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Posted: Monday, Nov. 17, 2008

Mercurial Carolina faces long, hard road

Published in: C Section

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By Tom Sorensen

In My Opinion

The Carolina Panthers have played six games at home, four on the road. Opponents have included Kansas City, Oakland and Detroit. Every other week looks like homecoming in Pantherland.

That changes in six days, and it will not change back. Let the adult portion of the schedule begin.

The Panthers play at Atlanta and Green Bay, at home against Tampa Bay and Denver, at the New York Giants and New Orleans. There's not a team with a losing record among them. The teams Carolina has played have a record of 42-58. The teams they will play are 38-22.

But before Carolina moves on, let's look back.

The Panthers weren't terribly impressive at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday in their 31-22 victory against Detroit. They weren't terribly impressive last week in their win in Oakland.

But they win. They win when they play well and win when they play poorly, win when the defense dominates and win when the offense does, win when Jake Delhomme throws well (as recently as October) and win when he hands off superbly (Sunday).

The Panthers are 8-2, lead the NFC South and every week entertain fans in a way that has nothing to do with the way they entertained them the week before.

“That's why my hair is very gray and it's starting to go away,” says Panthers coach John Fox. “You can't blink. There is a lot of pressure. It's what makes this exciting.”

Detroit-Carolina was exciting in a way few anticipated. Despite the accolades the Panthers bestowed upon the Lions before and after the game, Detroit is not 0-10 by accident. Coming in the visitors ranked 21, 22, 28 and 28 in the league's major offensive categories. The defense has not been nearly as effective.

But behind quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who on Tuesday will celebrate his two-week anniversary with the team, Detroit jumped to leads of 7-0 and 13-7. Imagine what Culpepper could have accomplished if Tuesday had been his three-week anniversary.

The Panthers won for the same reasons they've been winning. When they had to be good, they were.

They set the precedent in San Diego in the season opener when on the final play Delhomme hit Dante Rosario in the back of the end zone for the winning touchdown. Except for the road losses to Minnesota and Tampa Bay, they have yet to stop.

The beauty of the team has been that you don't know who will make the play. You know only that somebody will.

Often it's middle linebacker Jon Beason. After the Lions cut the lead to 24-22 with 6minutes, 5seconds left, they attempted a two-point conversion.

Culpepper, who at 260 pounds is one of the five biggest quarterbacks in world history, faked a couple of pitch moves and took off. He had a clear path. It looked as if the only thing that could stop him was a runaway truck ramp.

And then Beason, Chris Harris and Thomas Davis stuffed him inches from the end zone. They stuffed him even though Culpepper appeared to attack Beason's hand with his facemask.

The Panthers attacked Detroit by repeatedly handing the ball to DeAngelo Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart. Stewart ran 15 times for 130 yards and a touchdown, Williams 14 times for 120 yards and two scores.

Carolina's offensive line, which was outstanding, was thrilled. Nobody wants to pass block.

“It's nearly impossible to get a sack on a running play, and that's an (offensive line's) nightmare,” says left tackle Jordan Gross. When a team runs, the line gets to be “the hammer, not the nail.”

Williams and Stewart run similarly, patiently finding space, shedding tacklers, next stop the end zone. Off the field, they are as dissimilar as two human beings can be. A major difference is that words come out of Williams' mouth.

“He doesn't talk to very many people but he talks to me,” says Williams. “We've actually got a nice relationship. Whenever anybody wants to talk to him they go through me.”

After Williams scored, Stewart waited for him on the edge of the field, and they performed their choreographed “Matrix” celebration. When Stewart scored, Williams waited on the same patch of grass, impatiently summoning the rookie, and they leapt simultaneously, meeting high up above the ground.That's where the Panthers are. And this is where it gets interesting.

This is where it gets more interesting.

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