Winning disguises flaws.
This is a sports axiom that can be expressed in several ways. Panthers coach Ron Rivera likes to say that winning hides your warts. Legendary NFL coach Bill Parcells would say sometimes that “winning is a great deodorant.”
The 14-1 Panthers smelled good all season until the Atlanta game, when the fourth-quarter magic that has gotten them out of so many jams finally deserted them. But the flaws had been surfacing throughout December. Carolina nearly lost to New Orleans Dec. 6 and gave up a 35-7 lead against New York Dec. 20.
So Sunday, against Tampa Bay, the Panthers need to prove to everyone that Atlanta was a hiccup and not a trend. A loss against Tampa Bay coupled with a win by Arizona would drop Carolina to the No. 2 NFC playoff seed and yank away the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs that has seemed this team’s birthright since Thanksgiving.
What Carolina needs Sunday is a win, and it would help team morale if it is a convincing one.
▪ Doug Martin is a “beast,” according to Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. Martin has one of only two 100-yard rushing days against Carolina all season – he had 106 yards in Carolina’s 37-23 victory in October. Kuechly didn’t play in that game because of a concussion, and one of No. 59’s primary jobs Sunday will be to slow Martin.
▪ Tampa quarterback Jameis Winston reminds me a lot of the 2011 rookie version of Cam Newton. Winston is capable of breathtaking athleticism and breathtaking mistakes, often within the same series. The Panthers forced five Buccaneers turnovers the first time the two teams played.
▪ I am feeling a Josh Norman interception Sunday. He hasn’t had one since Oct. 4, which is crazy.
▪ Carolina has won 10 straight games (including the playoffs) at Bank of America Stadium, which is the longest active home streak in the NFL. I will be interested to see how well the field holds up Sunday as the Panthers try for No. 11, because it really got beaten up Wednesday in a Belk Bowl that should have given every fan a free snorkel.
▪ Prediction time. I am 11-4 choosing the Panthers’ outcome this season after missing on last week’s loss at Atlanta. I think Carolina will have some problems Sunday but ultimately prevail and secure the No. 1 NFC seed. My pick: Carolina 31, Tampa Bay 20.
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