The Carolina Panthers were well on their way to upholding the recent NFL tradition of Super Bowl losers going by the wayside the following season. Their injured reserve list was more impressive than their active roster. Their offensive line was a mess. Jake Delhomme no longer looked like a star quarterback in the making.
On Nov. 14, the 1-7 Panthers trailed the pitiable 49ers 17-3 at halftime in San Francisco. "That was a low feeling," Panthers General Manager Marty Hurney said by telephone last week. "I don't think anybody said much to me at halftime. But we all felt we could come back."
Like his team, Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme has turned his season around. He has 18 touchdown passes and only four interceptions over his the last eight games.
(Tom Gannam -- AP)
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Really? So Hurney knew, even on that seemingly dreary day 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 a forgiving NFC playoff chase would conspire to give the Panthers (7-8) a chance at a playoff berth when they face the New Orleans Saints (7-8) today in Charlotte.
It is one of the more intriguing matchups on a day that will be filled with crucial games and scoreboard-watching for the nine teams trying to squeeze into four playoff spots, two in each conference. Eight clubs have clinched berths; 15 have been eliminated from playoff contention.
Back in November in San Francisco, the Panthers were merely trying to prevent their season from unraveling completely. Coach John Fox delivered what he later called "a pretty heart-to-heart talk at halftime." Delhomme threw three second-half touchdowns 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 15 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 last 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 to the club's run to last season's Super Bowl, in which Delhomme nearly led the Panthers 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, 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, threw 11 interceptions and only nine touchdown passes in the first seven games. But he has thrown 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 in Tampa that kept the Panthers' playoff hopes alive.
"There was a lot of talk early in the season when we were struggling, wondering if he was a one-hit wonder," Fox said. But "I don't think anyone here, players or coaches, ever doubted his capabilities."
Converted fullback Nick Goings has become the featured runner by necessity and has thrived, with five 100-yard rushing performances in the last six games. 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 his 14 touchdown receptions, and he's second in the league with his 1,310 receiving yards. End Julius Peppers has spurred the defense with eight sacks in the past eight games and 10 for the season.
"They have had some injuries," Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden said last week. "But . . . 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."
The Panthers still could become the fourth straight Super Bowl runner-up to have a losing season as a follow-up -- after the 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 give themselves an opportunity to be the first team in NFL history to reach the playoffs after such a dreadful opening eight games.
"Every year, you go through losing periods," Hurney said. "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."