Panthers GameScout: Buffalo Edition

This is one year offensive lineman Mike Wahle wishes he could play a football game on Thanksgiving Day. That way he might be able to get the taste of last week's loss to the Chicago Bears out of his mouth a little quicker. Wahle was part of an offensive line that gave up eight sacks - all to defensive linemen - in a 13-3 loss to the Chicago Bears last Sunday.

This is one year offensive lineman Mike Wahle wishes he could play a football game on Thanksgiving Day.

That way he might be able to get the taste of last week's loss to the Chicago Bears out of his mouth a little quicker.

Wahle was part of an offensive line that gave up eight sacks - all to defensive linemen - in a 13-3 loss to the Chicago Bears last Sunday. It's a loss that could have playoff implication for the Panthers down the line.

Both teams are 7-3, one game behind Seattle in the race for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but now the Bears own the head-to-head tiebreaker.

But playoffs are the last thing on Carolina's mind as it enters this Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The Panthers just want to feel good about themselves after their six-game winning streak came crashing down last week.

"You want to get this next game going almost as fast as you can," Wahle said.

Wahle, 28, said this was a tough one to swallow.

"When you lose in the fashion that we did, it's tough for me to sleep. It really hits you hard. I've never been on a team that has only scored three points and given up eight sacks in a game. So that is a terrible feeling."

Wahle hopes the protection problems will be fixed simply by being able to run the ball on the Bills, the league's 31st-ranked run defense which is giving up nearly 150 yards per game on the ground.

Although the Panthers still don't have a 100-yard rusher this season and are averaging just 3 yards per carry, this could be a chance to right the ship heading down the stretch.

"We've been very, very frustrated to not get that yards per carry up," Wahle said. "I mean, it's something I go home and get (upset) about it every day. ... We're going to try to improve that yards per carry. That's our main goal. As an offensive unit, we have to get that running game going better. We are going to be given the opportunity this week."

Earlier in the week, Panthers coach John Fox attributed the poor pass protection in part to poor technique and to Jake Delhomme throwing two first-quarter interceptions that led to 10 early points for the Bears.

"When you're playing a good team at their place, you're at a little bit of a disadvantage as it relates to pass protection," Fox said. "To spot them 10 points and have to play catch-up from the first quarter on makes your job tougher for the day."

The Bills are struggling.

They allowed Drew Brees to throw for four touchdowns and LaDainian Tomlinson to run for another in a 48-10 thrashing at San Diego last Sunday.

But the Panthers know the Bills typically play much better at home, where they're 4-1 this season.

Stephen Davis, who saw a reduced role last Sunday against Chicago, gaining just 6 yards on four attempts, may be asked to carry the load if DeShaun Foster can't go. Foster turned up on the injury report on Wednesday as questionable with a bruised knee.

Nick Goings, who ran for more than 100 yards in five of the last seven games in 2004, also could see an increased workload.

If the Panthers can't run the ball with consistency, then they will have to rely on the offensive line to give Steve Smith enough time to get open.

"It's a good reminder of what can happen if you don't, and I'm not going to say don't prepare, but just a good reminder in general," right tackle Jordan Gross said of the Chicago game. "Hopefully we learn that and finish the season with that in the back of ours heads and not having that feeling again."

SERIES HISTORY: 4th meeting. Bills lead series 3-0. In the last meeting on Dec. 9, 2001, the Bills battled back from a 24-6 halftime deficit to beat the Panthers 25-24 at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Travis Henry won the game on a 1-yard touchdown run. But not all losses are bad, and here's proof. At the time, both teams were terrible and the loss essentially allowed the Panthers to "clinch" the No. 2 pick in the following year's NFL Draft, behind the expansion Houston Texans. With that pick, the Panthers chose North Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers, who has turned out to be a stud.

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Despite getting sacked eight times, Jake Delhomme did not - and has never - pointed a finger at his offensive line.

"No, he never does. He never calls us out. I had guys who would do that in college," tackle Jordan Gross said. "He knows it's hard, and he knows us. He knows we're working hard for him. Obviously we need to do better."

Of course if he did, the offensive line could point right back and point out his two costly interceptions against the Bears.

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Few remember that John Fox was a finalist for the Buffalo Bills' head coaching position after the 2000 NFL season.

Fox, then the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, interviewed for the job one day after the Giants lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl.

The Bills eventually chose Gregg Williams, who was later fired. Fox spent another season with the Giants before being hired by the Panthers prior to the 2002 season. Since then, he's 32-26 as a head coach. He took his team to the Super Bowl two years ago, and he has the Panthers poised for another playoff run this season.

"At that time, I was so worn out because we (the Giants) had just played in the Super Bowl," Fox said. "It's almost been a whirlwind just thinking about it. It came and went so fast that I don't really have a whole lot of recollection of it. But I'm glad things worked out the way they did."

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Even though he's a smallish receiver (5-foot-9, 185 pounds), don't count out Steve Smith being a factor on Sunday in the Buffalo cold.

The fact is, Smith loves to play in the snow.

While playing for Utah, Smith turned in one of his best college games against Air Force on a snow-covered field, catching two touchdown passes and returning a punt 61 yards for a score to account for all of the Utes' touchdowns in 21-14 victory.

"I've played in some chilly ones, but I don't mind it," Smith said. "I know what I signed up for. And Buffalo isn't too bad except for the wind."

BY THE NUMBERS: 14 - Number of passes Steve Smith caught last week against Chicago, which is also the same number of passes underachieving No. 2 receiver Keary Colbert has caught all season.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I've got a respect for anybody that goes out in the cold and plays. I hated cold-weather games. Anybody that can play in cold-weather games ... The snow is not that bad. It's not that cold. It's the sleet and rain, that's bad. That's when you say, 'Man, I don't know how they made it through that one.' Or the Green Bay championship game. I was like, 'Ain't no way. Twenty below? No way I could play in that.'" - Panthers FS Mike Minter on playing Sunday in Buffalo, where snow is in the forecast.

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The Panthers are likely to be without Pro Bowl middle linebacker Dan Morgan, who is listed as doubtful on the injury report with a sprained ankle.

Chris Draft, who played most of last week's game against the Chicago Bears with Morgan out, is expected to start.

He had nine tackles and played well last week.

Morgan, who leads the team with 76 tackles and has three sacks this season, left last week's game against the Chicago Bears with an ankle injury. Coach John Fox said an MRI and X-rays on Sunday night revealed a sprain but no ligament damage and no broken bones.

Morgan didn't practice Wednesday.

"He's an outstanding player," Fox said. "He was a Pro Bowler last year. Just like (defensive tackle) Kris Jenkins when we lost him. Obviously, we prefer to keep those guys, but (injuries) are part of the game. There are teams around the league that have lost guys, and the next guy has got to step up if you want to win. Dan's very important to us, but if we don't have him, we've got to move forward.

"Chris has done a good job for us," Fox said of Draft. "Dan has missed time this season, so it's not like the first time that he has been down this year. Chris has stepped in and done a good job. That's one of the reasons we went out and signed him last off-season. Right now, we're counting on him to do well against Buffalo."

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Don't be surprised if Nick Goings sees a few more carries this week, especially if DeShaun Foster (knee, questionable) can't go. Remember, Goings ran for at least 100 yards in five of the last seven games in '04.

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--LB Chris Draft is expected to start in place of Dan Morgan, who is doubtful with a severely sprained ankle.

--LB Dan Morgan did not practice on Wednesday and is not expected to play Sunday.

--RB DeShaun Foster had been expected to get more carries this week, but now his status for this week is up in the air. Foster aggravated a knee bruise he had earlier in the year and is listed as questionable on the injury report.

--RB Stephen Davis would likely carry the load if DeShaun Foster can't play this week.

--RB Nick Goings could see an increased role this week if DeShaun Foster doesn't play. Goings had five 100-yard games last season in the second half of last season but has been buried on the depth chart this year.

--S Idrees Bashir, a backup safety, is questionable for Sunday with a thigh injury.

--DT Brentson Buckner has joined the injury report for the first time as questionable with a knee injury. Buckner knocked down two passes against the Bears last week. If Buckner can't go, then Kindal Moorehead will start opposite Jordan Carstens on Sunday against the Bills.

--S Thomas Davis is questionable with a thigh injury and did not practice on Wednesday.

--TE Kris Mangum, who has missed the past two games with a knee injury, is questionable.

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GAME PLAN: This is easy. The Panthers hope to establish some running game against the league's 31st-ranked run defense this week, if for no other reason than to gain some confidence. The weather might mandate the Panthers do so anyway since snow is expected in the Buffalo area this weekend. The question right now is who will carry the ball. You would expect the Panthers to have some success against a Buffalo team that has surrendered 147.9 yards per game on the ground this season. Defensively, the Panthers will throw a bunch of different things at J.P. Losman, but they will try not to let Willis McGahee beat them.

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MATCHUPS TO WATCH --Bills WR Lee Evans vs. Panthers CB Chris Gamble. The assumption is that the Panthers will put Ken Lucas on the Bills' top receiver, Eric Moulds, which leaves Gamble on Evans. However, J.P. Losman seems to like throwing to Evans more than Moulds, so look for Gamble to be tested, especially when the Bills cross over into Carolina territory. After playing well the previous three weeks, Gamble gave up seven receptions for 81 yards to Justin Gage last week. Gage's previous best was four catches for 28 yards.

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INJURY IMPACT Along with middle linebacker Dan Morgan (doubtful), the Panthers also listed backup running back DeShaun Foster as questionable with a knee injury, meaning Stephen Davis might get the bulk of carries after rushing just four times last week for 6 yards against Chicago.

However, if Foster practices Thursday, expect him to get the bulk of the carries.

Foster did not practice Wednesday, along with defensive tackle Brentson Buckner (knee), tight end Kris Mangum (knee), and safeties Thomas Davis (thigh) and Idrees Bashir (thigh), all of whom are listed as questionable. Foster got nine carries last week to Davis' four, and it appears the coaching staff is losing some faith in Davis being the guy who can carry the ball 25 times per game. Davis could be relegated to short-yardage and goal-line situations in the near future unless he increases his yards per carry soon.

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