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."

Sunday, September 7, 2014

QB Anderson leads Panther win over Tampa Bay



TAMPA, Fla. -- It has been quite a month for quarterback Derek Anderson. He and his wife had their first baby in late August, and on Sunday Anderson started for the injured Cam Newton and played very well in Carolina's 20-14 season-opening win over Tampa Bay.

Anderson showed the accuracy he has always had, completing 24 of 33 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns. He avoided the big mistake and committed zero turnovers. His offensive line was good enough for the most part when protecting him that his lack of mobility was not an issue. And while few of his throws were spectacular -- most were low-risk passes that were 5-10 yards downfield -- Anderson ultimately outplayed his counterpart in Tampa starting quarterback Josh McCown (a former Panther himself).

The result was that Carolina won a season opener (barely) for the first time since 2008 and is tied early atop the NFC South with Atlanta (which beat New Orleans in a 37-34 OT thriller). A few other quick observations:

-- Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was fantastic, especially on a third-down sack that took Tampa Bay out of field-goal range and then the game-winning caused fumble when Tampa Bay had a chance to tie or win on its final possession. The Panthers defense did give up some late fourth-down yardage that made it far more interesting than it should have been, but overall had a winning performance (barely).

-- No, this does not create a quarterback controversy. Anderson is a really good backup quarterback, but he does not have Newton's creativity or athleticism. Still, if he needs to start another game or two or three -- it is unclear how long Newton will be out -- that works OK for Carolina.

It was good to see the return of "Riverboat Ron," as Coach Rivera who went for it on a critical fourth-and-1 inside the 10 in the second quarter and got it on an Anderson keeper, eventually leading to a Greg Olsen TD (the celebration is seen in the picture above).

-- McCown showed why the Panthers always went with Jake Delhomme during his years with the team. Both his early interceptions were bad decisions made under pressure. He got it going in the fourth quarter, though, showing some of the athleticism that led Charles Johnson earlier this week to claim that McCown was a good enough pickup basketball player to make it in the NBA. If not for Kuechly's caused fumble, the Panthers might have lost a heartbreaker.

-- Rookie Kelvin Benjamin's impact was enormous, and not just on his ridiculously good, 26-yard touchdown catch over an overmatched Tampa Bay defensive back who also got flagged on the play. Olsen's five-yard TD catch was in part due to the safety shading over to try to double-cover Benjamin.

Friday, September 5, 2014

My pick for Carolina and Tampa Bay

Can the Panthers actually run the ball enough to make a difference?

That's what I keep wondering as the kickoff approaches for Carolina's season opener.

The Panthers' run game in the four exhibitions was underwhelming. It says something when most of their memorable runs were made by Fozzy Whittaker, the fourth-string back.

Ultimately, I think the team that runs for the most yardage Sunday will win. Tampa Bay has Doug Martin back, and if you've forgotten how good he was as a rookie running back in 2012, you will be quickly reminded.

As for the Panthers, I think Jonathan Stewart has the best chance of being Carolina's go-to back. Stewart has shown some shades of 2009 in his brief appearances, but the question, as always, is whether he can stay healthy. DeAngelo Williams has been very ineffectual in the exhibitions and is now 31, but the franchise's all-time rushing leader has also been counted out before.

-- I will only be surprised Sunday if rookie Kelvin Benjamin doesn't have a big day. Benjamin is the clear No.1 wide receiver target no matter who is throwing the ball for Carolina, but I'm just not sure other NFL teams realize how good he is yet since he hasn't played in a real contest.

-- For some reason this week, I kept thinking of the Democratic National Convention.

It was two years ago that the DNC came to Charlotte, which meant the Panthers went to Tampa early for the season opener. They trained there for almost a week before playing the Buccaneers -- and then still laid an egg, falling behind 13-0 at halftime and losing 16-10 to a mediocre Tampa Bay team that ultimately went 7-9 (just like the Panthers did that year). Carolina ran terribly in that game -- 13 carries, 10 yards.

-- Now you know I am more optimistic about the 2014 Panthers than most. I picked them to go 10-6, while my colleague Tom Sorensen went for 8-8 and most national publications went lower than that.

Tampa Bay went 4-12 last season. Carolina went 12-4. Yet the Buccaneers are a slight favorite in this game.

Has the personnel really changed that much? I don't think so. So despite DNC deja vu telling me not to do this, here's my pick:

Carolina 13, Tampa Bay 12.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

I still think Cam plays, but there is some doubt now

It was less than a week ago when Panther quarterback Cam Newton said there was "no doubt" in his mind that he would start Week 1 against Tampa Bay.

Well, there's some doubt now.

I still think Newton will ultimately play on Sunday in the season opener at Tampa, but Wednesday was an unusual day for the quarterback. He didn't participate in practice for Carolina and was the only player listed on the team's injury report. Coach Ron Rivera said Newton was "sore" due to the fractured ribs he suffered in the New England exhibition Aug.22 when he took a knee to the back after scrambling.

Rivera said he was still "optimistic" that Newton would play Sunday, but obviously the circumstances aren't ideal (and the coach added about his prediction that "I've been wrong before.")

Wednesday is a big installation day for NFL teams who play Sunday, with all the tweaks for the offense that week being installed. Newton missed that, although Rivera noted the Panthers are "ahead of the game" on their game-planning because they had two extra days (Saturday and Monday) to work on it.

Newton has never missed a start in his first three seasons with Carolina. I don't think he will miss this one -- quarterbacks have played with fractured ribs before and they will again. But second-team quarterback Derek Anderson is preparing like he will play, as he always does. Anderson is a capable backup, especially when throwing the ball, but he can't escape tacklers like Newton can.

What also was odd about Wednesday is that Newton wasn't available to talk to reporters. NFL players are supposed to be available at least once during a game week. Most quarterbacks pick a particular day to be interviewed during the week -- for Newton, it has always been Wednesday. But the Panthers instead had him do some more rehabbing during the time he generally is interviewed, with the understanding he will instead be made available to answer questions Thursday afternoon.

All of it was a bit odd. But I still think Newton plays.