Scott Fowler

Carolina Panthers go back to the future, become relevant again

OK, so two weeks ago, who thought the Panthers would be here?

A mid-December game that matters.

A backup quarterback.

A crushed pickup truck.

A starting quarterback who admits he’s lucky to still be breathing.

A half-game out of first place.

“I think this is life,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said a couple of days ago. “Nothing ever goes according to plan.”

Much has happened in the past week. Even more has occurred since Sept. 7, when Carolina opened the season in Florida. But a few things will be exactly the same as they were in Week 1 on Sunday.

Again, Panthers fans are optimistic. Again, the opponent is Tampa Bay. Again, the Carolina quarterback is Derek Anderson.

It was three months ago when Anderson threw for 230 yards and two touchdowns and Carolina edged Tampa Bay 20-14 in the season opener.

Since that win, Carolina has gone only 3-8-1. But the Panthers are only a half-game out of the NFC South lead behind New Orleans and Atlanta. And if the Panthers go 3-0 in their final three games, they could actually make the playoffs at 7-8-1.

As long as we’re blue-skying it, what if Carolina wins Sunday? That means on Dec. 21 the Panthers will play Cleveland at home in another game that matters. The Browns will likely be starting Johnny Manziel at quarterback unless he gets hurt or does something really bad against Cincinnati on Sunday.

Playing “Johnny Football” with a playoff berth possibly in the offing? That’s pretty fine fare for mid-December if you’re a Panthers fan, especially when you consider Carolina’s no-win November.

All of it seems improbable, but no more so than Newton climbing out of his crushed pickup truck under his own power on Tuesday after a two-car wreck right outside The Charlotte Observer building. Or, just two days before that, Newton playing his best game of the season as Carolina destroyed New Orleans 41-10 in what was the worst home loss ever in the Drew Brees-Sean Payton era.

The Panthers’ arrow pointed north when Carolina started 2-0. Then it did an about-face and went south for more than two months straight. By the time the Panthers got to 3-8-1, only a week ago, it had seemed all but done.

Now the Panthers are relevant again, at least temporarily.

It’s really a two-part weekend for serious Panthers fans. First, they need to cheer for Carolina and watch the NFL scoreboard simultaneously between 1 and 4 p.m. Sunday, hoping for Pittsburgh to beat Atlanta.

Then, if Carolina wins against Tampa Bay, Panthers fans will need to cheer for New Orleans to lose at Chicago on “Monday Night Football” at 8:30 p.m.

By midnight Monday, Carolina could be in first place in the NFC South – or the Panthers could be all but out of the division race if they lose on Sunday and either Atlanta or New Orleans wins.

One way or another, the conclusion awaits us. If we’ve learned anything so far, it’s that at least one more major plot twist does, too.

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