FIRST AND TENOkay, it's official. The barroom consensus is that the Panthers failed to show up Sunday.
Hard to argue against and equally hard to accept.
Carolina has been an enigma all season. One week they're manhandling one of the most potent offenses in the game and the next laying down for a heated division rival they have no business taking lightly.
Earlier in the season, a demoralizing loss to the Chicago Bears cost quarterback Jake Delhomme his confidence and had a tremendous ripple effect on the rest of the Panthers as they fought to regain the balance that marked their resurgence from a start-off 1-3 record. The following week in Buffalo, Delhomme played shell-shocked and the team escaped with an iffy offense and an opportunistic defense.
The magic appeared to be back in last Sunday's scintillating win against the Falcons only to disperse into a dark cloud of uncertainty.
The only true word left to describe this discombobulated bunch is this: Inconsistent. It's been glorious and embarrassing to watch – all at the same time - and we simply don't know what team will decide to show up.
Carolina travels to Baton Rouge Sunday to face the displaced New Orleans Saints. By most all measures, the Panthers should win the game. But I'd feel quite uneasy placing money on it.
Next to follow is the Dallas Cowboys who seem to lose games they should win and win games they shouldn't. Dallas has a stout defense as all the legit playoff contenders do, so if the Panthers fall behind early in the game, who knows if they'll be able to muster points later on?
Each offensive possession seems painfully for the Panthers these days.
But Carolina could easily mash the Cowboys into the East Texas dust and look like the world-beaters that whipped the Vikings and the Bucs, part 1.
This bi-polar personality is simply maddening.
Finally, Carolina finishes in Atlanta against the same Falcons they whitewashed just last week in Charlotte. Think Vick and his dirty bird will be looking for a little payback? We know how motivating revenge can be. Just as Tampa Bay.
The bottom line here, and perhaps most painful, is that the Panthers themselves are unsure of what team they will be for any given game. That's also hard to argue against and equally hard to accept.
But it's the truth.
A FEW OBSERVATIONS FROM SUNDAY'S CONTEST- Steve Smith seems to be the only player in Carolina's offensive lineup willing to perform at a consistently high level every game.
- The Panthers always struggle after a particularly physical game the week before. It happened after the win against the Patriots and it happened again following the Atlanta battle. It's no mystery. The John Fox system is just not flexible enough, nor creative enough, to adjust for injuries.
- Having Mike Rucker out really hurt Sunday. Cadillac Williams ran over LDE all day. The cutbacks to that side were especially brutal.
- Stephen Davis may one day recover sufficiently to become an effective runner, but his injury has robbed him of cutting power for now and he's surviving on technique alone. The holes are open. Davis simply cannot get to them in time.
- Credit John Fox for not letting his team use excuses for their poor play. There's no finger-pointing either, and that's also a credit to Fox's leadership.
- John Kasay now officially scares me. Am I out in the streets screaming for the Panthers to cut the struggling kicker? No. But I don't line his locker with gold either.
- I think Jake has a mental block or something. There's no joy in his game anymore. He's leaving some of himself on the field these days and that's disturbing.
- I don't care what nasty letters I might get from the Mike Trgovac fan club, but I absolutely hate, no abhor, the game plan that asks Brentson Buckner to drop back in pass coverage. The strategy has absolutely no merit nor benefit.
- Ricky Manning cost himself at least $100K with his poor tackling effort.
- And what the heck was Chris Draft doing letting Mike Alstott jump up over him for a first down? There's too many forearm tacklers on this team.
- While I'm ranting on tackling, Will Witherspoon whiffed on Williams as did Chris Gamble on Cadillac's first TD run of the day, the one where he did a fine impression of Anquan Boldin.
- The Panthers secondary didn't get within ten yards of an interception Sunday.
- Not all is lost. Keary Colbert caught two passes.
- I'm totally fed up watching the Panthers try to defend the so-called "pick play". It's really an undisguised reverse crossing route the Bucs run where their wide out goes in motion to just inside the slot receiver (or tight end), causing the cornerback to step out wide of the nickel back, then curls back underneath as the slot receiver takes his man over the middle. Carolina failed to adjust to it and was killed by the play all game.
- Ronde Barber said that he was surprised Jake gift-wrapped an interception for him. Just goes to prove that Delhomme is not seeing the whole field and one has to ask the question, why?
- The Panthers looked worn out. There were a lot of individual efforts that had great intensity in them, but collectively, the squad looked tired.
FOURTH AND GOALThe barroom came to another consensus: the Panthers took Tampa Bay lightly.
The results justify such a statement, of course. Carolina did appear surprised at how emotional the Buccaneers were.
Still, it's hard to accept the idea that the Panthers would take any team lightly, especially in a home game against a bitter rival with NFC South supremacy on the line.
But after a few beers, anybody can jump to conclusions.
TOUCHDOWNConventional wisdom says not to panic. The team is, after all, 9 and 4, so the sky is not about to fall in.
But it's hard not to feel the doom and gloom that lingers still from the '04 season.
I don't think it's a stretch to concede that for the Panthers to reach the Super Bowl everything must fall into place. No key injuries, no wild turns of fortune, solid play from both offensive and defensive units, a lucky break or two on special teams, minimize turnovers and penalties…all elements of a championship team.
Some franchises like New England can be consistently successful because their systems are successful. Others like the 80's Cowboys and the current Colts make things happen with talent in abundance.
But the Panthers haven't reached either level yet and are still searching for the divine spark that brings all the planets into alignment and propels them onto the world stage for the second time in their short history.
The sky is the limit for this team. It has the goods to go all the way to the Super Bowl, just like some have said.
I only wish the sky didn't feel so far away just now.
You can reach Chaz at email@example.com