Thursday, January 22, 2015

Appreciating Jeff Gordon



Jeff Gordon has spent half his life turning left at NASCAR's highest level. Now, at 43, he says this will be his last full-time season as a driver.

Remember Gordon in 1994? He won the first of his 92 Cup races then, at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He had a skimpy moustache -- "It just looked ridiculous," he told me last year, reminiscing for this story -- and incredible talent. He cried through the last 10 laps of that race.

Now in 2015, Gordon will be taking his last laps as a driver. The four-time Cup champion is still near the top of the pack, making the playoffs and coming very close to a spot in the final four last season.

Gordon has always struck me as one of the most thoughtful people in racing. So if he thinks it's time, it's time. He has had some injury problems over the past few years -- mostly chronic back pain -- and he is a doting father. He and his wife have a son and a daughter.

As he told me last year: "My daughter.... lights up when I walk in a room. When I leave she says, 'Where are you going? Don't leave?' A lot of times I wish I didn't have to run off."

He won't have to run off nearly as much after this season, although knowing Gordon I am sure he will stay busy. Third on the all-time win list (trailing only Richard Petty and David Pearson), it would be a fairytale ending if Gordon could win a fifth and final championship in his final season.

That likely won't happen. But who knows? I still remember what Gordon said in 1994, when I covered his very first win at CMS.

Said Gordon then: "This is the highest feeling in the world.... If I only win one Winston Cup race in my career, I'd be happy."

If you want a few laughs and memories, check out our photo gallery of Gordon through the years here.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

5 reasons Panthers lost to Seattle



SEATTLE -- Here is a quick take on 5 of the biggest reasons Carolina lost 31-17 to Seattle Saturday night:

1) Turnovers. Seattle had zero. Carolina had three -- all charged to quarterback Cam Newton. Newton's turnovers were the worst part of this, certainly, but the Panthers' defense really needed to come up with at least one big play on this night, and it did not.

2) The young secondary got exposed. Tre Boston allowed a 16-yard TD pass. Bene Benwikere allowed a 63-yarder. On both plays, the rookies simply lost sight of the ball and were taken advantage of by Seattle's Russell Wilson, who was the best player in this game.

3) Luke Willson. Seattle's young tight end is overshadowed by the quarterback who shares his surname (except for that extra 'L'), but the Panthers couldn't cover him all day. He was targeted four times, caught all four and gained 68 yards with one TD. His numbers were better than Carolina Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen (4-58, no TDs). Willson must love the Panthers -- he scored the game's only TD in October in the final minute to beat Carolina, 13-9.

4) Kam Chancellor. Seattle's star safety was all over the field. He nearly blocked a Carolina kick -- twice! -- by jumping entirely over the Panthers' line. And although that ploy didn't work, he later baited Newton and got a 90-yard pick six for his trouble that clinched the game.

5) Talent differential. Look, Carolina doesn't have as many good players as Seattle does. That's just a fact. When you are asking Philly Brown to make a play on a deep ball against Richard Sherman, or you are asking Colin Jones to figure out how to not allow Wilson to complete a pass -- that's just a mismatch. There were too many of them on the field, and eventually Seattle was bound to exploit a number of them.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

How Johnny Manziel almost wrecked Panther season



I am writing a story for Friday's newspaper and online about the 10 defining plays of the Panthers' surprising season. To do so, I enlisted the help from a panel of 10 current Panthers as well as coach Ron Rivera.

The following play, described by enthusiastic Panther cornerback Josh Norman, ultimately didn't make the final cut. But it was interesting.

The way Norman sees it, the Panthers knocking Cleveland rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel out of the game on Dec.21st nearly ruined Carolina's season. Manziel, in other words, nearly wrecked the Panthers' year by getting hurt.

Needing to beat Cleveland at home to make the playoffs, the Panthers' Colin Jones and Luke Kuechly combined on a hit of Manziel early in the second quarter on a designed run by Manziel. Manziel tried to get up, couldn't (you can see him reaching for his leg in this picture from The Observer's Jeff Siner, which shows the aftermath of the tackle) and left the game with a hamstring injury. Brian Hoyer -- a player Norman considers a far better quarterback -- replaced Manziel and nearly led the Browns to a win.

"We were [unhappy] that he didn't stay in," Norman said of Manziel, who ended up 3-for-8 for 32 yards. "It was like, 'Oh, ----, now we've got a better quarterback.'"

Hoyer threw an 81-yard TD pass in the fourth quarter that put Cleveland ahead, 13-10. If the Browns had held on, Carolina would have finished 6-9-1 and New Orleans would have won the NFC South. Instead, Carolina got a late touchdown on Cam Newton's nine-yard pass to Jonathan Stewart (which did make the "top 10" cut). But Norman said the outcome never would have been in doubt and that the Panthers would have won much more easily had Manziel not been knocked out of the game.

"If he [Manziel] had stayed in, it would been a nightmare," Norman said. "His numbers would have been horrible. The best thing that happened to him was getting hurt. That was going to get ugly real quick."

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Panthers can beat Seattle if these 6 things happen



Oddsmakers have established Seattle as an 11-point favorite against Carolina. Beating the Seahawks in Seattle is perhaps the most extreme challenge in the NFL right now. Here are six things that would have to happen in my opinion for Carolina to get there:

1) Jonathan Stewart has to rush for more than 100 yards. Seattle's secondary is the best in the NFL, so it's no wonder Cam Newton struggles against the Seahawks. Remember what the Seahawks did to Peyton Manning in the last Super Bowl? But Stewart has been on such a roll that a great game from him could be a huge difference and a crowd-quieter (he had 79 yards in Carolina's October loss).

2) Carolina can have no more than one total turnover. Preferably, this number would be zero. I think the Panthers could survive one turnover in some circumstances. More than one? No chance.

3) Never fall behind by more than 10 points. This Carolina offense, against that Seattle defense, in that environment? It's not going to work to have to play catch-up. If the Seahawks get ahead by more than 10, it's over. If the Panthers stay close and don't make big mistakes, though -- in other words, Kelvin Benjamin can't drop a ball in the end zone like he did in October (see above picture) -- they will have a chance in the fourth quarter.

4) Two turnovers from Russell Wilson. You're not going to stop Wilson all the time -- he's just too good. But occasionally he will throw a bad pass, and because he runs so often (and takes some sacks because he is so confident in his running ability) the ball is sometimes available. I think Wilson would need to turn it over twice for Carolina to win.

5) Two big plays by relative unknowns. Remember Fozzy Whittaker's 39-yard touchdown off a screen pass last week vs. Arizona? Or Kevin Reddick's fumble recovery inside Arizona's 5? I'm talking about something like that -- twice.

6) Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have to be "hellacious." That was Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald's word for Nos.58 and 59 last week after both Panther linebackers played a fantastic game in Carolina's 27-16 win. They will have to be just as good vs. Seattle -- and maybe better.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Panthers to edge Cardinals on a memorable Saturday



When you are sitting in the rain and the football stadium where you are sitting doesn't allow umbrellas, it's all a matter of perspective.

Carolina Panther fans will almost certainly have that experience Saturday, as rain looms over the forecast. It will be cold, it will be wet and it could be very nasty -- if the Panthers are losing.

If the Panthers are winning, on the other hand, this will turn into one of those "I'll Never Forget When...." sort of games. Panther fans who sat through the monsoon in December 2013 in Charlotte when the Panthers faced New Orleans were rewarded with a last-second touchdown catch to win the game by Domenik Hixon (shown above). Making it through that game is now worn as a badge of honor among Carolina supporters.

This one could be the same way. Panther fans haven't seen their team win a playoff game in nine years. A little rain would only get them singin' in the rain if that happens. But if Arizona wins and it pours, everyone in blue will just seem as miserable as a soaked cat.

-- Although Arizona is on the road for this game in Charlotte, both teams' dream is to return to Phoenix 29 days from the kickoff. The Cardinals' home stadium hosts the Super Bowl on Feb.1.

-- It wasn't that long ago that the Cardinals were vilified as one of the worst franchises in sports, but that has changed. The Cardinals have played seven playoff games in the past seven seasons. In the previous 74 years combined, they also played in seven total playoff games.

-- A wet field would slightly work to the Panthers' advantage, since they are a far better running team than Arizona. Then again the Cardinals have the best deep threat on the field -- Michael Floyd -- and one slip by the Carolina secondary could change things in a hurry.

-- Why are the Panthers wearing white jerseys in January for this game when they usually wear black once the weather gets cold? I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact Carolina has been more successful in white uniforms than in any other color during the playoffs.

-- Prediction time: I am 10-5-1 picking the Panthers' outcomes this season. I don't think either team will score much more than 20 points in this one.

Arizona has held 13 of 16 opponents to 20 or under this season (best in the league in that category).

Carolina has allowed only 43 total points in the last four games, which is two points less than it allowed in November to a Philadelphia team that ultimately didn't even make the playoffs.

The difference? It will come down to the quarterbacks and their offensive lines. Carolina's Cam Newton should and absolutely has to outplay Ryan Lindley in this one. Newton can't pull a "Jake Delhomme six years ago" Saturday. The Panthers have been handed a tremendous break due to the fact that Arizona must start its third-string quarterback. I think they will take advantage of it.

My prediction: Carolina 17, Arizona 12.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

9 key and strange numbers for Carolina Panthers



As the playoffs approach, here are nine key numbers I find interesting from the regular season for the Carolina Panthers:

4 -- The Panthers enter the playoffs with a 7-8-1 record and the No.4 seed in the NFC. Do you know where they would have been seeded had they been, say, 11-5? Still No.4. Seattle, Green Bay and Dallas took the first three spots with 12-4 records.

7 -- The Panthers have started seven rookies toward the end of the season, and the speed and energy from that group has been essential.

10 -- Despite a run early in the season where Carolina gave up 37, 38, 24, 37 and 38 points in consecutive weeks, the Panthers' defense rebounded to finish 10th in the NFL in total defense. In the final four games, Carolina allowed fewer points (43) than it did in one horrid Monday night game Nov.10 at Philadelphia (45). The biggest reason is Luke Kuechly, shown above and my choice for Panther MVP this season, but there have been a lot of contributors.

29 -- This is Cam Newton's rank in completion percentage among NFL quarterbacks. He's only completing 58.5 percent of his passes.

32 -- This is punter Brad Nortman's rank in net average (36.5 yards), which makes him dead last among NFL punters. This is mostly not Nortman's fault, because Carolina is the worst in the NFL in allowing punt-return yardage (the special-teams coverage units needs a serious offseason upgrade, but little can be done about it now). Think former Panther Ted Ginn Jr., who returns both kickoffs and punts for Arizona, is licking his lips right now?

63 -- The Panthers went an astonishing 63 days between victories and still made the playoffs. They won their first two games and also won their last four, but went 1-8-1 in between. Between Oct.5 and Dec.7, they did not win a game.

115 -- The Panthers' defense had this many yards returning Matt Ryan interceptions Sunday in the 34-3 win over Atlanta. The Panthers' offense gained 114 yards on Cam Newton completions. In other words, Ryan threw for one more yard to Carolina players than Newton did (and one more touchdown, too).

539 -- Newton's rushing yardage. He was third in the NFL in that statistic for quarterbacks, trailing only Russell Wilson (849) and Colin Kaepernick (639), despite the Panthers trying hard to keep him in the pocket for much of the season to protect him from further injury.

1008 -- In the season of the tie -- Carolina's only one in its 20-year history came on Oct.12 vs. Cincinnati -- this seemed fitting. Both Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin ended up with exactly 1,008 receiving yards, tying for the team lead.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Panthers thump Falcons, will host home playoff game



ATLANTA -- Following a December they will always remember, the Carolina Panthers jumped into the NFL playoffs on the last day of the 2014 regular season Sunday with a 34-3 pounding of the Atlanta Falcons.

Carolina will host Arizona in a first-round NFC playoff game Saturday at 4:35 p.m. on ESPN. Single-game playoff tickets went on sale at 8 p.m. Sunday -- only about 30 minutes after the game ended -- and were almost immediately sold out except for single seats. (There are plenty of tickets available on Stubhub.com and other resale sites, but generally at about twice face value). The Panthers get to host the game, despite their 7-8-1 overall record, by virtue of Carolina winning the NFC South on the season's final day.

If the Panthers can beat Arizona, they will play either at Seattle on Sat., Jan.10th at 8:15 p.m. or at Green Bay on Sun., Jan.11th at 1:05 p.m. The opponent would depend on the result of the Dallas-Detroit game on Jan.4th. If Dallas wins that one, the Panthers would go to Seattle. If Detroit wins, the Panthers would go to Green Bay.

That Carolina is even in a position to contemplate such things is remarkable. When the month began, the Panthers were 3-8-1 and in the throes of a six-game losing streak. But they won their last four games in a row and have made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in team history.

It was a startling turnaround, one in which two close home games were sandwiched by two whopping road victories. The run started when Carolina pulverized New Orleans in the Superdome, 41-10, on Dec.7. Then it concluded with this "win-and-you're-in" game at Atlanta.

As in the New Orleans game, Carolina played so well in the first half that the game was basically decided after 30 minutes. In both cases, Carolina led 24-3 at halftime and the home team was booed off the field.

In this game, much of Carolina's best work was fueled by its defense. Roman Harper had a 31-yard interception return for a touchdown that pushed a 10-3 Carolina second-quarter lead to 17-3, and Thomas Davis's 33-yard fumble return set up another TD only minutes later.

Then came Tre Boston's 84-yard interception return in the third quarter, which made it 34-3 and sent a lot of Falcons fans out of the Georgia Dome before the fourth quarter even began. It was the first time in their 20-year history that the Panthers have had two defensive scores in the same game. With all that, Cam Newton's one touchdown passing and one TD running seemed to be almost lost in the wash, but Newton also played very well just when he needed to -- as did Carolina's offensive line. By the end, Newton was inciting the 5,000 or so fans remained -- most of them chanting "Let's Go Panthers!" -- to get even louder. It was a remarkable Sunday.

Now comes the even harder part: winning a home playoff game.

The Panthers have whiffed on their last two tries, losing by 20 to Arizona following the 2008 season (that was Jake Delhomme's six-turnover game) and by 13 last year to San Francisco (when goal-line offense and silly penalties undid the Panthers).

This time Arizona would seem to be the ideal opponent, given that any team the Panthers faced would have at least 11 wins. The Cardinals will be playing a backup quarterback and have struggled offensively in recent weeks -- at one time sporting the NFC's top record, they will go into the playoffs as a No.5 seed.

Carolina, meanwhile, is a No.4 seed and somehow still alive after this wild December, which also included Cam Newton's car crash and close home wins against Tampa Bay and Cleveland.

Only 12 teams are left out of 32 as the playoffs begin. Quite remarkably, Carolina is one of them. But after this December, it would not be wise to count these Panthers out against anyone.