The Carolina Panthers were well on their way to upholding the recent NFL tradition of Super Bowl losers falling by the wayside the following season. They were 1-7. They practically had a better team on their injured reserve list than they had on the field. Their offensive line was a mess. Jake Delhomme no longer looked like a star quarterback in the making.
It was Nov. 14, and it was virtually give-up time. The Panthers trailed the pitiable 49ers, 17-3, at halftime in San Francisco and were on the verge of being 1-8. "That was a low feeling,'' Panthers General Manager Marty Hurney said this week of watching the first half of that game from the press box. "I don't think anybody said much to me at halftime. But we all felt we could come back.''
Really? So Hurney knew, even on that seemingly dreary afternoon nearly seven weeks ago, that his team could turn around its season and be jockeying for a playoff spot on the first weekend of the new year?
"No, I meant we all knew we could come back in that game,'' he said.
No one could have envisioned then that a long, gritty climb back to respectability and an oh-so-forgiving NFC playoff chase would conspire to give the Panthers a chance to secure a place in the postseason field when they face the New Orleans Saints on Sunday in Charlotte. The Panthers and Saints will take identical 7-8 records into the game, and the winner will emerge with a solid shot at keeping its season going.
Back then in San Francisco, the only issue for the Panthers was preventing their season from unraveling completely, and Coach John Fox made sure it didn't happen. The defending NFC champions didn't give up, even when it looked like they were a threat to duplicate their 1-15 record in 2001 -- the season before Fox arrived -- and even when their key injuries were piling up so fast that it appeared that simply fielding an NFL-caliber team was about to become a daunting task.
Fox delivered what he later called "a pretty heart-to-heart talk at halftime'' in San Francisco. Delhomme threw three second-half touchdown passes to wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad as the Panthers rallied for a 37-27 win, and they've barely looked back since. They've lost only one of their last seven games, and that came in overtime in Atlanta 12 days ago after an almost superhuman fourth-down run by Falcons quarterback Michael Vick for the tying touchdown in the final two minutes of regulation.
"Everybody involved had their hand in it -- the young guys getting schooled up quickly, the veterans helping them along the way, the coaching staff remaining encouraging, just trying to get better,'' Fox said during a news conference this week. "I think it's been a lot of hard work by a lot of people.''
The Panthers have pulled it off after losing four standout players -- tailbacks Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, wideout Steve Smith and defensive tackle Kris Jenkins -- to season-ending injuries. All were key contributors during the club's magical run to last season's Super Bowl, in which Delhomme nearly led them to an upset of the New England Patriots before they succumbed, 32-29, on a field goal by Adam Vinatieri in the final seconds.
Delhomme was rewarded with a shiny new contract extension in the summer, a five-year, $38 million deal that included $12 million in bonus money. It looked like it might not have been a particularly wise investment when Delhomme, playing behind a rebuilt offensive line and without Davis around to be the centerpiece of a run-first offense, threw 11 interceptions and only nine touchdown passes in the first seven games of this season. But he has 18 touchdown passes and only four interceptions in the last eight games. He threw for four touchdowns and didn't have an interception in last Sunday's 37-20 triumph at Tampa Bay that kept the Panthers' playoff hopes from being extinguished.
"His decision-making has sped up,'' Fox said. "I think our protection has been better. We are executing better. It's 11 guys being on the same page so you look more like a well-oiled machine than a clunker. This is his second year as a full-time starter. He just keeps getting better. There was a lot of talk early in the season, when we were struggling, wondering if he was a one-hit wonder. [But] I don't think anyone here, players or coaches, ever doubted his capabilities. I think he's showing everybody that now.''
Converted fullback Nick Goings has become the team's featured runner by necessity and has thrived, with five 100-yard rushing performances in the past six games. The former undrafted rookie free agent entered this season with 385 rushing yards in his three NFL seasons.
Muhammad, a complementary receiver last season while Smith inched toward the league's top tier of wideouts, became Delhomme's top target when Smith broke his leg in this season's opening game, and has responded with 87 catches. He's tied for the NFL lead with 14 touchdown receptions and he's second in the league with 1,310 receiving yards. He could cash in as a free agent in the offseason. Muhammad had his contract extended through next season as part of a reworking of the deal in September to aid the Panthers' salary cap situation this year. But the new deal includes a $10 million roster bonus in March and a $12.5 million salary cap charge for next season, and the Panthers almost certainly will have to sign him to a new contract or release him early in the offseason.
End Julius Peppers has spurred the defense with eight sacks in the past eight games and 10 for the season. The Panthers have come so far that if they can sneak into the playoffs, they could be a threat to advance far in the watered-down NFC tournament.
"They have had some injuries,'' Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden said this week. "But when you look out there on the field, in some ways people think Carolina is a better football team now than they were last year . . . They are well-coached, and they are on a roll. They are on a mission.''
The Panthers still could become the fourth straight Super Bowl runner-up to have a losing season as a follow-up -- after New York Giants in 2001, the St. Louis Rams in 2002 and the Oakland Raiders last season. But if they beat the Saints, the Panthers will break that string by getting back to .500, and they will do their required scoreboard-watching to see if they reach the playoffs.
If the Panthers beat the Saints, they reach the playoffs with a loss by the Minnesota Vikings to the Washington Redskins, with a loss or a tie by the Rams against the New York Jets or with a win or a tie by the Seattle Seahawks against the Atlanta Falcons (the Panthers also could tie the Saints and reach the playoffs if the Rams lose or tie). The Rams and Vikings play 1 p.m. games Sunday, like the Panthers. But the Seahawks don't play until 4:05, meaning it's possible that the Panthers might have to huddle around television sets after their game to see if they reach the postseason.
If the Panthers reach the playoffs, they will be the first team in NFL history to have done so after being 1-7. But they aren't taking too many bows, at least not yet. They know that in a normal conference in a normal season, their turnaround would have done wonders for their dignity but wouldn't have resulted in playoff talk.
Still, they'll happily take their postseason spot if they can get it, and they're proud that they've built the sort of team that perseveres through such trying times. Few people are mentioning Fox as a coach-of-the-year candidate, but it's possible that he's done a better job this season than he did last season, when so many things went right for the Panthers during their Super Bowl run. This season, they haven't caught many breaks, and yet here they are, set to play a meaningful game after New Year's Day.
"Every year, you go through losing periods,'' Hurney said by telephone this week. "Everyone questions. Everyone asks themselves if they can do more. What we have is a very cohesive organization. Everyone pulls together and stays together. We have a close-knit locker room. We don't look too far down the line. We look at the next game. There's not much else that you can do when you're 1-7 . . . There's a saying about how you're always two weeks away from disaster, and it's really true in this league.
"You never know what's going to happen. That's why you can't look too far ahead. It's a very consistent message, and it's been delivered since the first day John Fox arrived here -- be a professional and do what you have to do each and every week. You're going to have adversity. It's how you handle it that matters.''
Packers Third Seed in NFC
Green Bay has locked up the No. 3 seed in the NFC playoffs, meaning that the Packers will play in Atlanta in a conference semifinal if they win their first-round game. The NFC West champion, Seattle or St. Louis, will be the fourth seed and would play at Philadelphia in the other semifinal with a first-round victory . . .
Gruden took up Wednesday for Eagles Coach Andy Reid, who has drawn criticism for resting his key players to avoid injuries in Monday night's loss at St. Louis, with the top seed in the NFC playoffs already secured.
"I think when you go 13-1 [now 13-2 after the loss to the Rams], you're entitled to do whatever you see fit,'' Gruden said when the subject came up during his daily news briefing. "You can do whatever the heck you want . . . I tip my hat to the Philadelphia Eagles. They've got a commanding lead. If they've won the home-field [advantage] throughout the playoffs and they think they need to rest [quarterback Donovan] McNabb, then by God, more power to you. You're13-1. You've got the power to do what you deem best for your football team.''
History is not necessarily on Reid's side, however. According to the league, in the last five years, playoff clubs seeded first through fourth that were coming off victories in their regular season finales have a record of 25-5 in their opening playoff games. Over that span, playoff teams seeded first through fourth that were coming off losses in their regular season finales were only 6-4 in their opening playoff games.
Still, Reid apparently plans to take the same safety-first approach in the Eagles' regular season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field . . .
Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer tried to practice Wednesday with a knee brace but probably will be sidelined for a third game in a row by a damaged medial collateral ligament. Jon Kitna would make a third straight start if Palmer is unable to return to the lineup. If Palmer can't play, he would finish his first season as an NFL starter with 263 completions in 432 passing attempts for 2,897 yards, with 18 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. He had 11 touchdown passes and six interceptions in his last four games . . .
Miami Dolphins General Manager Rick Spielman probably will remain with the club, in some capacity, through the draft in April, even though incoming coach Nick Saban has been given total control over the team's football operations and apparently plans to hire a new front-office chief. Spielman is likely to be dismissed or reassigned within the organization after the draft . . .
The Dolphins probably will be without wide receiver Marty Booker for Sunday's game at Baltimore because of an ankle injury. Booker likely will join quarterback A.J. Feeley on the sideline, with Sage Rosenfels in line to make his first NFL start because of Feeley's bruised ribs . . .
The Patriots seem optimistic that they will have defensive end Richard Seymour in their lineup for their opening playoff game on Jan. 15 or 16, likely against the Indianapolis Colts. It's unclear, though, how close the three-time Pro Bowl selection would be to full speed if he plays. The knee injury that he suffered during last weekend's win over the Jets apparently includes damage to his MCL that could take as long as six weeks to heal fully . . .
A victory over the Seahawks would give the Falcons 12 wins this season under first-year coach Jim Mora Jr., which would be a seven-game improvement from last season. That would match the fifth-best improvement ever by a team under a new head coach. The record is nine-win improvement by the Oakland Raiders in 1963 under Al Davis (yes, THAT Al Davis). There have been three eight-game improvements, most recently by Bill Parcells with the Jets in 1997 . . .
Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck participated in Wednesday's practice, but was limited in his deep throws as he attempts to return from an elbow injury that kept him out of last weekend's win over Arizona.
Del Rio, Robiskie Linked to LSU
Two NFL head coaches, Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio and Cleveland interim coach Terry Robiskie, have been mentioned among the possible candidates to replace Saban at LSU, although Louisville Coach Bobby Petrino appears to be the front-runner. Robiskie was born in New Orleans and is an LSU alum. Del Rio played for the Saints, and his daughter graduated from LSU . . .
If Petrino leaves Louisville, Vikings offensive coordinator Scott Linehan could be a candidate to replace him. He is a former assistant coach at the school. Linehan reportedly has not signed a contract extension with the Vikings and apparently also could be a candidate to join Saban's staff in Miami or to replace Charlie Weis in New England.
The Vikings have announced that they're exercising their option in Coach Mike Tice's contract for next season. But Linehan perhaps could be the fall guy if their season ends in disappointment again, especially after the failed trick play that contributed heavily to a recent loss to Seattle when wide receiver Randy Moss threw an interception in the end zone. Still, Linehan must be doing something right: Minnesota is ranked third in the NFL in total offense . . .
The Colts, Kansas City Chiefs and Vikings all are averaging more than 400 yards of total offense per game. According to the league, in only one season in NFL history have even two teams averaged at least 400 yards per game. The Rams and Denver Broncos did so in 2000 . . .
Jets offensive coordinator Paul Hackett probably would be fired if the club misses the playoffs or has a quick and unimpressive showing in the postseason . . .
The Jets are acknowledging they will be without defensive end John Abraham for a fourth consecutive game because of his knee injury. They hope to have him back in the playoffs if they qualify . . .
The Jaguars could be without tailback Fred Taylor for a second straight game because of an ailing knee. They were shut out by the Houston Texans last weekend without him, a loss that may have cost them a playoff spot. Taylor might try to practice today. Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich practiced Wednesday after suffering a mild concussion during the Houston game. Del Rio left Leftwich in the game until the late stages, and he completed only six of 14 passes for 35 yards . . .
Tennessee running backs coach Sherman Smith was passed over this week for the head-coaching job at his alma mater, Miami (Ohio) University. Smith interviewed for the job but the school promoted its offensive coordinator, Shane Montgomery, on Tuesday. . .
First-year coach Mike Mularkey steadied the Buffalo Bills after an 0-4 start in which his offense was criticized publicly by team owner Ralph Wilson, and has the club fighting for an AFC playoff spot entering Sunday's game against Pittsburgh and his former boss, Steelers Coach Bill Cowher. Mularkey was the Steelers' offensive coordinator before being hired by the Bills last offseason, in part because the Patriots' Super Bowl run left Weis unavailable to Buffalo.
"Mike is doing a great job up there to come back from an 0-4 start, to get those guys to play where they are,'' Cowher said this week. "Mike is a good football coach. He's been around it, and they have obviously responded to him. I think he has a good feel for players . . . You are looking at a good football team that is young, and they are on the rise.''
Maddox Named Steelers' Starter Sunday
Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sat out Wednesday's practice because of bruised rib cartilage. Cowher officially named Tommy Maddox the starter Sunday in Buffalo, although the Steelers plan on having Roethlisberger back for the playoffs. He perhaps could be available for emergency duty against the Bills, depending on how he feels this weekend . . .
The Steelers players voted linebacker James Farrior the team's most valuable player . . .
The Broncos must make a decision about whether to use defensive end Trevor Pryce in Sunday's game against the Colts, with a playoff spot on the line for Denver. Pryce is vowing to play. But he hasn't played since the opening game of the season and underwent back surgery in September . . .
The Broncos are less than the sum of their parts: They are the only NFL team in the top five of both the league's total offense and total defense rankings, yet are only a borderline playoff club . . .
Robiskie didn't exactly give a ringing endorsement of Jeff Garcia when he was asked during a conference call with reporters Wednesday whether the quarterback has been a good team player during his first season with the Browns.
"That's a difficult question to answer,'' Robiskie said. "I think Jeff came in here and, of course, Jeff had a tremendous amount of expectations for Jeff Garcia. I don't know what those are, but I think Jeff Garcia came in and was determined to reach every goal that Jeff Garcia set for Jeff Garcia . . . Jeff was totally focused on what he needed to do to obtain his goal, and I don't know if he stopped to say, 'This is what the team needs to do, and this is what we got to do for the team.' I think, by the same token, he was doing all he could to help the team win.'' . . .
Tampa Bay quarterback Brian Griese didn't practice Wednesday because of a strained hip, but Gruden said he still expects Griese to play in Sunday's season finale at Arizona.
Second-year pro Chris Simms is slated to start if Griese is sidelined, but Gruden said: "He's not going to get any charity appearances because this game is the final game or it doesn't matter. We're going to continue to try to get Brian Griese ready to be great. And when Chris Simms earns the opportunity, he'll play . . . I'm encouraged by his progress, and I consider him a threat next year to win the [starting] job. But I'm not going to say anything else other than whoever earns the right to play will play in any game, any regular season game.'' . . .
The Colts placed reserve linebacker Jim Nelson on the IR list because of a broken collarbone and promoted quarterback Travis Brown from the practice squad. Brown was activated in case the Colts sit down Peyton Manning for portions of the regular season finale. Indianapolis's backup quarterback is Jim Sorgi . . .
Giants quarterback Kurt Warner stated the obvious Wednesday when he said that he would not return to the team next season to back up Eli Manning. Warner's contract with the Giants was designed to be a one-year arrangement, and the pairing probably would have lasted into next season only if Warner had remained the starter all season and taken the club deep into the playoffs. He plans to look for a team willing to offer him a chance to compete for its starting job next season, and has mentioned the possibility of retiring if he can't find one. He cited Miami, Chicago and Dallas as possible destinations . . .
The Bears have liked what they've seen from veteran quarterback Jeff George enough that they are planning to invite the late-season addition to training camp next summer.