A year ago, the Carolina Panthers' season was all but over after eight games, even if they weren't willing to admit it.
This year, the Panthers' season might be just getting going after eight games.
Carolina extended its winning streak to five games and improved to 6-2 with a performance Sunday in a 34-14 triumph over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In a conference that lacks a dominant team, the Panthers appear to be about as good as anyone in the NFC at the midway point of their season.
It's a dramatic turnaround from last season, when they were the defending NFC champions but lost seven of their first eight games. They lost a long list of key players -- including wide receiver Steve Smith, tailbacks Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster and defensive tackle Kris Jenkins -- to season-ending injuries, making simply fielding a team a significant chore for Coach John Fox and his assistants. The Panthers didn't quit, actually climbing back into playoff contention in the laughably forgiving NFC. But they missed the playoffs after a season-ending defeat to the New Orleans Saints dropped them to 7-9, making them the fourth straight Super Bowl loser to follow up with a losing season.
Now, though, the Panthers are back at close to full strength. Jenkins has suffered another season-ending injury. But Smith and Davis again are the focal points of the offense, and the Panthers are tied with the Atlanta Falcons for first place in the NFC South.
"I think this team was confident going into week one," Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "We're a team that is confident, but not a cocky football team. We work hard and we believe that we'll go out and play well on Sundays. It's starting to carry over now, so hopefully we'll keep it up."
The Panthers dominated the Buccaneers on both offense and defense Sunday. Davis ran for two short touchdowns, and Smith had his league-leading ninth touchdown catch. Defensive ends Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker combined for four of the Panthers' five sacks, and Carolina pressured Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms into two interceptions and a lost fumble. Cornerback Chris Gamble returned one of the interceptions for a touchdown.
"It was a big game for us," Fox said, "and our guys responded well."
But Fox, whose club hosts the New York Jets next weekend, was quick to add that nothing has been accomplished yet.
"We still have a whole half," he said. "It's like how nobody remembers halftime scores. . . . We hit our target of 6-2 after the halfway point, and now we have to get ready for next week against the Jets."
Eagles Must Clarify T.O. Suspension
NFL Players Association officials said they expect to receive notification from the Philadelphia Eagles by today of the terms of wide receiver Terrell Owens's suspension.
The Eagles announced Saturday that they'd suspended Owens for conduct detrimental to the team. He did not accompany the Eagles on their trip to Maryland for Sunday night's loss to the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field.
The Eagles did not specify in their written statement announcing Owens's suspension how long the suspension would last. Team president Joe Banner told reporters Sunday that Coach Andy Reid would meet with Owens in the coming days to determine the receiver's future with the team.
The collective bargaining agreement between the league and the union allows a club to suspend a player for up to four games without pay for conduct detrimental to the team. Players Association chief Gene Upshaw acknowledged Saturday that Reid had the right to suspend Owens. But Upshaw said the union likely would appeal the suspension. Richard Berthelsen, the union's general counsel, said the Eagles must notify Owens and the union what the terms of the suspension are, and indefinite suspensions are not permitted under the labor agreement.
Owens criticized the Eagles' front office and quarterback Donovan McNabb in a televised interview last week. A source said that Owens refused the Eagles' request that he apologize to his teammates and the team found the public apology that Owens issued Friday insufficient. Owens reportedly also got into a locker-room scuffle with former Eagles defensive end Hugh Douglas last week.
McNabb told reporters after the game Sunday that the Eagles might be better off without Owens. But that hadn't been evident on the field. Owens's replacement in the starting lineup, rookie Reggie Brown, had a touchdown catch and contributed several other significant plays. But the Eagles still couldn't run the ball and, without Owens, they couldn't throw it as effectively, and they managed only 10 points in their defeat to the Redskins.
Eagles, Westbrook Agree
Even amid the Owens furor, the Eagles managed to keep Brian Westbrook off the unrestricted free agent market next spring by agreeing with the tailback Sunday to a five-year contract extension worth about $24 million. The deal includes approximately $9 million in bonus money.
The team and Westbrook's agent, Fletcher Smith, had been facing today's deadline for NFL clubs to sign players to extensions and have a portion of the signing bonus count against this season's salary cap. The timing of the deal was related more to that deadline than to the latest Owens incident.
Westbrook suspended contract negotiations with the Eagles at the outset of this season, but talks resumed recently. Westbrook signed the one-year, $1.43 million deal that the team tendered to him last offseason in restricted free agency, but held out briefly from training camp.
Chiefs Concerned About Holmes
The Kansas City Chiefs are concerned about the health of tailback Priest Holmes. He missed Sunday's last-second win over the Oakland Raiders and was in California last week to be examined by spine specialist Robert Watkins.
Holmes suffered a blow to the head during the Chiefs' previous game, and still was feeling the effects from a shoulder injury earlier in the season.
Larry Johnson took over as the Chiefs' full-time runner Sunday and scored the winning touchdown when Coach Dick Vermeil eschewed a game-tying field goal and left his offense on the field for the game's final play. Johnson ran for 107 yards and two touchdowns in the game, and set up his winning touchdown with a 36-yard scamper after catching a short pass from quarterback Trent Green.
Superdome Lease Deadlines Postponed
The Saints and the state of Louisiana agreed last week to postpone two deadlines by which the team could have terminated its lease at the Superdome.
The deadlines were pushed back to 2007, meaning that the team, the NFL and state officials will be able to work out playing arrangements for the club for next season before facing issues about the franchise's long-term future.
Under the terms of their lease, the Saints could have broken the lease and relocated after this season by repaying the state $81 million in subsidies. That deadline had been set for 90 days after the season. The Saints could have broken the lease without repaying the subsidies if the Superdome, which was damaged in August by Hurricane Katrina, was deemed unusable. The deadline for invoking that "act of God" clause in the lease had been Nov. 27.
The Saints are based this season in San Antonio and are splitting their home games between there and Baton Rouge, La. Those two cities are under consideration to host Saints home games next season; the club also could play some home games next season at the Superdome. Superdome officials say the building could be ready to host Saints games as soon as November 2006.
NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has said that the league's goal is to return the franchise to New Orleans eventually. NFL sources have said that the league would consider moving the team to Los Angeles in the future if New Orleans does not recover sufficiently to support the club adequately.
Saints owner Tom Benson did not attend Sunday's loss to the Chicago Bears at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. Benson was involved in a pair of postgame confrontations following a loss to the Miami Dolphins there eight days ago, lunging at a camera crew and exchanging words with a heckling fan. He informed Tagliabue in an e-mail sent later that day that he would not attend any more games in Baton Rouge, although Saints officials had left open the possibility that Benson might reconsider. Sunday's attendance was announced at only 32,637.