Carolina Panthers

Tom Talks: Got a chance to attend an NFL playoff game? Here’s where I’d go.

The New Orleans Saints and receiver Michael Thomas (13) will host the NFC championship game Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams and Marcus Peters (22).
The New Orleans Saints and receiver Michael Thomas (13) will host the NFC championship game Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams and Marcus Peters (22). AP

So, somebody gives you two tickets, good ones, Sunday. New Orleans or Kansas City – your call. You’ll attend an NFL conference championship game, all expenses paid. Where do you go?

I go to New Orleans. And even if the climate in Kansas City were civil, which it won’t be, I go to New Orleans.

The three best sites at which I’ve seen an NFL game are Green Bay, Pittsburgh and New Orleans.

If you tell me I can go to any stadium in the NFL even in September, before weather some places turns evil, I go to the Superdome.

I know that if you live in Charlotte, your natural enemies include snakes, spiders and vermin, Atlanta, Tampa Bay and New Orleans.

Despite your contempt for the Saints, I also know that some of you enjoy immersing yourself in the city and the culture.

I’m writing this on Tuesday, and I guarantee that some preparations for the Saints versus the Los Angeles Rams already have begun. I met a guy there, a cool restaurauteur, who on game days transforms into one of the thousands of characters you see in the dome. Three hours are required Sunday to transform from human to icon.

Once you’re in that Saints culture, it’s tough to get back out. The voodoo priest look as well as the Mad Max Australian Outback-meets-Bourbon Street attire don’t go on like a golf shirt. Fans don’t merely dress up. They become part of a lifestyle.

I remember talking to Josh Norman, then a Carolina cornerback, before the Panthers left for New Orleans. He was a fan of the fans.

“They got old souls about them,” Norman said.

As he was about so many things, Norman was right.

New Orleans is about an 11-hour drive from Charlotte. To get there, you pass through South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, a time-space continuum and the edge of civilization as we know it.

I love Charlotte. But I also like adventure. And if I can get it in a city I know so well that loves its football team, I’m in.

Backing out on Super Bowl pick

In this very space before the season began, I picked the records of every team, as well as the Super Bowl participants and champ. I was way off on some. But I picked the Carolina Panthers to go 8-8. And I picked the New Orleans Saints to beat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

I hate to back out. But I suspect the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Patriots Sunday. The Saints, I’ll stick with.

Last week, I went 4-0. I’m not terribly proud; I chose each of the four home teams, each of the favorites. I felt as if I was picking four No. 1 seeds to make the NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s Final Four. And if I ever do that, I will run myself out of whatever town I’m in. But I didn’t like any of the NFL’s underdogs.

This week’s picks, with the home team in caps:

NEW ORLEANS 6 over Los Angeles Rams.

I worried that after New Orleans’ six-point victory against the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday, after the Saints trailed 14-0 and then called an outrageous fake punt on their own 30 in the second quarter – their own 30! – that some fans might call New Orleans a Team of Destiny.

Probably somebody has, but fortunately I’ve neither seen nor heard it. There’s no such thing as a team of destiny. Why would a team be destined to win, and who would arrange it?

As well as Philadelphia back-up quarterback Nick Foles played in the 2017 postseason as well as this one, he was never a quarterback of destiny. He was just a guy who was as good as he needed to be until a turnover not of his own making Sunday finally stopped the Eagles.

The last time New Orleans and Los Angeles played, the Rams were undefeated. They then went to the Superdome, and in a thrilling game that illustrated the direction the NFL was moving, New Orleans won 45-35.

The Saints led by 18 at the half, so the Rams scored 18 in a row. Who was going to be stopped? Los Angeles quarterback Jared Goff was 28 for 40 for 341 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

New Orleans’ Drew Brees was 25-36 for 346 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. The last of those touchdowns was to Michael Thomas for 72 yards. Thomas celebrated with a tribute to Joe Horn, pulling out a cell phone from beneath the goal post the way Horn, a former New Orleans’ receiver, once did.

Watching the Saints and Rams was like watching the Golden State Warriors. As tough as the Warriors are, they play with joy. You smile when you watch them.

When you watch the Saints and Rams Sunday, maybe you’ll feel the same way.

Speaking of joy, the Patriots play Sunday’s second game. The latest forecast in Kansas City calls for a high of 13, with abundant sunshine, and a low of 5. The high is only 33 degrees colder than New Orleans.

KANSAS CITY 7 over New England

The Chiefs and Patriots played Oct. 14 in New England. The Chiefs were 5-0 coming in, but they played tight early and the Patriots played like the Patriots. New England led 24-9 at the half, and Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw two first-half interceptions.

But the second half was up and down and back and forth, beautiful football from two fine offensive teams. The Chiefs caught the Patriots, but New England kicked a field goal as time expired and won 43-40.

Mahomes was 23 of 36 for 352 yards and two touchdowns, along with those two first-half picks. Tom Brady was 24 of 55 for 340 yards and one touchdown.

I doubt the teams can combine for 83 points on a Sunday on which the temperature is projected to reach 13.

But only the weather can slow these teams down. You want to win, you better score now. In terms of yards amassed, the Chiefs led the league, the Rams were second, the Patriots fifth and the Saints eighth. (The Panthers were 14th.)

In terms of scoring, however, the numbers are clean and neat. The Chiefs were first, the Rams second, the Saints third and the Patriots fourth. (The Panthers were 14th).

The league scored like it never had, and on Sunday we’ll see the teams most responsible.

Who’s the most pressure on? The offenses to keep up, or the defenses to get in the way?

Can Hornets keep it going?

During the Charlotte Hornets-San Antonio Spurs game Monday, I didn’t think about what Charlotte’s 108-93 victory could mean. I just enjoyed it.

I loved watching so many players contribute, among them Bismack Biyombo, who came out of hibernation to score nine points, grab six rebounds and shoot a game-high seven free throws. Man, did I want to be there.

But today is a good day to think about what the victory could mean. Every time the Hornets take the court, they can recall San Antonio and remember what they can be.

The San Antonio game was a testament to emotion, the homecoming for Charlotte guard and former Spurs star Tony Parker. Along with the hugs and tributes Parker’s former team provided, his current team added one of its own.

Going in, the Hornets were 5-15 on the road. Going in, the Spurs were 18-5 at home. Yet Charlotte went to San Antonio’s AT&T Center and beat one of the NBA’s best-coached teams. There was nothing fluky about the result. On this night, Charlotte was better.

Although Kemba Walker scored 33, this was an ensemble victory. Without Biyombo, Willy Hernangomez and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Hornets don’t win. These guys played hard, and tough. No matter how physical the Spurs became, the Hornets gave it back.

Rookies Miles Bridges and Devonte Graham played strong games. The numbers don’t attest to Graham’s work. But if you watched, you know.

Charlotte is more than halfway through the season. Going into Thursday’s game at home against the Sacramento Kings, the Hornets are three games below .500. They’re better than we thought, but not nearly as good as we think they can be.

Their longest winning streak is three games, their longest losing streak three games, and they occurred back to back in late November into December. The Hornets take a step forward. Look at them go. They take a step back.

The Kings are pretty good. The Phoenix Suns, who come to town Saturday, are not. Charlotte beat the Suns by six on the road Jan. 6.

What if the Charlotte team we saw in Texas on Monday becomes the team we see every night? What distinguished those Hornets was their defense, their effort and their communication. They were in it together. It was as if everybody figured it out at the same time.

So far this season, the Hornets have been contented with little victories. Monday’s has the potential to be a big one.

Tepper candid in an honest interview

For owners of major league franchises, Charlotte is where quotes go to die. I talked to former Carolina Panthers’ owner Jerry Richardson, albeit almost exclusively off the record. Charlotte Hornets’ owner Michael Jordan rarely talks. And until Tuesday Panthers’ owner David Tepper spoke only on special occasions.

Owners owe neither fans nor the media a conversation. While fans would like answers about the team(s) to which they devote passion and often money, they aren’t owed a response. If a man has enough pull to buy a team, he’s been remarkably successful in business endeavors, and is accustomed to talking when he chooses.

On Tuesday, however, Tepper talked to a small group of reporters for about a half hour. Had Tepper gone bigger, stood behind a lectern and addressed dozens of media on folding chairs, the dynamic would have changed. There would have been no conversations, just questions and answers.

The way Tepper did it, eliminating cameras and limiting the gathering to a few reporters that cover the team, he could talk.

Of most interest to me, and I think to most fans, is Tepper’s perspective of quarterback Cam Newton. Tepper talked about the possibility of shutting Newton down next season the way the Indianapolis Colts once shut down their star quarterback Andrew Luck.

Luck, who had spent time in the land of damaged shoulders, came all the way back in 2018, throwing for 39 touchdowns and 4,593 yards. As Tepper explains, if the Panthers knew that Newton would come all the way back in 2020 if they shut him down this season, why wouldn’t they?

But they don’t know what Newton’s status is. This is Newton’s career they’re talking about. And whether you like him or not, he is Carolina’s franchise quarterback, and he has earned that title. Newton at full strength is an asset. Newton at anything less is not.

Unless an answer manifests itself this winter or spring, the Panthers have to operate under the supposition that their No. 1 quarterback might be Kyle Allen, who was good in the game he played.

To invest a high draft pick on a quarterback would be a mistake. Yet the free agent class is at best all right. I’ll bring it up before you do. Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, still is unemployed.

The Panthers need to find a player willing to serve as a temp, and avoid overpaying him.

Not everything Tepper said was what fans wanted to hear (some are still are angry he didn’t fire coach Ron Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney).

But why would he?

When Tepper speaks, other investors tape the show and play it back the way some fans do the most recent Panthers’ game. Except the investors play it back more. Tepper would not have become the hedge fund genius he has by succumbing to panic. Everything must go is a silly philosophy, and it’s not his.

What I especially liked about Tepper’s interview is that, while candid, he didn’t pretend to know everything. He was confident enough not to pretend.

Short takes: Wake Forest’s upset and an intriguing fight

▪ In my world, nobody complains about Wake Forest basketball. In my world, nobody talks about Wake Forest basketball. The Deacons are there. You can find them at the bottom of the ACC men’s basketball standings.

And then there they are, at home against N.C. State Tuesday, running up a 22-point second-half league. Point by point, however, the Wolfpack (missing point guard Markell Johnson), came back to tie the score.

That was inevitable. The unknown was how Wake Forest, 0-3 in the conference coming in, would respond to the comeback. The Deacons finally responded with poise, and they won 71-67.

The victory doesn’t make them relevant. They’re Wake Forest. But the Deacons are considerably more relevant than they were when the week began…

▪ Charlotte boxing promoter Christy Martin has signed her first fighter, Donnie Marshall. Marshall, who is from Buffalo, fights out of Raleigh. He’s a middleweight, 10-0 with six knockouts.

On Feb. 16 in Los Angeles he’ll fight Sebastian Fundora, 11-0 with seven knockouts. FOX will televise the fight.

If you’re a boxer, and believe in what you have and what you can do, this is the opportunity for which you wait. Friends and fans can see you, and the boxing world will get an idea of what you offer.

Aside from his record, what Fundora offers is height. He’s 6-feet-7. Marshall, who has fought at Centerstage@NODA, is 6-0.

Marshall can punch, can box, and is difficult to hit. This ought to be good…

▪ Hate the injury to Duke freshman point guard Tre Jones. He doesn’t get the attention Duke’s flashier big men rightfully do. But he ran that team with efficiency and grace, played hellacious defense and was the catalyst every elite team needs. Jones separated his shoulder Monday, and is out indefinitely.

Duke hosts Virginia on Saturday, and I would love to have seen Jones in that game. I admit I’m biased. I’m from Minneapolis, and Jones is from the suburbs. Tre’s older brother Tyus, a former Duke point guard who helped lead the Blue Devils to the national championship, now plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves…

▪ Antonio Brown, the former Pittsburgh Steelers’ receiver, has staggering talent. But don’t you tire of divas, and don’t they have the potential to poison all that is around them? And if you make concessions for them, does it not undermine the rest of the team?

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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