Carolina Panthers: Drayton Florence

Continuing my look at the most memorable plays during the Carolina Panthers' 2013 season is arguably the biggest defensive play of a season filled with big defensive plays.

No. 3
  • White
    The play: (Dec. 29) Undrafted rookie cornerback Melvin White intercepts a pass by Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan and returns it 8 yards for a touchdown with the Panthers trailing 10-0 midway through the second quarter.
  • The final score: Panthers 21, Falcons 20
  • Why it made the list: Because this sparked the comeback that gave Carolina the NFC South title and a first-round bye in the playoffs. The Panthers were struggling. They trailed 10-0 and had just fumbled away a scoring opportunity at the Atlanta 4. After 2-yard loss by running back Steven Jackson, Ryan dropped back and threw a pass into the left flat. White and safety Mike Mitchell recognized the formation from film study and anticipated where the ball was going. White snagged the ball at the 8, stumbled to the ground about the 2 and crawled into the end zone to cut the lead to 10-7. It was a huge play by a player that was overlooked in the draft, who had struggled in a few games with keeping receivers in front of him. This time he anticipated the play perfectly. "We just knew from film study when they get inside the numbers, they like to run quick outs," White said. "I read it, and just went with it." Had Ryan thrown the ball to the inside instead of the outside, Mitchell said he was waiting. Regardless, until that turnover Carolina was headed for a major upset. "We were getting beat," Mitchell said. "We needed momentum. We needed a play. A huge play for him." It was a huge play for the Panthers, but the celebration was somewhat forgettable. White lost the ball in an attempt to dunk it over the goal post. "He really made the play to turn the whole game around," cornerback Drayton Florence said. "The celebration was a little weak."
To Carolina Panthers followers who felt like the first day of free agency was like looking under the Christmas tree and seeing no presents, lighten up.

It was no different a year ago, and things turned out well.

Carolina's only early signing in 2013 was veteran cornerback Drayton Florence, who later was released in training camp only to be re-signed during the season due to injuries. The Panthers signed him the day after free agency opened.

They didn't sign another player until cornerback D.J. Moore eight days into silly season. The first significant signing, as it turned out, was safety Mike Mitchell nine days in.

Chase Blackburn, who wound up starting at outside linebacker, was almost a month into the process before he signed.

General manager Dave Gettleman, in part because he's strapped under the salary cap once again and in part because he doesn't want to overspend on pricey free agents, appears comfortable letting the first wave or two of free agency pass before jumping into the show.

He's looking for bargains, diamonds in the rough he believes the team can win with.

I still believe Carolina will make a run at Hakeem Nicks, primarily because the free agent from the New York Giants mentioned Carolina as one of three teams he'd like to play for. The other two are Indianapolis and San Diego.

If Nicks really wants to play for his hometown team, he might have to take less money from the Panthers than he might get from another team.

Getting him would make the decision to cut wide receiver Steve Smith easier if that's what the team still intends to do. That entire situation remains unsettled.

One thing is certain: Quarterback Cam Newton can't go into 2014 without a veteran receiver, and without Smith, the team's top four wide receivers from last season are not under contract.

Among those, Domenik Hixon reportedly is in discussions with the Chicago Bears and Ted Ginn Jr. has drawn interest from Kansas City and Arizona.

Cornerback Asante Samuel could be this year's Florence. He's 33, but played on two Super Bowl teams for New England and was a starter for four seasons (2008-2011) in Philadelphia when Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was there.

Arizona Cardinals corner Antoine Cason also could be a possibility. A first-round draft pick by San Diego in 2008, he played under Carolina coach Ron Rivera and secondary/pass defense coordinator Steve Wilks while they were with the Chargers.

So if you feel like you missed Christmas, just pretend it's coming a few days late.

... In case you missed it, cornerback James Dockery announced on Twitter late last night that he will be returning to Carolina.
Next up on my ranking and evaluation of Carolina's 21 players eligible to become unrestricted free agents are Nos. 18 and 19, guard Geoff Hangartner and cornerback Drayton Florence.

Both were released at the end of training camp and brought back during the season because of injuries. Both wound up being invaluable in terms of experience and leadership.

Both are at the bottom of the list because they are near the end of their careers. Florence would be entering his 12th season. He told me before Carolina's playoff loss he wasn't sure he wanted to return, saying he might retire after the Panthers won the Super Bowl.

That obviously didn't happen.

Here's a look at both:

18. Geoff Hangartner: The Panthers let him go in August because they wanted to build around young players such as Amini Silatolu and Edmund Kugbila. Silatolu suffered a season-ending ACL knee injury in the fourth game and Kugbila was placed on injured reserve before the season. Hangartner will be entering his 10th season. He was on the field for only two plays in the regular-season finale. With Silatolu and Kugbila back, along with Chris Scott and Nate Chandler, making the roster and guard would be a long shot.

19. Drayton Florence: The Panthers were 0-2 when the Panthers had a rash of injuries to the secondary during a Week 2 loss to Buffalo. They were 12-3 with him, including the playoffs. He played a big role in nickel coverage, but more importantly helped bring stability and a sense of camaraderie to the unit by taking them out to team dinners and building team unity. He brought the Ric Flair "Wooooo!'' chant to the team that was inspirational until Flair became a San Francisco fan. But he'd be returning for a 12th season, and he's already hinted at retirement. This could be the end of the line for him.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick is a threat to beat the Carolina Panthers with his arm and his legs. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree will be the difference since he didn't play the first time these teams met.

But what about Ric Flair?

Do you feel betrayed?

There may have been just as many questions about the retired professional wrestler who has flip-flopped on his allegiance between Carolina and San Francisco as there were about players that actually mattered during the Panthers' media availability on Monday.

And, yes, I'm guilty of asking a few.

At least the players and coach Ron Rivera kept it in perspective as they began preparation for Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game against San Francisco.

"He's not going to line up on the field, so I'm not going to worry about it,'' Rivera said about Flair.

Whether or not Flair's signature "WOOOOOOO'' chant is heard on the field remains to be seen.

Cornerbacks Drayton Florence and Captain Munnerlyn, along with safety Mike Mitchell, last week taped a video of them doing the chant to run on the Bank of America JumboTron to pump up the crowd.

Florence even talked of inviting Flair, who has lived in Charlotte since 1974 and sent a motivational phone message to the team before their Monday night victory over New England, for a pregame motivational speech.

Since then, we've all learned that Flair flew to Wisconsin and gave the 49ers a motivational speech in the team hotel on Saturday night before they beat the Packers 23-20.

Flair went so far as to say his heart was with the 49ers "all the way to the end.'' Then on Monday, he wrote on Twitter: "49ers win! WOOOOO! Congrats SF! Obviously my pep talk worked! WOOOOO! #OldSchoolRaw."

Thus, the questions about betrayal.

"It really doesn't make any difference,'' Florence said. "It doesn't have nothing to do with the game.''

Asked whether the video would run or be scrapped, Florence said, "I don't think it's my choice, my decision. It's over my pay grade.''

Reminded the "WOOOOOOO'' has been the team's way of honoring players who received game balls after wins, that it has become sort of a team bonding thing, Florence said, "Yeah. That was during the regular season. It's the playoffs now. We're more worried about stopping Crabtree and Vernon Davis.''

Again, perspective.

Most of the players took the same attitude about it, although Munnerlyn did get in a little dig.

"I'm sure they gave him a little bit of money,'' he said of the 49ers. "But, no, I don't feel betrayed at all. You've got to do what you've got to do. We said the chant and then they came and [brought] him in.

"At the end of the day, it's a football game to be played. It's not about Ric Flair, it's not about no wrestling. It's about playing football on Sunday at 1:05.''

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Let me tell you a story about a professional wrestler.

It was the summer of 1977. Ric "The Nature Boy" Flair and Ricky Steamboat began a bitter feud that eventually saw Steamboat strip Flair of his NWA heavyweight title.

It became so bitter that in 1978 Flair attacked Steamboat and rubbed his face across the studio floor. A week later, Steamboat attacked Flair and ripped his clothes off.

Then in the spring of 1979, Flair had had a falling out with Paul Jones, who apparently also had betrayed Steamboat. So Flair and Steamboat paired to become the "dream team" in an attempt to defeat Jones and Baron Von Raschke for the tag team title.

[+] EnlargeRic Flair
Mark Dadswell/Getty ImagesHas Ric Flair betrayed the Carolina Panthers by speaking to the 49ers?
So why is this a topic as the Carolina Panthers prepare to host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday for the right to play in the NFC Championship Game?

Because Flair apparently has flip-flopped from supporting his hometown Panthers to the 49ers.

It began earlier this week when a video of the Panthers using Flair's famous "WOOOOOOO" chant in the locker room following a 21-20 victory over Atlanta made its way onto the internet.

Quarterback Cam Newton even tossed in a "and The Nature Boy'' shout at the end.

After talking to cornerback Drayton Florence, who brought the chant to the team, I discovered Florence was trying to get Flair to come to the stadium before this week's game to give a motivational speech.

I also discovered Florence, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Mike Mitchell filmed a "WOOOOOOO'' video to put on the stadium Jumbotron to fire up the fans.

Here's what Flair said after learning of all this.

"I'm humbled to have achieved that much respect by my hometown team," he said. "I really believe the Panthers have the weapons to go all the way."

Wait. There's more. On Nov. 18, before the Panthers played New England on Monday night, Flair sent this phone message to the team:

"Hey boys, it's The Nature Boy Ric Flair calling you live from Atlanta, Ga.," he said. "Tonight's the night guys. The New England Patriots are in town. Who cares? It's Carolina Panther time guys.

"Cam Newton, athletic gifts unparalleled. Steve Smith, the baddest man in the NFL. My good buddy Mario, you guys do it tonight. Remember, to be the team, you've got to beat the team. And right now you are the team, and will be all night long."

Now fast-forward to Saturday night at the 49ers' hotel in Green Bay. Flair appeared wearing dark sunglasses and to the music of "2001: A Space Odyssey."

He told the players somebody from the organization contacted the WWE and asked that he show up to give a motivational speech. He said he "couldn't be more honored'' to be among them.

He cracked jokes about them coming to Charlotte this week before they beat Green Bay 23-20.

"That's my hometown,'' he chuckled. "Cam ain't going to like that, either."

He also referenced that the Panthers were "lucky" to beat the 49ers 10-9 earlier this season in San Francisco, and admitted "I didn't know the guys beat you this year."

Then he called the 49ers "Ric Flair's team."

"Ric Flair's heart is with the 49ers, all the way to the end,'' said Flair, who was born in Memphis, Tenn., and became a resident of Charlotte in 1974. "Sleep on that tonight, brothers.''

Then there was a "WOOOOOOO."

Then there was a strut.

So will the Panthers continue to pursue Flair to speak to the team? Will Florence scrap the video and come up with something else?

Or will Flair leave his beloved 49ers and return to the Panthers like he ended his feud with Steamboat to partner with him?

Sounds like a WWE script.

And you're surprised Flair has shown allegiance to two teams why?

Panthers have a 'Flair' for success

January, 3, 2014
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton may be on his way to becoming the most recognized celebrity/athlete in Charlotte, but the third-year Carolina Panthers quarterback isn't there yet.

To borrow a phrase from the person he has to surpass: "To be the man, you gotta beat the man."


Yes, Ric Flair.

[+] EnlargeRic Flair
Mark Dadswell/Getty ImagesCam Newton has a ways to go before he reaches the popularity level of Charlotte's favorite son, Ric Flair.
When you talk about institutions in the Queen City, the 16-time heavyweight wrestling champion, often described in these parts as the platinum blond deity, remains king.

So it seems only fitting that the Panthers (12-4) have adopted "The Nature Boy's" famous "WOOOOOOO" that he uses to taunt opponents.

Cornerback Drayton Florence actually came up with the idea one day in practice. He suggested that the defensive backs break with two claps and a "WOOOOOOO!"

Next thing you know the linebackers were doing it. Then the entire defense was doing it. Then the offense wanted to get involved.

Eventually, it led to whoever gets the game ball following a victory having to give two claps followed by the entire team going "WOOOOOO!"

Newton somewhere along the line began adding "and the Nature Boy" after a slight pause. Here's a sample from the website.

"It's exciting to hear," Newton said. "It's exciting to say it and exciting to do ... It's a tribute to what he does. It's kind of something of a rejoice when you say it."

And yes, Newton grew up a fan.

"Who didn't grow up watching WWF, WCW and having Ric Flair slap somebody's chest and go, 'WOOOOOOO?'" Newton said.

Flair has yet to give a pregame locker room pep talk, and it's doubtful he will be available for the Jan. 12 playoff game because of a prior engagement.

But Florence is doing his best to arrange something, if not for the 12th then the NFC championship if the second-seeded Panthers win and top-seeded Seattle loses to put the game in Charlotte.

"He's the man," Florence said of Flair. "We want the man to join us."

Flair did send a phone message via Mario Addison, who ran into him at a local Taco Mac, that the defensive end played for the team before the Monday night game against New England.

Legacy Talent and Entertainment, which represents Flair, put the message to music and pictures on the wrestler's Facebook page.

"Hey boys, it's The Nature Boy Ric Flair calling you live from Atlanta, Ga.," Flair said in the message. "Tonight's the night guys. The New England Patriots are in town. Who cares? It's Carolina Panther time guys. And remember, tonight is the night, and to be the team you've got to be the team.

"Cam Newton, athletic gifts unparalleled. Steve Smith, the baddest man in the NFL. My good buddy Mario, you guys do it tonight. Remember, to be the team, you've got to beat the team. And right now you are the team, and will be all night long. Let's do it guys. Let's have two claps and a Ric Flair WOOOOOOO! Go Panthers. WOOOOOOO!"

Flair, who once wrestled in a tag-team match with former Carolina linebacker Kevin Greene, told he is flattered the Panthers have adopted his battle cry.

"It's awesome!" he said. "I'm a champ brother, so I know a thing or two about celebrating victories! I'm humbled to have achieved that much respect by my hometown team. I really believe the Panthers have the weapons to go all the way."

Florence said he didn't realize Flair lived in Charlotte when he came up with the idea that he borrowed from his high school in Florida. He suggested the "WOOOOOOO" break after the Panthers re-signed him following the second game.

Carolina is 12-2 since.

Florence, safety Mike Mitchell and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn already have taped a video of them doing the "WOOOOOOO" to play for the crowd on the Jumbotron before the Panthers face Philadelphia, Green Bay or San Francisco a week from Sunday.

"If we get to do it three more times [after games], that means we're in the Super Bowl," Florence said.

It's all part of team bonding that has been key to this season. Carolina coach Ron Rivera gets a kick out of the chant.

"They really seem to get themselves fired up over that," he said. "It's kind of become their trademark. It's fun. It's good for them."

But Rivera hasn't quite gotten the courage to try it with them.

"No," he said. "I'm not quite sure I have enough rhythm to do that."

Said Florence, "We'll coach him up."

But what Florence really wants is Flair in person.

"We need him, man," he said. "He's a Charlotte great. Anything we can do to get us motivated and hyped up to play another team, man, we're all for it."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Melvin White didn't just stumble into the interception that propelled the Carolina Panthers to the NFC South title on Sunday, even though the rookie cornerback did stumble into the end zone.

It was the result of hours and hours of film study.

“We just knew from film study when they get inside the numbers, they like to run quick outs,'' said White, who returned the interception eight yards for the touchdown. "I read it, and just went with it.''

The play came midway through the second quarter with the Panthers (12-4) trailing 10-0. From quarterback Cam Newton to cornerback Drayton Florence, Carolina players agreed that was the play that swung momentum.

That it came from an undrafted rookie out of Louisiana-Lafayette made it all the more impressive.

But it shouldn't come as a surprise. Other than a rough outing in a Monday night game against the New England Patriots in which White's future as a starter came into question, White has played like a seasoned veteran.

"I had a rough game -- the pass interference and the hands-to-the-face penalties,” White said of the New England game. “Even though I had that type of game, [my teammates] were still behind me 100 percent.

"Nothing changed. Once I knew they had my back, that they didn’t treat me any different, and then I was sure I was home.”

Free safety Mike Mitchell said everything about White projects maturity beyond his years.

"Melvin and his maturity, his progression, everything about that guy is outstanding,'' he said. "He's a very humble, hard-working guy. A small school guy, and he just rises up to the occasion.

"We were getting beat. We needed momentum. We needed a play. A huge play for him.''

Had quarterback Matt Ryan opted to throw the pass to the inside of the receiver, the Panthers had that covered as well.

"If he had threw it inside I would have got it, because we were both jumping it,'' Mitchell said with a smile.

White gives much of the credit for his success to veterans such as Mitchell and Florence. In particular, he said Florence has taken him under his wings and taught him how to be a professional on and off the field.

"Six-foot, long arms, he's got all the right tools,'' Florence said. "My main thing was helping him in the film room, teaching him how to look for certain looks, how to dissect plays, how to dissect coaches to know what kind of offense they're going to run.

"He's been great. There aren't many rookies starting on a championship division team at corner.''

There is one area Florence said White could use more help.

The celebration.

After scoring, White ran toward the goal post and attempted to dunk the ball over the goal post. He got the height, but lost the ball on the way up.

"He really made the play to turn the whole game around,'' Florence said. "The celebration was a little weak.''

Panthers back in control of destiny

December, 15, 2013
Captain Munnerlyn AP Photo/Bob LeveronePanthers' Captain Munnerlyn celebrates his INT return for a TD in the second half Sunday.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who preaches never to look past what's in front of you, found himself looking at the scoreboard late in Sunday night's 30-20 victory over the New York Jets.

Not just once, either.

"Unfortunately, a few times too many," Rivera said with almost an embarrassed look. "To be honest with you, I did get distracted a couple of times."

What he saw was New Orleans (10-4) losing at St. Louis 27-16, making next Sunday's rematch against his Panthers (10-4) at Bank of America Stadium even bigger.

You can't blame him.

The Panthers now control their destiny in the NFC South. A win at home against a New Orleans team that embarrassed them 31-13 a week ago on prime-time television and a win the following week at Atlanta would give them the division championship and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

All the woe-is-me talk a week ago suddenly has turned into optimism.

"You can always judge a champion by how they respond," cornerback Drayton Florence said. "We got knocked on our butts last week. We came back and responded."

What this game proved: The Panthers are up to challenges -- on many levels.

Carolina answered the challenge of not letting a loss to New Orleans turn into another.

It answered the challenge that Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes issued earlier in the week, when he said the secondary was the weak link to the league's second-ranked defense.

Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, in particular, answered in a big way, sacking Jets quarterback Geno Smith twice -- he had only two sacks his entire career prior to that -- and returned a fourth-quarter interception 41 yards for a touchdown to make it 30-13 with 8:17 to play.

He then rubbed it in the Jets' faces, imitating an airplane crash in the end zone that earned him a 15-yard penalty and likely a sizable fine from the league later in the week.

It was worth it, though.

As Florence said, you have to have fun when you're in Carolina's position because these situations don't happen every day. And if that means Rivera letting down his guard and checking out the scoreboard, that's OK.

He has earned as much.

"It's that time of the year," Florence said.

Few gave the Panthers a chance to be in this position after a 1-3 start. Many probably doubted it after the loss to New Orleans in which the defense gave up four touchdown passes after surrendering no more than two scores in a game all season.

That's why Rivera wasn't all that upset about Munnerlyn's celebration.

"It was huge for our secondary," he said. "For them to play the way they did and play very physical, that is going to be one of the keywords there -- physical."

[+] EnlargePanthers
AP Photo/Mike McCarnPanthers RB DeAngelo Williams had 15 carries for 81 yards against the Jets' defense.
A week ago, the Panthers weren't physical with New Orleans defenders, allowing them to roam in the secondary almost as though they were uncovered.

But this wasn't a game decided by Munnerlyn or the secondary. This game in many ways was as much a team victory as any this season. Linebacker Jason Williams, a player you seldom hear mentioned, blocked the team's first punt of the season to set up Mike Tolbert's 1-yard touchdown run with Carolina nursing a 16-13 lead early in the fourth quarter.

Wide receiver Brandon LaFell threw a key block allowing running back DeAngelo Williams to complete a 72-yard touchdown catch with the score tied 6-6 late in the first half. Williams also added 81 yards rushing against the league's second best run defense.

Quarterback Cam Newton didn't have a spectacular day, but he had a passer rating of 118.9 that kept the offense moving.

It's the type of effort most would be pleased with next weekend against a New Orleans team struggling on the road.

"We don't have to do anything revolutionary," tight end Greg Olsen said.

This is a team that remains extremely hungry. That's why the Panthers allowed themselves moments to check out the scoreboard, why they laughed at the mention of Rivera doing it.

Munnerlyn set the tone.

"They challenge one of us, they challenge us all," he said. "That was the mantra going in."

The Panthers never really lost confidence with the loss at New Orleans, understanding the Saints have blown out a lot of teams at the Superdome.

But, Carolina still has a chip on its shoulders.

"A very big chip," said defensive end Greg Hardy, who had one of Carolina's four sacks. "Not as big as the one I normally have, but a big one. I don't like losing ... to anyone."

Indeed, the Panthers' only loss in their past 10 games is to the Saints. And with another win comfortably at hand against the Jets on Sunday, Rivera allowed himself to look at the big screen.

"We control our own destiny right now," Newton said. "We've just got to continue to do things that we've been doing up until this point."

How to cure a football hangover

December, 14, 2013
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If you've spent 24 hours in New Orleans, you've probably experienced that morning-after side effect that comes from downing one too many hurricanes.

It's called the hangover.

They're so prominent that they actually have remedies, from something called the hair-of-the-dog cocktail to a hot bowl of Yakamein soup, otherwise known as "Old Sober" concocted by somebody known simply as Ms. Linda.

[+] EnlargeMike Mitchell
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsMike Mitchell and the Panthers are eager to erase the memory of Sunday's 31-13 loss to the Saints.
Unfortunately for the Carolina Panthers, there is no food or beverage for the hangover the Saints left them with in a 31-13 drubbing Sunday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

So, it got me to thinking. What is the best cure for the football hangover? Here's what I got in an informal survey of Carolina players as they prepare to face the New York Jets (6-7) on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

"We had a rough night, for sure," safety Mike Mitchell said as he recalled the game. "It just takes the next game. Get the reps and get the last game out of your system."

Center Ryan Kalil took it one step further.

"Wins," he said. "Wins are the best cure. That's it. More football. That's the thing about it. You get another opportunity to right the wrongs from the week before. It's not always a terrible thing."

Cornerback Drayton Florence doesn't believe there are hangovers in football. At least not with good teams, and he believes the Panthers (9-4) are a good team.

"Be a professional," he said. "No matter if you win or lose, you're always on to the next opponent. I don't think it will be a problem for our team. You win or lose, you get over it in a 24-hour period. If you're still worried about last week, obviously, you're not going to be as prepared as you should be this week.

"One game doesn't make our season. One game doesn't spoil our season."

So, if you were mixing a concoction for Carolina's football hangover, it would be pretty much like this:

Time: Coach Ron Rivera gave his players Monday to dwell on the loss, then turned the focus to the Jets. He still was concerned after Wednesday's practice, sensing players were disappointed. He made sure everyone understood a second straight loss with the Arizona Cardinals (8-5) breathing down their necks in the wild-card chase would not be good for their playoff chances.

A win: Nothing cures the sick feeling that comes from losing like a win. The Panthers have a chance to do that against a team that -- before Sunday's 37-27 win over Oakland -- had lost three straight and four of five. The Jets also are 1-5 on the road.

Secret ingredient: A Carolina win and losses by Arizona and San Francisco, plus a Dallas loss or tie; or a Carolina win and losses by Arizona and San Francisco, plus a Philadelphia loss or tie. Hey, it could happen. Not likely, but it could. And if it does, the Panthers are in the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

That would cure any hangover.

The biggest task is to make sure there is no Hangover Part II.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- So the New Orleans Saints showed the rest of the NFL the blueprint for beating the Carolina Panthers' second-ranked defense. They exposed a unit that until Sunday night had not given up more than two touchdowns in a game this season.

The Panthers aren't buying it.

There's no reason to.

If the 31-13 victory that ended Carolina's eight-game winning streak was the blueprint, then Seattle's 34-7 victory against New Orleans six days earlier should have been the blueprint for beating the Saints. That certainly wasn't the case for the Panthers.

[+] EnlargeMarques Colston
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsNot every team has receivers like the Saints' Marques Colston who can exploit Carolina's secondary.
That probably won't be the case on Sunday when the New York Jets face Carolina, no matter how many secrets New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan shares with his brother Rex, the head coach of the Jets.

"We didn't do anything that Seattle did, or tried to do,'' Carolina safety Mike Mitchell said. "I don't think the league works like that. The league is about matchups and personnel. The Jets have a completely different personnel group, different players, so they can't do what the Saints do.

"Whatever their strengths are, they're going to try to do that to beat us. They're not going to try to run the Saints' offense, because they don't have the Saints' players.''


Last I looked, Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith ranked last in the NFL in passer rating at 62.4, having thrown nine touchdown passes and 20 interceptions. New Orleans' Drew Brees ranks sixth with a rating of 106.5, having thrown 33 touchdowns and only eight interceptions.

That says all you need to know.

Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes can call Carolina's secondary the weak link of the defense -- which it is because the front four and seven are so strong -- but that doesn't change that he has only 16 catches for 381 yards and one touchdown in 13 games.

He's not going to all of a sudden become Marques Colston and catch nine passes for 125 yards as the New Orleans receiver did on Sunday.

A blueprint only works if you've got the personnel to do the same things, and very few teams have the personnel New Orleans does. A blueprint only works if the Panthers play the same way they did against the Saints, and that isn't likely to happen.

"It was more us beating ourselves,'' Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said of Sunday' loss. "Not taking anything away from them at all, because they're a fine, fine football team. But really, it was us beating ourselves, fundamentally and technique wise.''

McDermott recalled the 2004 season at Philadelphia when he was the secondary/safeties coach. The Eagles won their first seven games, allowing more than 17 points in a game only once.

They were blown out 27-3 the next week at Pittsburgh.

Blueprint? Hardly. Philadelphia won its next six games, holding all but one opponent to 17 points or less. That team went on to the Super Bowl, where it lost to New England 24-21.

This isn't to suggest the Panthers (9-4) are going to end up in the Super Bowl. But it is a reminder that one loss doesn't provide the rest of the league with all the secrets to beating you.

"If they think that's the blueprint to beat us, then let them try to do that same thing again,'' linebacker Thomas Davis said. "Let a different team try to do that. It came down to us not executing like we needed to, like we had the previous weeks.

"When you have a good football team like the Saints and you don't execute against them, you're going to get beat.''

So what did the Carolina defense learn from the loss to New Orleans? Basically, that if you don't play fundamentally sound football anybody is beatable.

"Attacking the ball in the air, identifying receivers in different locations they're trying to get the ball to, just things we've been on top off all year and we just let slide,'' cornerback Drayton Florence said.

"We've only been beaten four times, so if there's a blueprint, obviously everybody is not buying into it. You know how it is in this league. Anybody can win any given Sunday.''

Now that is a proven blueprint.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton leaned into the microphone on Sunday after leading the Carolina Panthers to a franchise-record eighth straight victory and whispered, "War Eagle."

Then he did it again.

And again.

"War dang Eagle!" the Carolina quarterback said, in what one could only hope was his final moment of gloating about Auburn's dramatic victory against top-ranked Alabama before moving on to the Panthers' 27-6 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Panthers have a pretty big game for the NFC South lead coming up next Sunday night in New Orleans, but you couldn't tell it the way Newton kept referencing his alma mater's upset victory.

You really couldn't tell it by the demeanor of anybody in the locker room. This team is focused on more than the New Orleans Saints and a division title.

"We know it will be a challenge," cornerback Drayton Florence said of the prime-time game against the Saints (9-2), who have a half-game lead over Carolina (9-3) heading into their Monday night game at Seattle. "But they're just in our way to get to that bowl."

That would be the Super Bowl.

Yes, the Panthers are becoming serious contenders to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, which would have been hard to imagine when they were 1-3.

That they handily defeated the Buccaneers (3-9), winners of three straight, despite two interceptions from Newton shows just how focused they are.

And confident.

"There's no roof," defensive end Greg Hardy said. "[Just] the sky. We're going up. We're going up. Every person on this team, every person in this building, has the same mentality right now. I feel like it's contagious. They feel like they can't be beat."

There is a sense of invincibility building here, but it's not something anybody takes for granted. After going 2-14, 6-10 and 7-9 the past three seasons, there's more of an appreciation for what is taking place and what it has taken to make it happen.

[+] EnlargeByron Bell, Cam Newton and Nate Chandler.
AP Photo/Mike McCarnByron Bell, Cam Newton and Nate Chandler had fun Sunday, but don't get them wrong. Their goal for this season is serious business.
"All the work we put in, the blood and sweat and tears … trying to figure out how to win, was for this," said Hardy, who had a sack and two quarterback hurries against Tampa Bay. "We've had this talent for years. We just didn't have the 'want to.' Now it's there."

Sunday's win was an example of how deep the talent is. Sack leader Charles Johnson (knee) missed his second straight start, but the defense held the Bucs to two field goals and shut out its opponent in the second half for the third time in four games.

Leading rusher DeAngelo Williams sat out with a quadriceps injury, yet the Panthers rushed for 163 yards behind Newton, Mike Tolbert and Jonathan Stewart.

They won with the same formula that has gotten them this far. Newton dove for a 1-yard touchdown on fourth down and passed for two more scores. The defense shut down the Buccaneers' running game (66 yards) and then came down on quarterback Mike Glennon for five sacks.

"Efficient," coach Ron Rivera said of the effort.

Rivera expects to have both Johnson and Williams back for the Saints game, but even he's more interested in long term because he understands the potential this team has.

"It is very satisfying because of where we came from," the third-year coach said of the winning streak. "As I have said before, it's been a hard four years for a lot of guys in that locker room. It is very satisfying to be on a nice little roll, but again there is a lot of work to do."

That begins with preparation for the first of two games against New Orleans during a three-game stretch that likely will decide the division title and a first-round bye for the playoffs, based on the way things are going in the other divisions.

"Ready, man," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "It's a game all of y'all [media] have been waiting for. It's a game y'all have been getting us to talk about. Now it's here. The showdown. I'm excited for it. It's prime-time football again."

But Munnerlyn isn't any more excited to talk about the Saints than he was the Buccaneers a week ago.

"Not really," he said. "It's just the next game."

That's a theme that won't go away.

"It's great to be a part of," Newton said of the winning streak. "But we're not done yet. I don't think there is a sense of entitlement in the locker room with these guys. Everyone continues to know what we have to do in the upcoming weeks, starting off with this."

Newton leaned back into the microphone. You got it. He wasn't done gloating.

"Did I say War Eagle?" asked Newton, who led Auburn to the national championship in 2010. "War Eagle!"

One play aside, secondary passes test

December, 1, 2013
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cornerback Drayton Florence smiled when asked about the 60-yard completion to Vincent Jackson in the second quarter of the Carolina Panthers' 27-6 victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday.

He wasn't smiling because he was happy Jackson made him look silly on the deep pass, or because he was able to trip the three-time Pro Bowl receiver at the 4-yard line.

He wasn't smiling because quarterback Mike Glennon lost a fumble three plays later, even though he was happy the defense took him off the hook.

[+] EnlargeDrayton Florence and Chris Owusu
AP Photo/Mike McCarnDrayton Florence and the Panthers' secondary limited the Buccaneers' passing attack to 180 yards and no scores.
He was smiling because Jackson didn't catch another pass on him the rest of the game.

"You can't let one play worry you,'' Florence said. "You have to move on to the next play and make sure it doesn't happen again.''

A week ago, the Panthers didn't do that. Miami wide receiver Mike Wallace beat cornerback Captain Munnerlyn for completions of 53 and 57 yards. He had another where he was overthrown and he ended the game getting behind the secondary for what ultimately was an incompletion near the end zone.

Those plays were so scary that coach Ron Rivera opened the competition at both corners this past week, not naming his starters until Sunday.

Not even Munnerlyn, the senior member of the secondary, was guaranteed a spot outside the nickel position.

Florence was the benefactor, replacing rookie Melvin White at right corner in the base defense.

One play aside, Rivera was pleased.

"I thought our secondary did a nice job disguising,'' he said. "They did a nice job jamming and being physical when they had to. We did it again -- bite on the double move -- but it was a great effort by Drayton Florence to get him down.''

Still, he admitted, "There are some things that need to be cleaned up.''

The Panthers (9-3) can't afford such mistakes against New Orleans (9-2), which with quarterback Drew Brees and his stable full of talented receivers has the second-best passing attack in the NFL.

But Sunday's performance was a step in the right direction because the Panthers did a nice job of keeping plays in front of them as this defense requires.

Munnerlyn says the secondary passed whatever test Rivera and the coaching staff had for it. Florence agreed, saying competition makes everyone better.

Both like the way the defense is playing as a whole heading to New Orleans.

"The only way teams are going to beat us is if we beat ourselves,'' Florence said.

That almost happened at Miami, so Rivera adjusted. Other than the 60-yarder to Jackson, the adjustments worked.

That's why Florence was smiling.

"We responded like we've been responding all year,'' he said. "When teams get down in the red zone we come up with big plays, getting the turnover or holding them to three.

"It's big for our defense to keep playing like that. That's what's going to separate us once we get into the playoffs.''

Rapid Reaction: Carolina Panthers

December, 1, 2013

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 27-6 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

What it means: The Sunday night (Dec. 8) showdown with the New Orleans Saints for the NFC South lead is now a reality. The Panthers won a franchise-record eighth straight game, improving to 9-3. They moved within half a game of the Saints (9-2), who play at Seattle on Monday night. It will be the first of two games between Carolina and New Orleans during a three-week stretch that likely will decide the division and possibly a first-round playoff bye. That the Panthers were able to defeat Tampa, which had won three straight, with such a workmanlike performance shows their focus.

Stock watch: This seems like a weekly segment here, but it's hard to ignore what Cam Newton is doing. He dove for a touchdown on fourth-and-1 and passed for two more. His 56-yard scramble in the first half got the offense going early. He did make a horrible throw that was intercepted late in the third quarter with Carolina leading 24-6, but otherwise this was another solid performance.

Riverboat Ron: This seems like a weekly segment as well, mainly because coach Ron Rivera takes a chance on fourth-and-1 almost every game now. Newton rewarded his coach's confidence with a 1-yard touchdown dive with 25 seconds left in the half to make it 17-6 and pretty much end the suspense in this one. Carolina made one more fourth-and-1 late, improving to 8-for-10 on the season. It is 9-for-11 on fourth down overall.

Bowling ball: Running back Mike Tolbert, aka the "Bowling Ball," doesn't get enough credit for all he does as a leader, runner, blocker and receiver. But with leading rusher DeAngelo Williams (quad) out, perhaps a few took notice. He rushed nine times for 48 yards and caught three passes for 41 yards. His second effort was impossible to miss.

Secondary woes: The secondary was under the magnifying glass after Rivera opened the competition at both cornerback spots this week. New starter Drayton Florence allowed a 60-yard reception in the first half, but otherwise this group held its own.

What's next? The Panthers travel to New Orleans for an NFC South showdown against the New Orleans Saints. Carolina swept the two-game series last season.

Panthers could have two new corners

November, 29, 2013
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Despite a seven-game winning streak and an 8-3 record, the Carolina Panthers are auditioning for starters at both cornerback spots heading into Sunday's home game against Tampa Bay.

Not that anybody should be surprised after the way they were burned deep in a 20-16 victory at Miami.

Coach Ron Rivera said on Friday the only members of the secondary guaranteed a starting spot are safeties Quintin Mikell and Mike Mitchell.

That means Captain Munnerlyn, who is only guaranteed a role as the starting nickel back, is in danger of losing his left cornerback spot and Melvin White his right corner position.

Munnerlyn was beaten by Miami receiver Mike Wallace for a 53-yard touchdown pass and a 57-yarder that resulted in a field goal in the first half. He also was beaten deep later in the game, but Wallace was overthrown.

White struggled in the 24-20 victory against New England two weeks ago and was inconsistent against the Dolphins.

“Your job is to keep it [play] in front of you and you have to,'' Rivera said after the game. "And we’re going to address that and make sure that it gets corrected. We’re going to play the guy that will do the things we ask him to do and do them the right way.”

He obviously meant it.

While Rivera didn't name starters, he spoke well of veteran Drayton Florence, who rejoined the team in Week 3 after a rash of injuries in a 24-23 loss at Buffalo.

He also was complimentary of Josh Thomas, who started five of the first six games before being replaced after getting beaten deep in a win over St. Louis.

Rivera said the more players are pushed into opportunities the more they've taken advantage of them.

"Ever since Drayton Florence has gotten back he's made a difference,'' he said.

Reading between the lines, you could see Florence at one corner spot and Thomas at the other against the Bucs.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Left cornerback Josh Thomas missed Tuesday's practice with a flu bug, which he may or may not have caught from Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera.

But Thomas has bigger problems -- like keeping his starting job. Or getting it back.

The third-year player allowed a 63-yard completion that was called back because of a penalty and a 73-yarder that wasn't in Sunday's 30-15 victory over the St. Louis Rams.

The coaching staff adjusted, turning to rookie Melvin White and veteran Drayton Florence. Rivera indicated after Tuesday's practice that White might get the start in Thursday night's game at Tampa Bay.

It wouldn't be the first time a cornerback has been replaced this year after making a mistake. Josh Norman missed a call on the game-winning pass of a last-second 24-23 loss to Buffalo in Week 2. He's been on the inactive roster the last three games.

When Rivera was asked if he planned to make a change at corner earlier in the week, he simply said the players that gave the team the best chance to win would play.

As solid as Thomas has been against the run, he's been susceptible against the pass. White, a rookie out of Louisiana-Lafayette, had an interception and forced a fumble earlier this year against the New York Giants.

Rivera likes playmakers.

That White worked with the first unit while Thomas dealt with his bug gives him a leg up on the job.

"We struggled a bit last week," Rivera said. "We made a movejo in the middle of the game. We inserted Drayton; we inserted Melvin. We're looking at what group we're going to insert this week and we'll go with that."

Feeling bad for Bradford: Free safety Mike Mitchell reiterated to the Charlotte Observer on Tuesday that he wasn't trying to hurt St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford when he pushed him out of bounds in the fourth quarter.

He also didn't know Bradford had suffered a season-ending ACL injury when he stood on the sidelines celebrating the play.

Mitchell told the Observer that he asked Rivera to relay that message to Bradford through Rams coach Jeff Fisher.

"I want him to know man-to-man, I try to play this game with honor," Mitchell told the newspaper. "I do try to play it hard and physical. But I do try to play it with honor. I'm not out here trying to hurt anybody.

"I'm sitting in my house and I'm going through my Twitter and so many people were saying messed-up stuff. I hope people -- the people I care about especially -- I don't want them thinking that."