Charlotte, NC - There, that wasn't so hard, now was it?
Previews of this week's game invariably were of the "yes, but" variety. As in, "yes, the Panthers are winning, but they've played teams who are fighting for the #1 draft pick." Or, "yes, the Panthers defense has looked good, but the Vikings have more playmakers than the Lions and Ravens put together." Carolina was coming into its first road game of the season confident, but full of questions. Could an improving defensive unit keep it together? Would Lamar Smith be able to carry the offense against the NFL's #2 run-stuffers? Could Rodney Peete continue to play mistake-free, capable football?
As it turns out, confidence is a wonderful thing.
Coach Fox played rope-a-dope for the first half, pressuring Daunte Culpepper with various blitz packages, running the ball hard, and keeping Randy Moss under wraps as best possible. Fox knew a bit about that, having played the part of defensive coordinator when the Giants derailed Culpepper-Moss tandem in embarrassing fashion, 41-0 in the 2000 NFC Championship Game. As it turned out, the Panthers were doing an excellent job of repeating that feat by halftime, as both Culpepper's attempts to #84 were picked off.
Not everything was going Carolina's way, as Rodney Peete seemed to be uncharacteristically forcing the ball into coverage for his first two interceptions of the year. Mushin Muhammad pulled a hamstring and left the game, and Lamar Smith was off to a slow start with 29 yards on his first 12 carries. Minnesota left the half with a 7-0 lead thanks to a 1-yard Michael Bennett run off an interception and a missed FG by new kicker Jon Hilbert.
It was clear, though, that Fox and his team had the Vikings exactly where they wanted them. Culpepper had a much-ballyhooed verbal spat with Randy Moss on the sidelines, while Mike Tice sat watching helplessly. And, in one of the most encouraging signs of the new season, Carolina picked up steam.
This is not the team of years past where one step forward was followed by two steps back, and two steps back more often than not led tripping and sliding downhill. This group saw that they were in position to drive in the stake, and they did it.
The effort was keyed by Lamar Smith, who found cracks, seams, and any openings available to explode for runs of 12, 14, and 24 yards, with two touchdowns in the midst. He grew stronger as the game went on, while the Vikings became more frustrated. In a rather pathetic attempt to jumpstart the offense, Tice ordered a quick flanker screen to Randy Moss, who was promptly annihilated by MLB Dan Morgan. Rodney Peete, cooled off and again on target, found Steve Smith for his first NFL receiving touchdown, while the defense, smelling blood, picked off two more passes and added another four sacks.
Final numbers: Lamar Smith 30 carries, 151 yards and two touchdowns. Mike Rucker: 3 sacks. Deon Grant: 3 INTs. Randy Moss: 4 catches, 16 yards, a 4.0 average and the biggest play was a hit on Mark Fields.
There is still work to be done. The injury bug has to be nipped in the bud, as Mushin Muhammad, Dan Morgan, Julius Peppers, and Terry Fair had to leave the game, and the kicking game was atrocious. The Packers will be a much more difficult challenge than the comedy of errors which are Minnesota, Detroit, and Baltimore, although Green Bay's performance last week was hardly daunting.
Carolina, can, however, enjoy their 3-0 start and plan to build on the success they have had. After all, confidence is a wonderful thing.