FIRST AND TENThe field was muddy and all chewed up. The stands were virtually empty. There were more bag-heads than boos. And more booze than bag-heads.
As the story unfolded Sunday night, the Saints gave the Panthers a big ole' and then everything else was dumped into the media machine where it was chewed up, mashed into paste, given a coloring and repackaged in cellophane wrapping for the 6 o'clock news.
The ho-hum doesn't stop there. It's all over the box score.
Panther quarterback Jake Delhomme finished with a passer rating of 84.6, an average mark. He also had an interception, which he deserved, and a fumble on a pass play where he held onto the ball far too long.
Likewise, DeShaun Foster, the present and future of the ground game in Charlotte, managed 75 yards on 21 carries - a pedestrian amount by most any measure.
The Panthers were 8 for 17 on third downs, had two turnovers, got one sack, allowed 94 yards on the ground and 183 through the air. Dullsville.
Carolina did eat up almost 10 minutes more game clock than New Orleans and swiped four Saints pass attempts. So the statistics weren't a complete ho-hum.
But don't let the national media makeup fool you. Underneath all the camera-canned highlights and lowlights, it was a beautiful win.
Delhomme could have been Peyton Manning and it wouldn't have been a more satisfying performance because the Panthers responded to Jake's intensity and his statistics were meaningless. Foster sat out the entire fourth quarter for injury insurance and it didn't matter one bit that he wasn't Tiki Barber because the Panthers pulled in the victory and his stats don't mean anything either.
What was beautiful was Julius Peppers sitting on the sidelines with ice on his ankle and a smile on his face. There was beauty and joy in Mike Minter's first interception of the season. Triumph as Jake Delhomme nearly whacked his head coach unconscious in celebration after scoring a second quarter TD on a quick-snap quarterback sneak.
What was beautiful was Mike Wahle clearing a four-lane highway in the fourth quarter for Nick Goings' 17-yard burst. Will Witherspoon letting slip his sixth potential interception of the season yet adding to his team-leading passes defensed. Marlon McCree nearly taking Aaron Stecker's helmet off after Stecker made a nifty little juke move. Steve Smith dry-heaving on the sidelines then high-jumping for a TD minutes later.
Beautiful, all of it. Statistics and highlights just didn't do the win justice.
Earlier this season, I called the Panthers win against the Cardinals the ugliest win I'd ever witnessed. But I was wrong. Very wrong.
They're all beautiful.
A FEW OBSERVATIONS FROM SUNDAY'S CONTEST- Everybody in America knows Baton Rouge is in Louisiana, but apparently must be constantly reminded that Charlotte is in North Carolina. May be a small market gripe here, but it's not like there's a Charlotte in every state.
- I like Todd Bouman. Reminds me a little bit of Trent Dilfer. Strong arm, good field vision. He's 33 and it seems like he's been around forever. Just bad timing for him with the Saints right now.
- I like the way Jordan Gross is blocking these days. He had to cover for a gimpy Tutan Reyes last week against Tampa so his effectiveness was reduced, but Gross stood strong against Saints DE Charles Grant who has had great success against the Panthers. Grant had 11 tackles but most of those were from the left side.
- Nick Goings hits the hole…hard. He does not flip sideways. He does not skitter-step at the line of scrimmage. Goings simply accepts the consequences and smacks whatever happens to be in the hole at the moment. Linemen adore that kind of running back – a fact that made Anthony Johnson so beloved in years past.
- I think I've finally found Jake Delhomme's fatal flaw: the NFL game is too slow for him. I'm serious. Some see Delhomme's pocket hesitations as a slowness to progress through his reads. I believe Jake exhausts his reads in that first three seconds after the snap and hesitates as he goes through them again. It's no wonder he has difficulty checking down.
- Casey Cramer is a keeper.
- So is Drew Carter. Why Carter will make it in this league where other tall receivers have not, is his relative quickness off the line. Though his technique is lacking, Carter could prove big dividends in the playoffs.
- Keary Colbert has dropped off the radar of late, which is not entirely his fault, but he's the victim of a snowball effect right now where the early criticism seems to be getting to him.
- I'm looking across the line and Donte Stallworth scares me. I'm terrified, however, if I'm Todd Bouman.
- Carolina might think about going after Darren Howard this summer. But for sure the Saints won't. They have Will Smith.
- So who put Texas Pete in Dan Henning's Rice Crispies?
- Good moves by the front office, by the way, to make the hard choices and put Stephen Davis on IR, virtually ending his career in Carolina, and to jettison the moribund Rod Gardner. Roster replacements Cramer and Carter contributed and evaluations for the playoffs were needed.
- John Kasay plunked one off the cross bars from beyond fifty, but the kick had enough leg to make it from sixty-five. Kasay will get his groove back. I'm already seeing improvement in the way the ball moves through the air once it's left his instep.
- Scoring first, somehow, makes all the difference for the Panthers. Even when Bouman hooked up with Stallworth on a 23-yard pass play in the Saints' first quarter score, tying the game, there was no apparent uneasiness on the sidelines as the Panthers responded with a second quarter field goal and Delhomme's dive for a TD before half time. They are a different team when they're behind.
- Dan Morgan excelled covering backs and tight ends. Morgan's speed is back and that's a good sign for the Panthers' playoff hopes.
- Miracle of miracles, Brentson Buckner played defensive tackle the entire game without once, to my eyes, dropping into coverage.
- Julius Peppers was clearly affected by his sore ankle.
- Nice to see Mike Minter finally get his pick. No more deserving interception, in my opinion.
- Chris Gamble's pick at the halftime gun was a gimme. Ken Lucas' end zone theft was not. Wonder if, after the season, Gamble and Lucas sit down and evaluate which pick was legit and which ones were not. Could be an interesting debate.
- Al Wallace kept his. The football, I mean.
- Joe Horn had one catch. For six yards. And Chris Gamble was not covering Joe Horn.
FOUTH AND GOALHead Coach Jim Haslett is in a no-win situation there with the Saints. It's a foregone conclusion that Haslett will be fired after the season and some of it on merit. No matter what happens to your practice facility, the Saints have entirely too much talent to have the record they have.
After watching the players self-destruct in Sunday's defeat to Carolina, however, I'm convinced that even the greatest of head coaches couldn't heal New Orleans' damaged psyche.
The Saints are in for a rough hoe next season. Owner Tom Benson wants to move the franchise to San Antonio permanently, though the league won't allow it. The prospects of playing in New Orleans next season are also less than ideal as the region continues to dry out from Hurricane Katrina.
Perhaps it's just as well that Haslett leave now to avoid the calamity that next season is sure to produce. There's just no wind left for Haslett to sail on, and it's time for a change.
FOURTH AND GOAL, BUT UNDER REVIEWIt's all playoffs for the Panthers from here on out. Sure, Dallas comes to town next and there are still those pesky Falcons to contend with at season's end. But Panthers players, coaches and front office staff would be negligent not to make preparations now for what will be a most difficult Super Bowl pursuit.
Just to be talking playoffs is a thrill, especially after last season's heartbreak at the hands of the Saints in the season finale. As last season proved, nothing should be taken for granted. And they won't. Both Dallas and Atlanta will be playing for their post season lives so the games will fierce.
Still, a few playoff-related things come to mind that Carolina may want to pay attention to even as it prepares for Dallas.
Julius Peppers. Peppers is playing hurt right now and, to his credit, is not complaining. Yet a healthy Peppers will be required if Carolina hopes to survive in the playoffs.
Mike Rucker. As fans saw in the Tampa Bay loss, Rucker's presence on the defensive line keeps the defense balanced.
Dan Morgan. I'm convinced that if Morgan stays healthy, he will prove to be the difference between winning and losing for at least one of Carolina's playoff games.
DeShaun Foster. As much as I admire Nick Goings, I'm not happy having him, Smart and Jamal Robertson as my only depth. Foster is not an effective running back at part strength. Saving him for the playoffs might be a move the Panthers simply might have to make.
Defensive depth is good, even with question marks surrounding Morgan, Rucker and Peppers. But the offense is a different matter entirely.
Lose Steve Smith and Carolina may implode. And I'm not talking injury, here. Opponents will most likely use two defenders on Smith, even though Smith has proven to remain effective even against double teams. These will be playoff defenders, however, and it's a given that more contact will be allowed in the playoffs. The Panthers must develop a secondary option to Smith.
That begins with playing time for Drew Carter wide side opposite Smith and Ricky Proehl in the slot. Keary Colbert becomes the sacrificial lamb in this setup but the Panthers must find out if Carter should make the playoff roster. I'm guessing he'll be a must-have now that Gardner is on the street.
The same could be said for several players on Special Teams. Jermaine Hardy, Jamal Robertson, Rod Smart, Garnell Wilds and Efrem Hill will make decisions difficult for unit coach Danny Crossman. Which of these players could step into the lineup if needed?
Last words on playoff preparation: Give Thomas Davis a job description. Davis has amazing speed at the linebacker position as a situational pass rusher and as a supplemental safety on passing downs. But his presence on the field is a dead give-away to opposing offensive coordinators and that fact can be exploited. Carolina must decide whether Davis is a linebacker or a safety for the playoffs.
TOUCHDOWNAll in all, provided the Panthers take care of business against the Cowboys, the team is in a pretty good position for a playoff run.
It's a gut feeling, but I consider Jake Delhomme to be a James Worthy-type player in the NFL. Worthy made himself an NBA Hall-Of-Famer in the playoffs and I think Jake's that kind of player, too. Perhaps in the playoffs the game speeds up to Jake's level? Who knows? All I do know is that Delhomme is a big-game quarterback who succeeds when the pressure is highest.
The Panthers are in pretty good shape, as well. There are no injuries as of this writing that would preclude any of Carolina's key players from going all-out in the playoffs.
Lastly, the coaching staff has a basic, fundamental approach to game planning that is quite suited for the pressure-cooker that is the playoffs. Teams that can run, and can stop the run, win. It's that simple.
A playoff environment by its very nature provides focus. If a Carolina squad that has been, at the least, unpredictable can use that phenomenon to crystallize their resolve and sharpen their claws, then there might not be an opponent on earth that can stop them.
You can reach Chaz at email@example.com