Carolina Panthers

New game for Panthers: Wait and see

Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, as well as his teammates and coaches, will sit back this weekend to see who they'll end up facing next Saturday at Bank of America Stadium. Regardless of which team it might be, the Panthers have already played against them earlier this season.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, as well as his teammates and coaches, will sit back this weekend to see who they'll end up facing next Saturday at Bank of America Stadium. Regardless of which team it might be, the Panthers have already played against them earlier this season.

CHARLOTTE -- They've gone through their alleged practices. They've gotten their rest, the reward for being the second seed in the NFC playoffs.

And now, the Carolina Panthers wait.

Like most, they'll be watching this weekend to see who's next, to see which team comes to Bank of America Stadium next Saturday night for the Divisional round playoff game.

It will either be third-seeded Minnesota (which plays Philadelphia on Sunday), or the winner of today's 4-5 game between Arizona and Atlanta. The highest-ranked team left will come to Charlotte, while the lowest seed (either No. 6 Philadelphia or the winner of the Cardinals-Falcons game) will go to New York next Sunday.

The good news for the Panthers is that they've seen all three of their possible opponents before this year, losing to Minnesota, splitting with the Falcons and beating the Cardinals in Charlotte. Of course, that works both ways, but the Panthers have put in some basic thinking on all three this week.

"It's beneficial for both teams," coach John Fox said Friday. "They've got their old game plans, too. I think the fact that we don't know who we're playing yet might be a little beneficial, but when we get into the game plan, they're going to be as familiar with us as we are with them."

With that in mind, here's a look back at the games against the three potential opponents:

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

n When: Sept. 21, Week 3

n Where: Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome

n What happened: Vikings 20, Panthers 10

n What went right: Rookie running back Jonathan Stewart scored his third touchdown of the season to give the Panthers an early 10-0 lead, but it was downhill after that. There were positive hints throughout the day (including a sprinkling of Steve Smith in his first game back from suspension), but not enough together to sustain things for the Panthers.

n What went wrong: About a minute and a half.

Things seemed to be going well for the Panthers until a sack-fumble-touchdown by the Vikings just before halftime. That, and the Panthers offense never really putting anything together the rest of the day doomed them to their first defeat.

The pivotal play was one of five sacks for the Vikings, who also got a one-game boost with veteran Gus Frerotte taking over for erratic Tarvaris Jackson.

The Panthers also rushed for 47 yards on the day, one of only two games all year they were held to less than 100 yards.

All told, it quickly turned into a loss after two dramatic comeback wins over San Diego and Chicago.

n How it's different now: Like the Panthers, the middle of the Vikings defense is banged up (DT Pat Williams is a game-time decision Sunday with a shoulder injury). They're as limited without the big Williams as the Panthers were without NT Maake Kemoeatu the last two weeks.

While the Vikings run defense remains the league's best, it's a different Panthers team now. Then, you were wondering which back would become the lead dog. Now, it's no question it's DeAngelo Williams.

n Quote of the day: "You can't keep putting yourself in a hole week after week and expect to climb out of it every time." -- SS Chris Harris.

n Inside the game: The guy who gave up the sack (running back Nick Goings) rarely sees the field on offensive snaps anymore. Williams especially, but Stewart to a lesser degree, have become proficient enough blockers that Goings is now a full-time special teamer. Everyone's better off as a benefit.

ARIZONA CARDINALS

n When: Oct. 26, Week 8

n Where: Bank of America Stadium

n What happened: Panthers 27, Cardinals 23

n What went right: The Panthers wrote another impressive comeback, overcoming a 17-3 third-quarter hole. They did it in the usual manner, with Jake Delhomme and Smith hooking up at will (as Smith showed some of that freakish balance that defines him). It was the start of Williams' second-half hot streak, as he broke a number of tackles and made the kind of runs that have become nearly commonplace lately.

n What went wrong: The first half. There was the big offensive output early for the Cardinals, who spread the Panthers out and barely bothered running at all. That led to some confusion early on. In many ways, the early part of that one resembled the latter stages of last week's game at New Orleans. When the Panthers play soft zones, there are creases quarterbacks can find.

n How it's different now: The Cardinals looked like a legitimate title contender that day, and weather and a market correction made them look like frauds for a moment. But today's game is going to be a celebration for the downtrodden franchise (it's the first home playoff game in Arizona ever, and for the franchise since 1947).

The most obvious is the weather. That one was a typical Panthers' home game, sunny, blue skies and 70 degrees at kickoff. The long-range forecast for next Saturday night is for a 60 percent chance of rain and a low of 33 degrees. The Cards are no friends of bad weather.

n Quote of the day: "I think we've got a lot of heart. We play for each other, and we believe. I never thought we were out of the game, I don't think anybody thought we were out of the game. We know if we keep punching, ... we have a saying around here, 'Pound the rock.' Man, you keep pounding and good things are going to happen if you don't quit.

"We've done it, and I think maybe those guys got a little lax over there, thinking 'Hey, this game's about to be blown wide open.' But not here, not this team, We're going to fight for each other." -- MLB Jon Beason.

n Inside the game: As odd as it sounds, the Panthers are more comfortable with their multiple-DB defenses now. They've always liked their nickel package, with CB Richard Marshall picking up the third guy. But now when teams spread the field, they bring FS Charles Godfrey into a slot and let backup S Nate Salley stay on the field. Salley actually made a play last week which was swiped by a dubious official review. They're also more likely to look to C.J. Wilson now, since the youngster has earned respect as a cover man. If nothing else, it keeps them from putting special teamer Dante Wesley out there on defense.

ATLANTA FALCONS

n When: Sept. 28, Week 4

n What happened: Panthers 24, Falcons 9

n Where: Bank of America Stadium

n What went right: The run defense was strong, continuing an early pattern of dominance. They held Michael Turner to just 56 yards (he was averaging 122), and took some of the starch out of the upstart Falcons early success. The Panthers ran well as a team, though the individual lines weren't much, but Delhomme threw for 294 yards. Muhsin Muhammad had his best game of the season, with 147 yards and a touchdown, his only triple-digit day of the year.

n What went wrong: This game was kind of a blip, because the Falcons' secondary improved afterward, and very few teams since have been able to slow the Panthers running game and Smith on the same day. That would prove fateful down the road.

n How it's different now: Again, the Falcons shored up their secondary (starting Dominique Foxworth instead of the Muhammad-abused Brent Grimes), and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan looks more comfortable, as you'd figure.

n Quote of the day: "We played good. It's not a surprise to me or really to anybody in here that we're playing good. We expected to play good. If we don't play good, that's unacceptable really, with the talent and the guys we've got in here." -- DE Julius Peppers.

n Inside the game: That was the game left tackle Jordan Gross left with a concussion, which led to his only missed game ever. It was part of the pattern, though they learned the following week against Kansas City they could trust backup Frank Omiyale protecting the blind side. The way they've gone through linemen this year, that was good knowledge to acquire.

n When: Nov. 23, Week 12

n What happened: Falcons 45, Panthers 28

n Where: Georgia Dome

n What went right: Well, they did come back to close the gap to 24-21 in the fourth quarter. Ah, who are we kidding? This was over early, after the Falcons roared to a 17-0 lead.

The Panthers did get Smith involved again after he went missing for two weeks against Oakland and Detroit. But that's about it.

n What went wrong: The slow starts harkened back to earlier problems, and they allowed themselves to be overwhelmed on the road. Really, the sheer numbers the Falcons put up made it seem worse than the early season loss at Tampa.

n How it's different now: This time, it would be in their place. And as much emotional lift as the Falcons have right now (they look stunningly like the 2003 Panthers), the individual parts are starting to creak. Ryan's looked a little slower lately, and he'd be coming off a long flight home and a short week if he had to roll into Charlotte next Saturday night.

n Quote of the day: "Every phase of our team struggled today," -- coach Fox.

n Inside the game: This was the day the Panthers put to rest one of their more unusual stats. Prior to this one, they were always better on the road than at home under Fox. They slipped below their home winning percentage that night, and to this day remain a just-OK team outside their own building.

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