There's still a hint of a bruise on Ken Lucas' surgically-repaired nose, but the healing he and his teammates have experienced since the darkest day of training camp is undeniable.
Lucas beamed as he sat in an exuberant Panthers locker room at Qualcomm Stadium Sunday after the Panthers' stunning 26-24 win against San Diego.
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“It just feels so good,” he said.
Carolina was supposed to have no chance, especially without receiver Steve Smith, who was serving the first of a two-game suspension for sucker-punching Lucas.
But Lucas said the Panthers believed all along they could and would win.
The fact that they did underscores how well the team has responded since the Smith-Lucas fight.
The incident could have torn the team apart. It didn't because three central figures responded to something bad in exemplary fashion.
Smith apologized, Lucas forgave him, and coach John Fox won the respect of the team by doling out the suspension as a consequence for misbehavior, instead of catering to his most talented offensive player.
Lucas said from the beginning the incident would draw the Panthers closer as a team. Many scoffed at him then, but perhaps not so many now.
“Sometimes adversity brings families together,” said Lucas.
According to Lucas, he and Smith are 180 degrees away from where they where the day fists flew.
“He has been encouraging me all week long,” Lucas said of Smith.
“I told him we were going to win this game for him. He has been doing a great job of becoming a consummate teammate. I take my hat off to him.”
Who could have imagined barely over a month ago that Lucas would be dedicating a game that counts to the man who struck him?
“That's the epitome of forgiving someone,” said Lucas. “Once you forgive, you forget. You don't continue to rehash things and bring it back up again.”
The Panthers are 1-0 without Smith, with next Sunday's home game against Chicago to go before he returns.
Just a week ago, even the most optimistic Carolina fan probably was hoping for a 1-1 start to the season, figuring a loss at San Diego was likely and there was hope of beating the Bears in Charlotte.
Suddenly, however, Chicago looks like a fierce opponent.
Like Carolina, the Bears are coming off a surprising road win, thumping Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts 29-13 in the first regular-season game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Chicago looked like it did in its Super Bowl season two years ago – punishing on defense, with a conservative run-oriented offense and stellar special teams.
If the Panthers have a decided edge, it's at the quarterback position.
The win at San Diego answered affirmatively, once and for all, that Jake Delhomme is back, healthy and worthy of the Panthers' trust in his surgically-repaired right elbow.
Chicago's quarterback is Kyle Orton, who lacks Delhomme's experience, talent and knack for late-game heroics.
No offense intended, but Orton is to his position what vanilla is to ice cream.
The game will feature two top rookie running backs, Carolina's Jonathan Stewart and Chicago's Matt Forte, who ran for 123 yards and a touchdown against the Colts. It will also match receiver Muhsin Muhammad against his former team.
Beating the Bears won't be easy, but if the Panthers can do it and go into their Sept. 21 game at Minnesota 2-0, Smith will be back and then we'll see if his return kicks them into an even higher gear.
Lucas believes it will.