In the heady days of last September, when no one’s pipes were freezing and the Carolina Panthers had played two games and had still not allowed a touchdown, 37-year-old defensive end Julius Peppers proclaimed: “This is the best defense I have ever played on.”
Then the New Orleans Saints came to Charlotte and demolished the Panthers by a 34-13 score.Ranked No. 1 in several defensive categories for parts of the NFL season, the Panthers fell off at year’s end. They ended up No. 7 in total yards allowed, No. 3 in sacks, No. 3 in rushing defense and No. 11 in scoring defense.
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So, I asked Peppers Thursday if he still thought this was the best defense he had ever played on.
“Yeah,” said Peppers, who tied for the team lead in 2017 with 11 sacks. “Stats are only an indicator. It tells you where to look. It doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.”
Now the Panthers have to play the Saints again – their nemesis in two straight losses this season.
If Peppers is going to be anywhere close to right about the Carolina defense – and he said he still believes it is championship caliber -- this is the game in which the Panthers are going to have to prove it. I think the only way Carolina will win Sunday will be to force several turnovers and get a huge special teams play or two. If Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara have their way with the Panthers for a third straight time this season, forget it.
▪ Lots of players in all sorts of professional sports grow “playoff beards.” Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly went the opposite way this past week, getting an extremely short haircut. He said he admired his teammates who have continued to grow beards, however – pointing out Ben Jacobs, Ryan Kalil and Mario Addison specifically. But he took exception to the name “playoff beards,” saying that name doesn’t “have any validity” as of yet.
“I think we’ve got to win a game in the playoffs to name them playoff beards,” Kuechly said.
▪ Kuechly also got a laugh this week out of New Orleans coach Sean Payton claiming he was changing a lot of offensive terminology and formations this time around because if he didn’t that Kuechly would “yawn” when diagnosing the play pre-snap. “Those guys could line up in one formation all day and be successful,” Kuechly said of the Saints.
The player who doesn’t get enough credit on the New Orleans offense, Kuechly believes, is wide receiver Michael Thomas. “He makes the tough catches, the contested catches,” Kuechly said.
▪ While Kamara took a kickoff back for a 106-yard touchdown last week, that at least is one thing that shouldn’t happen Sunday. Graham Gano led the NFL in touchback percentage (84.8 percent to break his own franchise record).
“People don’t understand how dynamic Graham is on kickoffs,” said J.J. Jansen, the Panthers’ deep snapper. “It gets overlooked because it’s ‘touchback, touchback, touchback’ and it can become boring, even for us. But the fact is that the defense knows it’s going to start at the 25 and you just take those elite athletes, those returners, completely out of that play with a good kick.”
▪ Prediction time. To review, I saw the forest pretty well this season. Before the year began I picked Carolina to go 10-6, several games higher than most prognosticators. The Panthers went 11-5.
But wow, did I ever mess up identifying some of the trees in that forest. In picking the Panthers’ games individually each week, I only went 9-7.
So maybe Panthers fans can take some solace in that stat as I pick this playoff game to go much the same way the first two games went this season. I think the Saints remain a bad matchup for Carolina.
My pick: New Orleans 30, Carolina 16.