FIRST AND TENTaking stock on how you feel after a Panther victory can often be an iffy thing for me.
It's not the same thing after a loss. There's anger there, always, and a rather hard depression that tends to hang over everything for at least the first few hours. If the loss is against a divisional foe, the pain can be especially sharp and lingering.
But winning... sometimes I just don't know what to feel about that.
I'm celebrating the Panthers' third ever trip to the playoffs. Tap the keg. High fives all around. Wait around Sunday night just to see the highlights on SportsCenter.
But I'm also walking around this week without my heart on my sleeve and a few regrets for the morning after hangover.
Truth be told, the Panthers never should have let it get to the last week in the season to clinch a playoff spot. That fact should have been inked a month ago. They should have also taken care of the NFC South Championship against Tampa, at home, or later against the Cowboys, at home. Carolina had no business losing that crown.
Now the playoffs come not with the edge of a home crowd or the bragging rights as the best of the division, but with the poor prospect of winning on the road all the way to the Super Bowl - a feat which has never been done in the modern wildcard era.
The Panthers appear to play best with their backs against the wall, so maybe being a wildcard underdog is a blessing in disguise.
And maybe I'm sulking a little bit from the emotional roller coaster ride the Panthers have put me through this season. But I think I'm entitled to not be full of myself as a Panther fan just because my team was just enough above average to make it into the playoffs.
I think Carolina should win Sunday against the Giants. That's no slight against a very talented New York team that has an MVP candidate in Tiki Barber and a quick, physical defense. I believe the Panthers will control the line of scrimmage – like they've been predicted to be able to do all season – and have enough playmakers to pull out the victory.
I have no lack of faith in the Panthers' ability. There's been no question about that no matter what's happened on the field each Sunday.
It's how Carolina might hold up in a real pressure cooker situation that worries me.
They've cracked in crunch time before; the losses to Tampa Bay and Dallas are prime examples. Yet the loss to Chicago, a demoralizing defeat the Panthers never really recovered from emotionally, highlighted the crack in John Fox's system and set the framework for how the rest of the teams on Carolina's schedule played the Panthers.
It's games like Chicago, Tampa, Dallas and, even, Phoenix that leads me to wonder how the Panthers will respond when comes the time an opponent absolutely must be stopped on third down.
To their credit, Fox and the Panthers kept pounding their way to a 12-win season. That's quite an accomplishment for such an up-and-down team. Even making it into the playoffs seemed unlikely at times this season.
Carolina never gave up on itself and that collective confidence led to the second best record in franchise history.
Nothing can take that away. Not even a cynical, opinionated sports columnist who's very grateful to still be in the hunt on Sunday.
A FEW OBSERVATIONS FROM SUNDAY'S CONTEST- I want to know: what's up with the emphasis this season on holding penalties for defensive linemen?
- There'll be a lot of press this week on, but the most impressive thing about Jake Delhomme's torn britches was the equipment manager's patch job.
- Panthers Special Teams are getting gashed up the gut way too much.
- It's not the first time I've thought this, but I think the Special Teams unit misses Jarrod Cooper more than they do Scotty O'Brien.
- DeShaun Foster gets good yards when he follows his blocks. Foster cut against the grain for his beautiful 70-yard dash in the first quarter, but he failed to follow Mike Wahle's lead in a second quarter run which fell short of the goal line because he cut back into a cloud of defenders instead of the lane Wahle had carved.
- Speaking of Wahle, the Panthers are finally getting it through their thick skulls that when they run behind him good things happen.
- Never thought I'd say this, but Foster wimped out at the goal line in the second quarter – a drive that stalled, resulting in a John Kasay field goal. Bill Maas, our favorite (gak!) color guy nailed it when he said that Foster should have lowered his shoulder and drove through Keith Brookings' tackle.
- Julius Peppers was held in the Falcons' end zone as Pep was reaching for Vick. The foul was so blatant that the zebras, perhaps stunned, ignored it, negating what would have been a sack and a safety.
- Drew Carter didn't have a catch, but I was impressed with his blocking – especially on a rather surprisingly creative play from offensive coordinator Dan Henning where Delhomme faked to Foster right and threw to Steve Smith in the flat on the left. Smith juked a defender and scrambled for the end zone, where replay nullified a touchdown. Carter threw the block that allowed Smith to get past the second line.
- Michael Vick doesn't lead. He pouts. And stares. The Falcons will never be a consistent winner until Vick learns to lead.
- Kasay has regained his kicking form. Excellent rhythm.
- Kasay's successful re-kick after a Kris Mangum penalty bled off the final five seconds before halftime, preventing a potential Falcons kickoff return. If Mangum hadn't false-started and Kasay made the initial kick, Carolina would have had to give Atlanta a return opportunity.
- Nick Goings as a fullback allows Delhomme tremendous options. Brad Hoover is hurt all the time now and is still effective even through the pain, and the Panthers may have to address that this offseason, but I like what Goings adds to the offense on third downs.
- Brookings sack of Delhomme in the first quarter, I thought, took the Panthers out of field goal position (this is when the game was still in doubt). But a Falcons penalty restored the field position, eventually resulting in a 12-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl.
- Jamal Robertson is a bowling ball.
- The first punt of the day for the Panthers came in the third quarter at the 3:08 mark. Is that incredible, or what?
- The ensuing fumble recovery by Chris Draft was fitting, as Draft was the game's defensive MVP for the second straight Falcons game in a row.
- TJ Duckett would make a superb fullback.
- As the Panthers were getting gashed up the middle again on a fourth quarter kickoff return by D'Andre Cobb, I saw one of the most amazing athletic feats I've seen this season as Thomas Davis streaked in from the opposite side of the field and crushed Cobb just short of mid-field. I think I actually said, "Wow!" watching that play. Why is the coaching staff hiding this guy?
FOURTH AND GOALNo more mysteries. It's all out there in game tape from each of the Panthers' 17 regular season games. To beat John Fox's team, you must be successful running the ball on offense and make Jake Delhomme beat you through the air on defense.
New York has the horses to do both.
Tiki Barber whacked the Raiders for over 200 yards last Saturday, on the way to over 1800 yards rushing for the season. Barber has a low center of gravity and gets to the second line of defense quickly where he excels in making tacklers miss. The Panthers have proven vulnerable this season to quick, hard-to-tackle running backs.
The Giants defense sports two of the best pass-rushing defensive ends in the league. If Tom Coughlin's crew can manage Carolina's running game and force offensive coordinator Dan Henning to throw, then the edge goes to New York.
Concurrently, Carolina will commit resources to stop Barber and force Giants quarterback Eli Manning to beat them through the air. They'll also stick with the running game, hoping to wear the Giants down where later in the game a big play from Steve Smith or Ricky Proehl becomes more likely.
In the end, it'll come down to execution and that's where I think the Panthers have the edge. Carolina ranks #1 in the league in penalties. They also have the fourth ranked run defense and the fifth ranked defense overall. The Panthers are third in the NFL in takeaways.
They will get to Manning and New York's linebackers are too banged up to stop Foster.
TOUCHDOWNPanthers 27, Giants 23
You can reach Chaz at email@example.com - oringally published on PantherInsider.com