Carolina Panthers

Panthers can't figure Texans out

Carolina's Steve Smith slips past Houston's Von Hutchins, bottom, for a touchdown.
Carolina's Steve Smith slips past Houston's Von Hutchins, bottom, for a touchdown.

CHARLOTTE -- Things have changed. Things appear to be exactly the same.

Saddled by an offense that looked good early but sputtered the majority of the game and a defense that still can't cover across the middle, the Carolina Panthers dropped their home opener, continuing a trend of below-average play at Bank of America Stadium with a dispiriting 34-21 loss to the Houston Texans.

It's far from what they showed last week with a rousing win at St. Louis, but just about everything seemed upside down from a week ago, when they led the division by themselves and everything looked so promising.

"That didn't look like the same team we put on the field last week," fullback Brad Hoover said.

No, but it did look quite a bit like the one that slogged to an 8-8 record last year, and the one that's lost the last four home openers. The Panthers remain better on the road (23-18) than at home (22-19) under John Fox.

They still give up too many big plays. They still don't have a complement to wide receiver Steve Smith. In fact, it looked an awful lot like the end of 2006 here Sunday, but the home fans weren't booing the third-and-long draw calls of former coordinator Dan Henning, or the big plays down the middle yielded by safeties no longer here.

So if the Panthers left last week's win at St. Louis pleased but still unsure of their identity, they might have provided a clue in this one. There are still plenty of holes, and the work they did this offseason doesn't appear to have fixed most of them.

"He said you can't rest on your laurels when you get up 14-0," right tackle Jordan Gross said of Fox's message to the team. "He said he thinks that's what happened.

"Whether it did or not, I don't know, but something happened. You've got to play all 60 minutes in you want to win."

They didn't, and it didn't take long for it to start going wrong.

With two touchdown passes to Steve Smith, the Panthers raced to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, and appeared to have control even after a short kickoff (Fox said it was on purpose) led to Houston receiver Andre Johnson's first touchdown.

Then what was originally ruled an interception by cornerback Ken Lucas was overturned on a Houston challenge, and the Texans found life.

In fact, the specific moment the game turned was much like last year's home game against Dallas, when Keyshawn Johnson dropped a sure touchdown which would have put them up 21-0, only to watch the Cowboys storm back for a 35-14 win.

Fox was asked if he had ever seen one swing so quickly, and he quickly replied: "Real recently -- Dallas last year."

Four plays later, the Texans tied it on Johnson's second score (when he was mysteriously single-covered by middle linebacker Dan Morgan), and the air started to come out of the Panthers game, their fan base and the offensive swagger they had shown to that point.

The Texans eventually scored 34 unanswered points, leaving the Panthers wondering how and why.

"That momentum thing is serious, it's real," Lucas said. "I don't know what it is about it, but it's hard once you lose it to regain it back. I don't know what it is. It has to be something, some kind of power you can't control. It's like you're trying to execute the plays but things stop working for you.

"We're up 14-0 and things starts going their way. They get all the turnovers. They're making all the plays. It was unacceptable in all three phases how we played today."

Many of their old hobgoblins came back Sunday, as they lost in ways familiar to the home fans.

They didn't run consistently, managing just 66 yards on the ground (just over a third of last week's 186). They turned it over twice, including on a Nick Goings kickoff return which was recovered in the end zone for a 31-14 lead early in the third quarter, a point from which the game was never really in doubt.

"This is a heavyweight fight," elder defensive end Mike Rucker said. "It's 12 rounds and you can't stop until the match is over. We might have knocked them down early, but they came back and knocked us out.

"You've got to get back up, and be able to fight all 12 rounds. They got the best of us."





• Panthers notebook • 6B


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