Steve Smith.
Translation: the Panthers have become a balanced offensive scoring machine.
Their red zone efficiency is best in the NFL, and against Tampa, the Panthers scored 34 points against the league's second ranked defense that hadn't allowed more than 20 points to a single opponent all season.
The Carolina defense made a major contribution to that fact, of course, giving the offense prime field position all day with four turnovers, including a momentum-killing pick-six interception by Panthers cornerback Chris Gamble. The defensive line added five sacks while the front seven limited the Bucs to 44 yards rushing.
Special Teams made its mark, too. Jason Baker averaged 49.5 yards on six punts, while Steve Smith and Chris Gamble averaged 15 yards in punt returns. On kickoffs, Rod Smart brought back two kickoffs for 53 yards while the Panthers held Tampa to 22.1 yards per return on seven kickoffs. Carolina's balanced attack kept Tamp Bay off balance for much of the game.
No wonder the cheerleaders were whacked out after. They didn't have anything else to do.
A FEW OBSERVATIONS FROM SUNDAY'S CONTEST· The Panthers are showing the rest of the NFL that they will punish poor quarterback play.
· This note from beat writer Darin Gantt in his Friday Q&A regarding why he thinks Carolina doesn't start DeShaun Foster: "Deservedly so or not, he's (Foster) got a reputation as a fumbler, and in the Panthers conservative mindset, turnovers rank right up there with the bird flu in things they want." Foster fumbled again on Sunday, though it luckily bounced out of bounds before the Bucs could recover it.
· A couple of times in the first half, I despaired of the Panthers' poor tackling technique. Then I remembered that Dan Morgan can't lift his arms above his shoulders due to the harness trainers have fit him with and Julius Peppers is still protecting his broken hand. Both men were in on just about every defensive play, so they're exempt.
· I've gained a new appreciation for Brentson Buckner's run-stuffing capabilities. All the more reason why I continue to think Mike Trgovac should abandon the idea of dropping Buckner into coverage.
· John Fox made a conservative call at the end of the first half by not using time outs when the Panthers could have tried for another score. Judging from Delhomme's propensity for throwing interceptions returned for touchdowns, however, I think Fox's decision has merit.
· Mike Trgovac is doing a good job mixing his defensive calls.
· Joe Buck and Troy Aikman are the best TV announcing team in the business, in my opinion. But Aikman's shameless and lengthy plug of his new racing team was a bit juvenile. The game wasn't that boring.
· Tampa came out fast in the third quarter with the dink-and-dunk offense. It was working quite well, too, as the quick-hit pass has all season against the Panthers, until Chris Gamble made the Bucs pay with an interception return for a touchdown.
· It was a good idea to get Julius Peppers free from double teams and chip blocks by stunting him with Buckner.
· Mike Wahle pulls with amazing quickness and speed.
· A sure sign Carolina has a keeper in vastly improved Travelle Wharton: Simeon Rice had no sacks and zero tackles.
· I think Stephen Davis is finally over the knee injury. He's taken a couple of scary shots to the knee the last two weeks and survived. His hits in the hole against the Buccaneers were quick and violent. No more dancing.
· Michael Gaines didn't make a catch. But his blocking was superb.
· It'll be interesting to see if Mike Seidman responds now that Kris Mangum is out for a few weeks with an injury.
· Kemp Rasmussen gets today's game ball for Special Teams play.
· The fourth quarter defensive interference call on Ricky Manning at the Tampa Bay goal line was bogus. It was a superior defensive play.
· I think getting on top early has had a tremendous impact on the Panthers mental approach for the remainder of the last two games.
· Being on top at the end of the games is having an impact, too.
FOURTH AND GOALCarolina confidence is as high as it has been in some time. The 2-6 New York Jets come to Charlotte for a mid-afternoon contest and there is ample reason the Panthers should emerge with their sixth straight victory.
New York beat Tampa, too, in week 5, and brings the venerable Curtis Martin to town along with a probable new starter at QB, Brooks Bollinger, now that the Vinny Testaverde experiment is over. So the Panthers have to be licking their chops at the chance to get at another inexperienced quarterback.
Yet Panthers players are quick to remind anyone who praises them that there are no gimmies in the NFL. There are no patsies in this league, they say in one voice, and as soon as you start feeling cocky about things, life will up and smack you in the ear hole, leaving you dazed and disoriented. This is the attitude of a mature, balanced, capable group of men who refuse to look past today's challenge toward tomorrow's glory. It's the attitude of a winner.
TOUCHDOWNA few weeks ago, prior to facing Detroit and Minnesota, fans pointed to Sunday's game in Tampa Bay as the real test for the Panthers – and Carolina aced it.
Now, the new "real test" for the Panthers is the Atlanta Falcons, led by Darth Vick and his merry band of Storm Troopers.
The players are focused on the here and now, as they should be. The Jets certainly could care less about anything beyond next Sunday.
Yet the road to the Super Bowl for the Carolina Panthers isn't north on I-75. It's south through the roadblock that awaits them on I-85. You can reach Chaz at email@example.com