Panthers strap in to get ready for their playoff opener

daringantt@carolina.rr.comJanuary 7, 2009 

CHARLOTTE -- For the last month and a half, the Panthers had enjoyed an unexpected break.

So when they walked in Tuesday morning to find out practice was going to be in full pads, they were far from surprised.

"I knew last week that was coming," said fullback Brad Hoover, grinning.

While coach John Fox loves fully padded practices (even deep into the postseason), he changed his ways earlier this year. After a string of slow starts in games against Oakland, Detroit and Atlanta, Fox allowed his players to go through their midweek work in shorts, beginning Nov. 26. They stayed that way through the end of the regular season since they were generally winning.

"We knew it's not normal, but we accepted it and were excited about it," linebacker Thomas Davis said of Fox breaking form.

Wearing pads adds at least 10 pounds to each player, which can grind on you as the season goes along. When he gave them the chance to ditch their pads in November, he told them he expected an increased tempo to follow.

There's still no full contact in practice, and quarterbacks are strictly off limits with their red jerseys. And even before they shed their pads in November, there were times when they'd take the gear off during practice.

"Normally, halfway through our practices, we take them off, but guys wanted to keep them on," wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. "I think the hard work, the focus and the enthusiasm around this ball game has inspired everyone. We're going to be ready to play."

After taking it easy last week, with three short practices before a two-day weekend (players came in for a run Monday), Fox wanted to get his players' minds focused on Saturday's divisional-round playoff game against Arizona by making things more realistic. The pace was still fast, but there was a bit more contact, and it looked and sounded more like football.

INJURY UPDATE: Following the normal week schedule, the league didn't require the two teams to submit injury reports Tuesday.

With a Saturday game, Tuesday was the equivalent of a regular Wednesday -- the first full day of practice. That he didn't have to share was a fact that gave Fox considerable pleasure.

"There will be no update on injuries," he said with a grin. "We don't have to give that information out (until today), and I'm not one to put out information sooner than I have to."

The biggest questions which will be officially answered today will be the status of starting defensive tackles Maake Kemoeatu (ankle) and Damione Lewis (shoulder), and the right side of the offensive line, with tackle Jeff Otah (toe) and guard Geoff Hangartner (ankle) still up in the air.

Of course, there was a general sense of optimism Tuesday about most of them.

Safety Chris Harris was discussing the glories of the bye week when he said, "That was big for us because we had both of our tackles out, now it's great to get those two guys back, so I think the bye did us well."

When Otah stuck his head out for a moment, and was asked about his injury, he said: "I don't know, they said it was a bruise."

Asked if he was 100 percent now, he replied: "Yeah, I'm fine with it."

Hangartner was nowhere to be seen when reporters were in the locker room.

60-MINUTE MEN: As bad as giving up 65 points in their previous two games is, the Panthers are galled that 35 of those points came in the fourth quarter and overtime against New Orleans and New York.

That followed a seasonlong trend, as the fourth quarter was the one in which they allowed the most points (103), followed by the second (92), third (71) and first (57).

"You look at the last two weeks, we've played extremely well for three quarters," linebacker Jon Beason said. "We can't have a letdown. It would almost be better if we could kind of spread that out over the course of the game where the offense was driving the ball right here and the defense wasn't playing so well and vice versa.

"But it's really been a case of both of us playing not that great in the fourth quarter. Now it's just a matter of finishing, and that's easy to do. It's do or die right now."

EXTRA POINT: The Panthers practiced in heavy rains Tuesday, which might be good preparation for Saturday night. The forecast, according to weather.com, is for a 40 percent chance of rain, but temperatures in the 40s.

While that's likely a plus for the Panthers, considering they're better built to run on a muddy track, Fox shrugged it off. "Both teams got to react to the conditions, whether it's rain, cold, wind," he said. "I've never put a lot of stock in that."

daringantt@carolina.rr.com

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