PANTHERS MORNING AFTER – CHICAGO

Playoff experience pays off as the Carolina Panthers invade the Bears' den and make off with all the honey.

FIRST AND TEN

The Panthers are a different team when they score first.

The phenomenon is a psychological scar left over from the early part of the season when the offensive linemen were relative strangers to one another, quarterback Jake Delhomme had yet to realize that risk sometimes does not equal reward and the defense experienced a bad psychedelic echo when Kris Jenkins' name appeared on injured reserve.

Coming from behind simply seemed…hard.

Not much has changed over the course of the season. Carolina still struggles when it falls behind and that's no mystery as ball control teams often do. But what separates the Panthers from the rest of the league is how they act when they get a lead.

The Chicago Bears scored a touchdown in each of the final three quarters in Sunday's game. Carolina answered by scoring on 5 out of their last 8 drives, adding 19 points to the 10 they earned before the Bears ever got on the board. And the last two drives were clock-eaters.

This was against the second ranked defense on the planet, in the rabid, towel-waving home of the enemy - an enemy that had totally embarrassed the Panthers earlier in the season.

That earlier Panthers team fell behind quickly and never recovered. And it taught the players a valuable lesson.

Don't fall behind. Ever.

The Panthers jumped out to a ten point lead Sunday and did what they have done for the last half of the season: they put a size nineteen, steel-toed, razor-spiked boot on the neck of the Chicago Bears and pushed down until they heard a crack.

It's a most satisfying sound.

A FEW OBSERVATIONS FROM SUNDAY'S CONTEST

- The whining you heard from the Bears' lickeroom (intentional misspelling, I swear) about how lucky the Panthers were to win this game was the sound of cubs who've never been there before.

- Brentson Buckner appears to have been on the game officials' scouting report. He's the only Panther to have a defensive holding penalty called on him this season, and I think he now has five.

- The "S" in Steve Smith's tattoo doesn't really stand for Smith.

- The core of the ACC's conference basketball schedule will have to share airtime and attention with the Panthers for at least another week.

- Healthy, Dan Morgan would have made Bears fullback McKie eat his mouthpiece.

- The field at Soldiers Field was as bad as Carolina's field was a few year back when the Packers came to town and Dan Morgan got seriously hurt trying to tackle Brett Favre. Fox analyst Troy Aikman was smart in not saying too much about the horrible field condition because both teams have to deal with it, but he was correct in describing the turf as nothing more than painted dirt.

- Carolina O-line: MVU

- Julius Peppers' tackle of Thomas Jones was reminiscent of Peppers' sprint to the corner against the Lions that saved a touchdown and, ultimately, a victory.

- I think Chicago's SS Mike Brown re-injured his calf after trying to tackle Steve Smith on Smith's initial touchdown catch, the one where Smith did a little dipsy-do at the sideline, Brown slid in the painted dirt and Smith walked into the end zone. Brown was never the same after that and he was gimpy to start with.

- I thought Ricky Proehl would have a bigger day against Chicago's zone defense – especially with Smith taking a safety with him on almost every play.

- I would have challenged Mangum's TD catch in the fourth if I were Lovie Smith. Would have been a gamble but Mangum was close enough to trapping the ball against the ground to make it iffy.

- Despite how lost he looked in the first half, I liked Rex Grossman's poise and chutzpah. He'll be another good QB provided he stays healthy.

- Drew Carter – you are basically a rookie. You are not going to get the calls Steve Smith might get. And it's the playoffs. Go get the ball.

- The cutback bit the Panthers again. I'm shocked the Bears didn't run more early in the game to give Grossman time to get his sea legs.

- The deluge of press surrounding the Panthers last week diluted the quality of it. It'll only get worse this week.

- Too many penalties. The Panthers had nine of them. They also had three fumbles but recovered all of them.

- Lovie Smith is a relationship-builder coach just like John Fox. Smith will stick.

- Have to feel for DeShaun Foster right now. I wonder if the broken ankle is on the same foot as the turf toe?

- I like how Jamal Robertson got deep on kickoff returns.

- Kasay's all the way back now, I think.

- The Panthers missed some scoring opportunities early on that might've made the Bears more one-dimensional in the second half.

- The officiating crew was allowing a lot of contact. I'm biased, but the Bears appeared to get away with a lot of holding along the offensive line.

- Marlon McCree should have made the 4th quarter interception. Though it didn't Sunday, that type of play can come back to kill you.

- I think it's fitting that Jordan Carstens got Carolina's only sack.

FOURTH AND GOAL

Uh, Oh. An upper Midwest behemoth nobody knows and a small market team from a basketball state in the NFC Championship game. Someone in the league office is hiding the razor blades.

Seattle is tucked away in a corner of the country that is known more for Starbucks double no-fat grande lattes, rainy days and its cameo in the "Sleepless" movie than their top-ranked professional football team. The Panthers' limelight isn't much brighter.

Still, of the two, the Panthers and their high profile characters such as Steve Smith, Jake Delhomme, Ken Lucas and the cheerleaders are probably the more marketable team.

That doesn't have the league jumping for joy, though. Exorcized from the NFL's potential booty pool are major market cities New York, Chicago and Washington. That's a hit to the bottom line that won't pay for many more Stones concerts at halftime of the Super Bowl or Tom Benson's ex-coach contracts.

This has nothing to do with respect. The Panthers were picked by some to win the Super Bowl. Seattle has led the conference the entire season. These two teams have earned their bragging rights. Respect they have.

What they don't have is a fat fan base and the drawing power bigger markets provide.

And they're not in LA.

The league is facing a summer of uncertainty without a CBA extension. So a strong presence in the Super Bowl is an absolute must-have.

Pretty or not, the team from the city where all the banks live may give the NFL its most entertaining NFC option in Detroit.

At least America knows whom they are even if they don't exactly know where they come from.

TOUCHDOWN

The brutality of football is felt most painfully after an especially physical game such as the one Carolina endured Sunday. The Panthers have always struggled after tussling with a heavyweight opponent and the NFC Championship game against the Seahawks, in Seattle, will be no different.

Carolina raced onto Soldier Field relatively healthy and limped away, victorious but hurting. Injuries to DeShaun Foster, who broke an ankle and won't play against the Seahawks, and Julius Peppers will dampen the sharpness the team has developed over the past few weeks.

Peppers is expected to play Sunday night but anyone who saw him constantly wince in pain after returning from the locker room has reason to question the extent of the injury and JP's potential effectiveness.

Foster's injury is more problematic, but Nick Goings excels in hitting the hole early and often, which is an offensive lineman's dream, and is an above-average threat in the passing game. We'll hear and read a lot this week about how one-dimensional Carolina will be now that Foster is out, but overlooking Goings may actually provide an edge the Panthers might not otherwise have had.

Seattle will not game plan for Goings like they would have for Foster and that's a good thing John Fox and his savvy group may be able to use.

The recurrence of Dan Morgan's shoulder injury and Brad Hoover's lingering ailments may also have an impact on what Carolina plans to do.

Injuries always have an impact.

Seattle has a couple as well that may make a dent in their game planning. NFL MVP Shawn Alexander suffered a concussion against the Redskins, and as Dan Morgan can testify, concussions aren't like scrapes and bruises. The effects can linger. Receiver Darrell Jackson has knee and back problems that could hamper his effectiveness.

So neither team enters the game unscathed.

But neither starting quarterback is injured and this is the key matchup of the game.

Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck won his first playoff game last Saturday and has developed into the type of mature, experienced field general neither of Carolina's previous playoff opponents enjoyed. Hasselbeck is not a weakness Fox can exploit.

Carolina has it's own experienced leader in Jake Delhomme, more of a playmaker than a field general. Jake is 5-1 in the playoffs and even though he has a history of making crucial mistakes, that fault has not translated to the game's most intense atmosphere. Delhomme is the James Worthy of football. He elevates his game when it matters most.

If Morgan is truly injured again, I think Seattle will have a huge advantage on the ground. Alexander follows his blocks and has amazing power and speed when he reaches the second level. Carolina will have to contain the Seahawks to field goals. Mike Minter will be the key to doing that, which means that the Panthers will leave the corners in man coverage. It'll be up to Ken Lucas to use the emotion of his return to insure the effectiveness of that plan.

Conversely, if the Panthers can get going in the running game the rest of the game plan – never a mystery (Steve Smith) – will fall into place. Keep the Seattle offense on the sidelines and maintain the advantage of field position. That's what Carolina will try to do by establishing Goings early.

The Panthers hold the edge in big-play capability, but the Seahawks run an offense that has always given the Panthers fits: the West Coast Offense. Call it dink-and-dunk it you want, but it's proven to be an effective counterbalance to the Panthers' pass rush and straight-up run-stopping ability. With Peppers injured, the WCO becomes even more of a Seattle advantage.

With Seattle's precision matched evenly against Carolina's explosiveness, the outcome will mostly likely come down to the little things like special teams, penalties and those ever-maddening little guys with big feet.

And it'll help if the Panthers score first.

Panthers 26, Seattle 24

You can reach Chaz at chazestes@yahoo.com

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