Monday, September 29, 2014

NFC South: Worst division in football?

A Panther fan understandably is looking for a silver lining today, with Carolina having been blown out 37-19 and 38-10 in its last two games.

So here it is: The Panthers remain tied for first place in the NFC South, which in my opinion has become the worst division in the NFL.

The Panthers (2-2) allowed 38 points to Baltimore Sunday and get this -- that was tied for second-best among the NFC South's four teams! Atlanta (2-2) lost 41-28 to Minnesota, which was starting a rookie quarterback and didn't have Adrian Peterson. New Orleans got hammered 38-17 by Dallas -- the Saints trailed 24-0 at halftime and are now 1-3 and reeling. Only Tampa Bay (1-3) salvaged some respect for the NFC South, pulling off an unlikely upset in Pittsburgh. That was the Bucs' first win of the season, and despite that they are only a game out of first place in the NFC South.

Of the NFL's eight divisions, the NFC South is now the only one that doesn't boast a single team with a winning record after Week 4. This has the look already of one of those divisions that could be won with an 8-8 record, or at least 9-7.

The problem in a word: Defense. Atlanta coach Mike Smith said after the Vikings rolled up 351 yards by halftime Sunday: "They did basically whatever they wanted to in terms of controlling the line of scrimmage. That is very alarming."

Carolina coach Ron Rivera and New Orleans coach Sean Payton could say exactly the same thing. And Tampa's Lovie Smith, although he won Sunday, is less than two weeks removed by giving up 56 points to the Falcons.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

My pick for Ravens-Panthers Sunday

Depending on which side of the fairytale you are rooting for, Baltimore wide receiver Steve Smith will either catch 10 passes for 200 yards and three touchdowns Sunday or he will get shut out entirely.

The truth is out there, somewhere in the middle. I expect Smith to make a few big plays Sunday, and I bet the Ravens will throw him a flanker screen sometime in the first series or two to make sure he gets into the game quickly. I wouldn't be surprised if he scores once and does something entertaining that draws a 15-yard flag in the end zone.

But ultimately this game is going to be decided in the trenches, where Carolina lost the Pittsburgh game badly and where it absolutely has to improve in terms of running the ball and stopping the run Sunday. The Panthers absolutely have to close the gap between what they are rushing for this year (72 yards per game) and what they ran for last year (127).

-- Both teams have been very reluctant to discuss their obvious similarity besides No.89 this week. The Ravens and Panthers have taken turns at the epicenter of the NFL's domestic violence earthquake. And both teams have lost one of their best players -- Ray Rice for Baltimore and Greg Hardy for Carolina -- due to nasty off-field events.

-- If Carolina is going to win Sunday, linebacker Luke Kuechly is going to need to make at least one game-changing play. I thought the Pittsburgh game was one of the worst he has ever played for the Panthers.

-- After correctly picking the Panthers in the first two games of the season, I botched it last week just like Carolina did and incorrectly chose Carolina to beat the Steelers. A win on the road over a playoff-bound Baltimore team that blasted the Steelers by 20 points is a tough sell for me, and ultimately I'm not buying. My prediction: Baltimore 23, Carolina 14.

Monday, September 22, 2014

5 really bad numbers from big Panther loss to Pittsburgh



The Carolina locker room was a quiet place after Pittsburgh had whipped the Panthers, 37-19, on Sunday night.

Carolina safety Thomas DeCoud said the Panthers needed to bring their "A" game to beat Pittsburgh, but instead had brought their "D-plus" or "C-minus" game.

Panther quarterback Cam Newton said the team had had some lackadaisical moments in practice last week, but players had promised each other that "we'll get it, we'll get it" when the games began.

Panther coach Ron Rivera said he pulled Newton out of the game late in the fourth quarter because "I just didn't want to see him get hit anymore."

There were lots of problems Sunday night -- for awhile, it looked like Pittsburgh was East Carolina and the Panthers were UNC. But here are five of the biggest issues for the Panthers, by the numbers:

2 -- turnovers for Carolina, after having zero the first two games. Both Panther lost fumbles led to scores, with Philly Brown's punt-return fumble into the end zone the most egregious. "Basically I was trying to do too much at the time," Brown said. "I could have just done the smart play and fell on it."

3 -- Pittsburgh rushed that many players on a lot of Carolina's pass attempts -- and still got heavy pressure. That's almost unfathomable.

10 -- Panthers' rushing attempts. Total! This is a team that prides itself on trying to run the ball, and this was a game that was still 9-3 early in the third quarter before it started getting out of hand. Carolina had to throw late, of course, but 10 carries (for 42 yards) isn't going to cut it. Of course, most of the Panther running backs were hurt by the end of the game, and that didn't help, either. Panther offensive tackle Byron Bell said that running the ball was all about "attitude" after the game, and that Carolina needed a better one.

105 -- Panthers' total penalty yardage. Carolina had some huge penalties in this game, including a defensive offsides that allowed Pittsburgh to turn a field goal into a touchdown and a 42-yard pass interference penalty on DeCoud.

264 -- Pittsburgh's total rush yardage Sunday, including two 100-yard rushers. The Panthers tackled poorly and often seemed to overrun their gaps, trying to make plays that just weren't there.

Friday, September 19, 2014

My pick: Panthers to go 3-0 by edging Steelers Sunday

If you are a Carolina Panther fan who attends games and can't stand to see the opposing team's colors in Bank of America Stadium, you are about to be in for a rough night.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the NFL's most prominent teams and boast one of the deepest fan bases. So you can bet there will be a lot of black and gold in the crowd Sunday, as the prices that displaced Pittsburgh fans will pay on stubhub.com and the like are often too tempting for Panther fans to pass up.

Pittsburgh and Carolina play almost every year in an exhibition, but this is only the sixth time in Carolina's 20 years that the two teams have played a game that counted. Carolina is 1-4 in the series. But those who were there for that win in 1996 won't soon forget Chad Cota's end-zone interception of Kordell Stewart that sealed the game on the way to Carolina's first playoff appearance.

-- Don't be surprised if quarterback Cam Newton looks in safety Mike Mitchell's direction several times Sunday, including at least one deep ball. Newton is very familiar with Mitchell's strengths and weaknesses from their 2013 season together.

-- I think the Panthers, for once, are going to be able to run the ball against Pittsburgh. It feels to me like a night where Jonathan Stewart will play well.

-- This is the first time that "Sunday Night Football" has made an appearance in Charlotte since Dec.20, 2009. That game featured the Minnesota Vikings and Brett Favre -- a very good team headed to the playoffs. The Panthers were going nowhere. But Matt Moore outplayed Favre, the Panthers scored 20 fourth-quarter points and Carolina won, 26-7 (while Favre had a vehement argument on the sideline with Vikings coach Brad Childress). It was one of the last really good moments of the John Fox era.

-- The Steelers are trying to right the ship. Pittsburgh has been outscored 50-9 in its last six quarters. Carolina is trying to make everyone understand there's a lot more to this team than Greg Hardy. Ultimately, I think the Panthers will be the team that succeeds. I am 2-0 picking the Panthers' games so far this season. My prediction for Week 3: Carolina 20, Pittsburgh 13.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

5 observations as Panthers roar past Lions

A very strange week for the Carolina Panthers ended with an impressive victory Sunday, as the Panthers bested Detroit, 24-7, in their home opener. Five quick observations about the win, which put Carolina at 2-0 for the first time since 2008 and also placed them a full game atop the NFC South:

1) Cam Newton threw the ball beautifully all afternoon, especially down the middle of the field. He could have had more yardage except for several drops by rookie Kelvin Benjamin. But Newton (22-for-34, 281 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT) spread the ball around extremely well, using crafty wide receivers Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery in the middle of the field and finding Greg Olsen in several key situations. Newton seemed a step slow running the ball, but his arm and his decision-making were as good as ever. He didn't have a turnover all day, nor did the Panthers as a whole for the second straight week. Newton said afterward he did "all right" but he thought he was "too antsy" in the pocket earlier.

2) Greg Hardy was deactivated before the game in a surprise move following an outcry all week about Hardy playing (this followed the Ray Rice "punch" video and Hardy's own well-documented incident). The Panthers still got pretty good pressure on Matthew Stafford and their defense was as opportunistic as ever, holding the powerful Lions to only 7. Mario Addison, who played more in Hardy's absence, was superb (he had 2.5 sacks).

3) Kelvin Benjamin made a number of rookie mistakes in this one, including two nasty drops and a holding penalty that messed up a big run on a reverse by Philly Brown. But Newton is not about to give up on the player the Panthers want to be their own Calvin Johnson -- he threw the ball again to Benjamin right after one of those drops, and Benjamin made one of the most spectacular one-handed catches you will see all year. Benjamin was targeted eight times by Newton Sunday but only caught two.

4) Speaking of Megatron, he was worth the price of admission. Stafford looked for him constantly and he made a couple of ridiculous catches. But he also dropped a catchable ball while sliding into the end zone. And the Panthers double-covered him on one deep ball and got an interception off a tip. In all, despite some missteps, it was another fine performance by the Panther defense against one of the league's best passing offenses.

5) Don't forget the large impact Graham Gano had on this game. Fresh off his brief "trombonist" controversy, Gano made his two field-goal attempts (from 29 and 53 yards) in the first half while Detroit kicker Nate Freese was missing both of his. Then Gano made one of those once-in-a-career type plays for a kicker in the fourth quarter -- recovering a Detroit fumble on the kickoff. That set up Gano's third field goal, from 38 yards, which put Carolina up 24-7 with 4:45 left and iced the game. Gano said it was the only time in his career he has recovered a fumble.

Friday, September 12, 2014

My pick: Panthers to edge Lions Sunday

Getting the ball into the end zone is the biggest goal in football. An unexpected touchdown has the ability to make people spill drinks and dump nachos and hug total strangers. Field goals just can't compare.

Sunday's game between Detroit and Carolina will ultimately be decided by how often the Lions get the ball into the end zone. If it happens more than twice, I think Detroit wins this game. If it's two TDs or less for the Lions -- no matter how many field goals they achieve -- I think the Panthers will go to 2-0.

The Panthers only allowed 21 touchdowns in all of 2013, which was a team record and also led the NFL in that category. It was the first time the Panthers had ever been No.1 in TDs allowed. That's an average of only 1.3 per game allowed, and that's pretty remarkable.

But Detroit has one of the NFL's best offenses. The Lions hit paydirt four times in their 35-14 whipping of the New York Giants Monday night. In 2011, the last time Carolina and Detroit played, Detroit scored seven TDs (tied for the most the Panthers have ever given up in a single game) in a 49-35 whipping of the Panthers.

-- Matthew Stafford is one of football's best young quarterbacks, and he doesn't just throw the ball to Calvin Johnson, the NFL's best receiver. I have always thought Golden Tate was an underrated wideout -- now Detroit has him, too, and he was targeted six times in Week 1. Tate caught all six of them, for 93 yards.

-- With quarterback Cam Newton returning to action this weekend, I wonder how many high balls he will throw early. Like Brett Favre and Jake Delhomme, Newton has a tendency to get so wound up early that he overthrows the ball. An early interception would be a difficult thing for Newton to overcome. But if he can avoid that, there is a chance for big numbers Sunday. The Lions' secondary is mediocre.

-- It has been a weird week for the Panthers, but there is an urgency to September for them and they know it. The schedule only gets tougher in October. I am 1-0 on Panthers' game-by-game picks so far this season, and I think they will rise to the occasion Sunday. My pick: Carolina 20, Detroit 17.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Gano calls trombone player to apologize for pushing him during Panther halftime

The saga of Panther kicker Graham Gano and the trombone player from Bethune-Cookman that he pushed out of the way at halftime Monday is getting a happy ending.


Gano felt very bad about the incident after Sunday's game and asked me in the Panthers' locker room to try to track down the trombone player, because he wanted to talk to him in person and apologize. I did that Monday with the help of longtime band director Donovan Wells, who says Gano's push was "no harm, no foul, no malice" and that the Panther kicker has "been getting a bad rap" on social media (where the video of Gano's push has gone viral).

The trombone player turns out to be 18-year-old Marquel Ballard, a freshman trombonist from Atlanta who is so good that he's on partial scholarship and also has made the marching band as a freshman -- which the band director says is difficult to do.

"We were both just doing our jobs, and our paths crossed," Ballard told me when I reached him by phone Monday. "I think it's kind of funny now."

With the permission of Ballard and Wells, I gave Ballard's phone number to Gano. They talked Monday afternoon and both came away feeling much better after that conversation, which included Gano apologizing and being forgiven by Ballard.

"We're cool," Ballard said. Gano tweeted out after the conversation that "all is forgiven" and called Ballard an "extremely talented trombonist."

Gano also offered Ballard two field passes and tickets for the Panthers' game at Atlanta Dec.28th, because Ballard is from Atlanta and is a Falcons fan. Ballard said he hopes to take that offer but "it depends on what the band is doing, because I love the band."

Wells said that Bethune-Cookman has never previously been late for a gig in his 18-year career as its band director. But what is normally a three-hour drive from Daytona Beach, Fla., to Tampa, took more than four hours because of a horrific storm that slowed the seven charter buses carrying 330 band members to 10 miles per hour in some stretches.

The band had to literally run from its buses onto the field and didn't get there until about 3 minutes and 30 seconds remained in the 12-minute halftime. By then, Gano was already back on the field practicing kicks. The band took its spots around him and started playing and dancing while Gano was kicking, and two pushes -- "really one nudge and one push," Ballard said -- ensued as Gano tried to get in his practice kicks despite the band playing all around him.

"It was a difficult situation for everyone," Wells said. "But I understand what Gano was doing, and what Marquel was doing, too. I thought they were both pros about it."

"I regret that it happened," Gano said, "but I am very impressed that Marquel never broke stride. He just kept playing."