NFC South: Thomas Davis

The odds that the Carolina Panthers can afford to keep defensive end Greg Hardy continue to improve.

The latest sign came when linebacker Thomas Davis restructured his contract for the fourth time in the last three years. The new deal will save Carolina $2.25 million under the salary cap.

According to the Charlotte Observer, the Panthers also restructured the deals of center Ryan Kalil and running back Jonathan Stewart.

That puts the Panthers more than $28 million under the projected cap, which ESPN.com reported last week could be as high as $132 million.

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Greg Hardy
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsWith the Panthers now $28 million under the projected cap, Greg Hardy looks more likely to stay in Carolina.
That's good news for a Carolina team with 21 unrestricted free agents, including Hardy.

Hardy's chances of returning increase with every increase in cap space. After leading the team in sacks with 15, he's set to become one of the most sought after free agents this year.

The Panthers also still have the option of using the franchise tag on him, which would eat up about $12 million in cap room. They have until March 3 to decide that.

Head coach Ron Rivera continues to be hopeful that general manager Dave Gettleman will find a way to keep Hardy. Asked at the NFL combine last week if he thought the team's sixth-round pick in 2010 would return, Rivera said, "I'd like to believe so."

"He's important," Rivera continued. "As I've talked to Dave about all the different things we're trying to do, one thing you always want to try to do is keep your strength strong. Our defensive line was very strong for us. So I'm very optimistic about what we can become as a football team."

While it may appear Gettleman is moving slow in negotiating deals to keep key players from last season's 12-4 team, in reality he is moving at a good pace to free up money while waiting on the official cap total.

He met with the agents of cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, safety Mike Mitchell and others at the combine in Indianapolis. Both are expected to draw strong interest from other teams if not re-signed before free agency begins on March 11.

When Gettleman was hired last February, the Panthers were more than $16 million over the cap. He cleared much of the now available space by restructuring deals such as the one to defensive end Charles Johnson, who converted much of his 2013 salary into a pro-rated bonus to clear up $4.26 million.

Don't be surprised if Johnson's 2014 deal is restructured, too. His $16.4 million cap number is the highest on the team.

And don't be surprised if that also helps make it possible for Hardy to return.

Carolina Panthers season wrap-up

January, 15, 2014
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Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 3
Preseason Power Ranking: 23

Biggest surprise: "Riverboat Ron." Not often does a coach admit he needs to change, but Ron Rivera did after a 24-23 loss to Buffalo dropped Carolina to 0-2. He admitted he should have gone for it on fourth-and-1 with 1:42 remaining and leading by three. He admitted he needed to show more confidence in his offense to make a yard and his defense to make stops. He went from one of the league's most conservative fourth-down coaches to one of the most aggressive, and added a nickname. He successfully went for it twice on the opening drive against Minnesota to start an eight-game winning streak. He went for it late on fourth-and-10 deep in his own territory to set up the winning touchdown against Miami. Carolina finished the regular season 10-of-13 on fourth-down attempts. Ironically, it was a failed attempt in the playoff game against San Francisco that led to the Panthers' 23-10 loss.

Biggest disappointment: The inability to win a home playoff game once again, which came in large part because of the team's late-season inability to convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns. The Panthers ran eight plays inside the San Francisco 10-yard line in Sunday's playoff loss, and came away with no touchdowns. Four times they had an opportunity to score from the 1 and failed. Had they converted even one, it would have been a one-score game at the end, leaving open the possibility for a comeback. I'm still wondering why 6-foot-5 quarterback Cam Newton didn't get the call on third down and less than 2 feet. You would think he could have jumped up and thrust the ball over the goal line.

Biggest need: If Newton is to have success as the team's franchise quarterback he needs to have more weapons. Outside of the aging-but-still-effective Steve Smith, and occasional moments from Ted Ginn Jr., he has none at this position. Brandon LaFell did little over the final three games to prove he should be re-signed as the team's No. 2 receiver. He could have been selected for the season's biggest disappointment. Don't be surprised to see the team address this position in free agency and the draft, which is heavy with receiver talent. It was obvious in the playoff loss against San Francisco that a major difference between Newton and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was talent at receiver.

Team MVP: This is a tough one. Part of me says Greg Hardy, whose team-leading 15 sacks and 38 quarterback pressures were key to what the team does on defense. Not to mention he played every position along the defensive front at some point. But I have to go with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. He led the league's second-ranked defense in tackles with 176. He is the brains and leader of this unit. His ability to cover some of the league's top tight ends as well as set the tone for stopping the run was invaluable. His 24 tackles in a 17-13 victory against New Orleans in Week 16 helped keep the Panthers close enough to pull off a win that helped them clinch the NFC South title.

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Sam MillsAP Photo/Rick HavnerDespite undergoing chemotherapy, Sam Mills didn't miss a beat for Carolina during the 2003 season.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- "When I found out I had cancer, there were two things I could do -- quit or keep pounding. I’m a fighter. I kept pounding. You’re fighters, too. Keep pounding!"

Those were the words Sam Mills said to the Carolina Panthers the night before a first-round home playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys following the 2003 regular season.

The former Carolina linebacker had been diagnosed with intestinal cancer hours before showing up to coach the linebackers for the 2003 preseason finale. Given only a couple of months to live, he didn't miss a game that season.

On the Thursday before the Super Bowl, after yet another round of chemotherapy, Mills flew to Houston to be with the team. At a news conference with linebacker Mark Fields, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease earlier in training camp, you could tell he was weak.

Sweating and holding onto the podium to support his 5-foot-9 frame, Mills said, "You have your good days and your bad days. I am just glad I am having days, you know?''

Mills passed away in 2005 at the age of 45, but his "Keep Pounding'' message lives on. The words are inscribed in the weight room at Bank of America Stadium, and in large letters by the team meeting rooms.

They are on the inside collar of every jersey.

[+] EnlargeBank of America Stadium
Sam Sharpe/USA TODAY SportsSam Mills' "keep pounding" slogan lives on in the tunnel to the Panthers' locker room at Bank of America Stadium.
And on Sunday, before the Panthers face the San Francisco 49ers in their first playoff game since 2008, two of Mills' children will beat the "Keep Pounding'' drum the team uses to pump up the crowd before home games.

It's fitting.

In many ways, the current Carolina (12-4) team is like the 1996 team that Mills led to a 12-4 regular season record and the NFC Championship. In many ways, this team is full of players like Mills -- tough, smart, strong-willed and willing to play every snap like it might be the last.

Most of the current players never met Mills, but they've heard enough stories about him through assistant coaches and team owner Jerry Richardson to understand what he represented.

Richardson doesn't hesitate to say Mills was his favorite Carolina player ever. To this day, Mills is the only player to have a statue outside the stadium in the team's Hall of Honor.

"Keep pounding, for some of the younger guys, they have been explained that it is words that mean something,'' said wide receiver Steve Smith, a 13-year veteran who knew Mills personally. "But for players that were around, it's life. It's adversity. Ultimately, Sam went through ultimate adversity and the last thing that was on his mind was himself.

"So for me, it's more than just words. For me, it's always meant a lot.''

Smith can remember the day Mills died better than most. That's because he got the call from the team chaplain to tell him of Mills' death at the same time he was trying to call to say his first child had been born.

"Sam was one of those guys ... he was special,'' said Smith, who will play in Sunday's game after battling back from a sprained left knee that sidelined him for the regular-season finale. "I'm not exaggerating or making it more than it is. He exuded everything you would want to be.''

Sam Mills III, an assistant defensive line coach for the Panthers, is another constant reminder of his dad. Last season, when the team was struggling at 1-4, he explained what "Keep Pounding'' was about to those that thought it was just an expression.

"How I explain it to them is no matter what we do, no matter what part of the game or life we're in, we don't give up,'' Mills III said. "We keep fighting and keep fighting, and see what happens at the end.''

The Panthers lost 19-14 to the Cowboys after Mills' son spoke, and eventually fell to 2-8. But they didn't give up and won five of their last six to set the stage for this season.

"It gave me chills when I heard that speech,'' cornerback Captain Munnerlyn recalled.

Munnerlyn (5-8) is a lot like Mills, undersized and an overachiever. But few who have come through the NFL overachieved like Mills.

He went to little-known Montclair State as a walk-on and became the team's all-time leading tackler with 501. After failing in tryouts with the Cleveland Browns and Toronto of the Canadian Football League, he took a job teaching photography at a high school in New Jersey.

He finally got back on the field with the USFL's Philadelphia Stars, where he earned the nickname "Field Mouse.'' When Stars coach Jim Mora was hired by the New Orleans Saints, he took the linebacker he today calls the "best player I ever coached'' with him.

Mills made the Pro Bowl four times with the Saints, then was lured to Carolina by former Saints assistant coach Dom Capers, who had been hired from Pittsburgh after the 1994 season to build the expansion team.

Mills quickly became the face of the team.

And in 1996, at the age of 37, he was selected to his fifth Pro Bowl.

This doesn't have anything to do with the matchups on Sunday. It doesn't have anything to do with how the Panthers will try to shut down 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick like they did in a 10-9 victory at Candlestick Park on Nov. 10.

It has nothing to do with how Carolina quarterback Cam Newton handles his first playoff game.

And yet it has everything to do with this game.

This Carolina team epitomizes Mills' spirit. Look at outside linebacker Thomas Davis. He had three season-ending ACL surgeries on his right knee. No NFL player had come back from that before.

Davis is having one of the best seasons of his career.

"It definitely means a lot to this team,'' Davis said of Mills' mantra. "We understand the history of this organization, what [Mills and Fields] meant to this team. It's something we're constantly reminded of.''

That Rivera and the organization chose to remind us once again on Sunday is fitting.

"It just kind of reminds me of that's the way he played the game,'' Mills III said. "He played it trying to be smart, hard-nosed and caring about his teammates. That's carried on throughout our organization.''
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree could be Jerry Rice, but as far as the Carolina Panthers are concerned he is No. 15. Tight end Vernon Davis could be Dwight Clark, but to the Panthers he's just No. 85.

Much has been said about how Crabtree and Davis will be the difference when the 49ers face the Panthers in Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game at Bank of America Stadium.

It's been pointed out that Crabtree didn't play when Carolina beat San Francisco 10-9 on Nov. 10, and Davis left with a concussion in the first half.

[+] Enlarge49ers
AP Photo/Ben MargotMichael Crabtree was absent and Vernon Davis missed most of the 49ers' first matchup of the season with Carolina.
But to Carolina, they're numbers -- just as New Orleans' big weapons (tight end Jimmy Graham, wide receiver Marques Colston and running back Darren Sproles) were when the Panthers beat the Saints 17-13 in Week 16.

Carolina's second-ranked defense doesn't see stars. It sees numbers. It sees patterns. It sees schemes and tendencies. It sees tackles and opportunities to force turnovers.

"Crabtree is a great wide receiver," said middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the team's leading tackler with 176. "Vernon Davis, he's great, too -- (A) we've got to know where they are, (B) as long as we're in the position coaches put us in, we're in a good spot.

"81 [Anquan Boldin], 15 and 85 are their guys. As long as you know where those guys are and what they like doing, then we just have to go out there and compete.''

That's one reason this defense has been so successful. The players understand the importance of staying in their lanes, playing containment and making tackles, no matter who is in the game.

"We always just look at those guys as numbers, man,'' cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "We don't look at a guy as him being Michael Crabtree, him being Vernon Davis.

"You can't get caught up in this is Michael Crabtree. I don't care if it was Jerry Rice in front of me, I just go out and play football.''

That's the philosophy Panthers coach Ron Rivera had as a player with the Chicago Bears and a defensive coordinator with the Bears and Chargers.

"When you play defensive football ... you play the groupings, you play the combinations in terms of route combinations and what they do. You try to understand that before what they do,'' Rivera said.

"When you start worrying about individual players ... well, you've got to understand, what are those players going to do?''

Rivera learned that from former Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.

"You attack what they do,'' he said. "They may have some good players, special players, but you've still got to stop what they do.''

The number the Panthers are most concerned with is 15.1, the number of points they have allowed per game this season to rank second in the NFL.

That was a big reason they won the first game. They held a San Francisco team that has at times struggled in the red zone to three field goals.

Whether Crabtree or Davis is in the lineup doesn't matter to the Panthers. In the first game, Davis was thrown a swing pass on second-and-5 from the Carolina 6. Safety Mike Mitchell hit Davis so hard that that he lost the ball for what initially appeared to be a fumble before it was ruled an incompletion.

Davis left with a concussion. Sorry, No. 85 left.

"That's the mindset we take,'' said linebacker Thomas Davis, who pounced on the ball, thinking it was a fumble. "We don't go out worrying about who's in the game and who's not. We play for each other. We play the game together.

"We've been doing that all season long. For us it's about competing. When we compete like we need to compete, we're hard to beat."

Another Defensive POW for Hardy resume

December, 31, 2013
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Greg Hardy is putting together quite an impressive resume for free agency.

Hardy
Hardy
The Carolina Panthers' defensive end was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week on Tuesday for his four-sack performance in Sunday's 21-20 victory at Atlanta.

It was the second time this season that the fourth-year player out of Ole Miss has won the award, and the fifth time for a Carolina player. Hardy also won it in Week 3 for his three-sack performance against the New York Giants.

Over the past two games, Hardy has seven sacks to raise his season total to a career-best 15 that tied the team record set by linebacker Kevin Greene in 1998.

In between, he was selected to his first Pro Bowl.

It comes at a good time for a player who will become a free agent after the season.

"He's been practicing that way the last few weeks," coach Ron Rivera said Monday of Hardy's recent hot streak. "You ask his teammates how well he's been practicing. It's almost scary because he's flying around like that on Fridays as well.

"So there's something that's kind of clicked in him right now, and he's done a heck of a job."

Hardy's award came a week after middle linebacker Luke Kuechly won it for the second time this season for collecting 24 tackles against New Orleans.

Outside linebacker Thomas Davis won it for his 10-tackle, two-sack game against Minnesota.
Ron RiveraMichael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty ImagesAfter a rocky start, things are looking up for Ron Rivera and the Carolina Panthers.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There was a time this season when Ron Rivera was on the proverbial hot seat. There was a time when the third-year Carolina Panthers coach was a prime candidate to be one of the day-after-the-season casualties like friends Rob Chudzinski and Leslie Frazier were on Monday.

There was a time when 83 percent of the local fans supported such a move, according to a Charlotte Observer poll taken in September.

Now Rivera is a prime candidate for coach of the year.

One easily could argue he should be the favorite after taking the Panthers from 1-3 to 12-4, the NFC South title and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

And oh, 92 percent in a Monday Observer poll support that.

Rivera has gone from the hot seat to so hot that he deserves a long-term extension.

But while many of us in the media were speculating on Rivera's future at 0-2 and 1-3, Rivera was working to improve. He believed the Panthers had the talent to be right where they are.

He never envisioned not being here to finish the job.

"No,'' Rivera said. "I always felt I would be right where I am.''

Having said that, Riviera admitted he's "very fortunate'' to be where he was on Monday, talking about potential playoff matchups against Philadelphia, Green Bay or San Francisco instead of cleaning out his desk as five other head coaches were.

He's here because he never stopped believing he was doing things the right way. He's here because he had players who believed in him.

"People started talking about Coach Rivera being on the hot seat,'' linebacker Thomas Davis told me following Sunday's 21-20 victory at Atlanta. "For that to happen, it falls back on the players. Once you start replacing coaches, you start replacing players as well.

"We started doing whatever we had to do so everybody would keep their jobs.''

All Rivera thought about was doing his job, which says all you need to know about the man.

"I talked to players when I first got the job and talked about where I believed we could be,'' he said. "I believed we could win it all. We could win the Super Bowl, and that's one of the visions.

"So for us to be where we are today is part of that. It is satisfying, but again we're not done. There's a lot of work still left to do.''

Rivera always believed the Panthers would be a playoff team by the third season. If it happened sooner, that would be a bonus. But taking over a team coming off a 2-14 season, he knew it would take time.

That's why nobody was more frustrated than Rivera with the 1-3 start following consecutive years of slow starts -- 1-6 in 2012, 1-5 in 2011.

"I didn't expect to be where we are right now,'' Rivera said after a 24-23 loss at Buffalo left Carolina 0-2. "I expected we would have opportunities to win both games and expected to win both of them, and it didn't work that way. That's what's disappointing. We had opportunities and we didn't do it.

"Based on what we've done, I'd like to believe we should win those. Going into Sunday, I expect to win.''

The Panthers won the next week, 38-0 against the New York Giants. After stubbing their toe at Arizona after the bye week, they went on an eight-game winning streak.

They enter the playoffs with 11 wins in their last 12 games. No team is hotter.

You'd never know it by Rivera, who has planned out a bye-week schedule to focus on improvements.

"In all honesty, satisfying but not satisfied,'' Rivera said of what the team accomplished on Sunday. "It is most certainly one of the goals that you do set for yourself and your team as you go forward, and as a team we accomplished that first one. But there's a lot more left to go.''

And because team owner Jerry Richardson didn't make a rash decision on Rivera at a time when it could have been justified, there are more seasons for Rivera at Carolina.

Gross' speech launched trek to title

December, 29, 2013
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Greg HardyKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesPro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy racked up four of the Panthers' nine sacks of Matt Ryan.
ATLANTA -- If you're in search of that key moment that turned the Carolina Panthers' season around, here you go:

The date was Oct. 13, 2013.

The place was the visitors locker room at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.

Left tackle Jordan Gross was frustrated. The Panthers were 1-3 and he felt they were better than that. So before the team took the field, he asked coach Ron Rivera if he could say a few words.

Gross began with an analogy from the 1986 film "Highlander," depicting the climax of an age-old battle between immortal warriors.

"A dad tells a kid how you become a man," Gross said Sunday after Carolina clinched the NFC South title and a first-round playoff bye with a 21-20 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. "He said you have a wolf on both shoulders. One's good, tells you to work hard, believe, trust, commit. The other one's bad, tells you to doubt, cheat, laziness, whatever.

"And the kid says, 'Well, which one wins?' And the dad said, 'Whichever one you feed.' So it was in the middle of some choice words and some yelling and other things. So that became part of our battle cry this season, was that we're a wolf pack and we feed the wolf."

The Panthers defeated the Vikings 35-10 that day. Then, they beat the St. Louis Rams 30-15 in a game filled with a few on-the-field scuffles in which Carolina players kept their poise but stood up for each other.

Next thing you know, they'd won eight straight.

Sunday's win was the 11th in 12 games, making Carolina the NFL's hottest team entering the playoffs, guaranteed a home game in two weeks.

From free safety Mike Mitchell to center Ryan Kalil, players pointed to Gross' speech as the turning point.

"Jordan really expressed how everybody was feeling, that the time is now and we've got to make a choice and stop waiting for somebody to make it for us," Kalil said. "It's on the players."

The win against Atlanta was a microcosm of that speech. In the final minutes, in a stadium where Carolina had a 4-14 overall record, the Panthers made the plays to secure the victory instead of giving up plays to give it away.

They did the little things that they seemingly couldn't during the first month of the season, which included two losses by a touchdown or less.

They did it in an unselfish manner. Defensive end Greg Hardy, who had four sacks to tie the team's single-season sack record (15) held by Kevin Greene, wasn't even aware of his total until somebody told him.

Dobbs I don't know what the odds were when we were 1-3 that we'd end up winning the division and getting a [first-round] bye. But we believe, and that's a powerful thing.

-- Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross
"I don't know what the odds were when we were 1-3 that we'd end up winning the division and getting a [first-round] bye," Gross said. "But we believe, and that's a powerful thing."

Having the league's second-ranked defense, a unit that sacked Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan nine times and hurried him another 14, doesn't hurt. Neither does having quarterback Cam Newton, who when his arm let him down was able to lift the offense with his legs to the tune of 72 rushing yards.

Having unsung heroes such as cornerback Melvin White, who returned an interception 7 yards for a touchdown with Atlanta leading 10-0 in the second quarter, also doesn't hurt.

"It was kind of indicative of the whole season," Rivera said. "We have had to come back. We have won four games or five games now with last-second scores and stuff like that. It just shows that we can handle those situations and circumstances."

Gross knew that when he gave his emotional speech. But until Sunday, nobody had pinpointed the speech as a key moment.

"At that point, everyone knew," Gross said "We were better than 1-3 and we let teams beat us rather than [losing] to them. Sometimes the right mood strikes you to say something that is believable, authentic.

"But that's not what turned the season around. What turned the season around was believing in ourselves."

That belief doesn't end with winning the division title. There was no wild locker room celebration. There was the same focus and workman-like attitude the Panthers have shown all season.

Even team owner Jerry Richardson told the players they have much more to accomplish.

"It means we won the NFC South championship, but we know we still have unfinished business," outside linebacker Thomas Davis said as he put the victory into perspective. "We can't get excited over this win.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
AP Photo/Dave MartinCam Newton and the Panthers will be back in action in two weeks.
"We believe bigger and better things could happen."

Perhaps the greatest symbol of this team's unity was wide receiver Steve Smith. He could have stayed in Charlotte, rehabbing the sprained knee that kept him from playing.

Instead, he stood on the sideline and offered advice and motivation wherever he could. When Newton threw a second-quarter interception because of yet another high throw, the oft-excitable Smith came to him and said, "Calm down."

Newton did. He went on to complete 15 of 27 pass attempts for 149 yards and two touchdowns. Couple that with his running and it was an efficient effort from a player who desperately wanted to beat the Falcons in his hometown for the first time.

"Our guys fought and did the things we needed to do," Rivera said. "This wasn't pretty, but it was well-earned."

This 12-4 season has been well-earned. It happened after a start that had Rivera's future in doubt and players such as Gross frustrated because they knew they were better.

"People wrote us off," Davis said. "People started talking about Coach Rivera being on the hot seat. For that to happen, it falls back on the players. Once you start replacing coaches, you start replacing players as well.

"We started doing whatever we had to do so everybody would keep their jobs."

It began in Minnesota. It began with a speech by a 10-year veteran who'd had enough of losing.

"It worked out well because we won the game, so it's memorable," Gross said. "If we had lost, nobody would have remembered anything."

Now they won't forget.

Key moments seldom are.

Pro Bowl selections: Carolina Panthers

December, 27, 2013
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers had five players selected to the Pro Bowl on Friday, the most since seven were named to the annual all-star game in 1996.

They easily could have two or three more on a team that is 11-4 heading into Sunday's regular-season finale at Atlanta.

Those selected were quarterback Cam Newton, fullback Mike Tolbert, center Ryan Kalil, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive end Greg Hardy.

Tolbert, Kuechly and Hardy are first-time selections.

“It’s an honor to be selected,” Kuechly said. “I’ve grown up watching the games at the end of the season and it’s awesome to have a chance to be a part of it. Our defense has played great this year and made this possible.”

Among those left off the team was outside linebacker Thomas Davis, who has a career-best 143 tackles and four sacks for the league's second-ranked defense.

Coach Ron Rivera was disappointed.

"He's played so well,'' Rivera said of Davis, the first player to come back from three ACL surgeries on the same knee. "He does so many good things. The hard part is he plays outside linebacker in a league where you have 3-4 linebackers that get double-digit sacks.

"People miss the true impact of an outside linebacker in a true 4-3 scheme. I'd love to see a guy like that get his due.''

Here's a look at the Panthers that were selected:

QB Cam Newton: Has a career-best passer rating of 89.2 on the season, 93.6 over the past 11 games in leading Carolina to a 10-1 record. Has thrown for 16 touchdowns during that span and rushed for five more. Has four game-winning, last-minute drives, against San Francisco, New England, Miami and New Orleans.

My take: Much deserved, particularly with the comebacks. Has elevated his game to a new level.

C Ryan Kalil: The anchor of the line for the league's 11th-ranked rush offense and the team's 2013 Ed Block Courage Award winner. This is his fourth career Pro Bowl.

My take: This too was a no-brainer. The only injustice is that left tackle Jordan Gross wasn't selected as well.

FB Mike Tolbert: A versatile player who can play fullback, running back and tight end. Third on the team in rushing with 332 yards. His five rushing touchdowns are second to Newton's six.

My take: One of the most complete all-around backs in the league. Hard to believe this is his first selection.

MLB Luke Kuechly: Leads the team in tackles with 167, two more than he had a year ago when he led the league and was selected the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Coming off a 24-tackle effort against the New Orleans Saints.

My take: This was a no-brainer. He should be a Pro Bowler for years to come.

DE Greg Hardy: Leads the team in sacks with 11 and quarterback pressures with 34. His ability to play every position along the line makes him invaluable.

My take: The man who calls himself The Kraken just saw his price tag in free agency go up. He wants to return to Carolina, and is willing to take less than other teams offer if it's within reason. This could change things. The Panthers might have been smart to re-sign him before the season when they had the chance.

Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.

Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis key Panthers

December, 22, 2013
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is in the market for a public relations manager, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton would be a good place to start.

Kuechly
"Defensively, with Luke Kuechly with 24 tackles, that's unheard of,'' Newton said of his teammate after Sunday's 17-13 victory against the New Orleans Saints.

It's definitely rarified air.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, taking into consideration the record of tackle data began in 1994, it ties the league record set by David Harris of the New York Jets on Nov. 4, 2004.

Throw in Kuechly's interception and it becomes more rarified. No player had recorded 20 tackles and an interception in a game since Derrick Brooks in 2001.

Not that anybody should be surprised Kuechly did this. He was known as a tackling machine when the Panthers (11-4) made him the ninth pick of the 2012 NFL draft out of Boston College, where he led the nation with 191 tackles in 2011.

In his rookie year at Carolina, he led the NFL with 164 tackles.

Heading into Sunday's game, he had a team-best 141 tackles for the league's No. 2 defense.

Tackling is what he does, and a big reason the Panthers are a win at Atlanta away from winning the NFC South.

Taking credit for it, he doesn't do. Kuechly credited his ability to become a personal wrecking machine against the Saints on his defensive line for taking up would-be blockers.

There's something to that. But Kuechly was making tackles before the front became so stout with the addition of rookie tackle Star Lolulelei.

What doesn't need to be overlooked here are the 14 tackles and interception recorded by outside linebacker Thomas Davis. What he did to stifle quarterback Drew Brees and company, especially on their patented screens, was invaluable.

Davis, by the way, came into the game already with a career-high 128 tackles.

"They are two quality football players,'' coach Ron Rivera said. "I'm very partial because I think they are one of the best one-two tandems of linebackers in the league.''

Unfortunately, Davis gets overlooked much of the time -- particularly when it comes to the Pro Bowl vote. He's not ranked in the top 10 at his position with voting ending on Thursday. Kuechly was ranked third earlier this week.

If you let Brees and the Saints vote, they might both be No. 1.

Or just let Newton handle PR. He mentioned the defense more than the offense during his post-game comments, and rightfully so since the defense kept this game close enough for him to win at the end with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon.

"With TD [Davis] defying all odds with his situation [three ACL knee surgeries], and those guys, I can't be more proud of those guys or of being a part of a team,'' he said. "With the sacks, the pressure, it was just great to be a part of today.''

Rapid Reaction: Carolina Panthers

December, 22, 2013
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 17-13 victory over the New Orleans Saints:

What it means: The Panthers (11-4) clinched their first playoff berth since 2008 and have a chance to win the NFC South and first-round bye with a victory at Atlanta next week. It happened on a day when the defense played spectacular and the offense made just enough plays to get by. It extended the team's home winning streak to seven straight and gave the Panthers their 10th win in their past 11 games overall. Their magical season continues.

Stock watch: Quarterback Cam Newton was having his absolute worst home game of the season. Then he completed three of four passes in the final minute, including a game-winning, 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds left. It was the third last-minute, winning drive of the season for the first pick of the 2011 draft. It made the rest of his miserable day forgotten.

Stock watch II: Usually this is for a player, but this goes to the league's second-ranked defense that played like it. On a day when it was forced to stay on the field way longer than normal, it kept the powerful Saints offense that had blistered it for four touchdown passes and 31 points two weeks ago out of the end zone until a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Jimmy Graham.

Davis for Pro Bowl: Outside linebacker Thomas Davis showed yet again why he should be voted into the Pro Bowl, constantly coming up with big plays. None was bigger than his interception of a Brees pass late in the first half that completely swung momentum in a half gone bad. Carolina scored on a 43-yard run by DeAngelo Williams on the next play to go into halftime up 7-6.

Bringing the heat: If the Panthers learned anything from the first meeting between these teams, it was that Brees was less effective under pressure. So they brought it early and often, sacking Brees five times in the first half and six for the game.

Third-down woes: Carolina had been successful on third-down conversions 45.7 percent of the time coming into the game. It went 0-for-9.

Smith outlook: The initial report on wide receiver Steve Smith was a sprained knee. Smith suffered the injury in the first quarter on a slant pattern. He wasn't hit on the play. He tried to return after a trip to the locker room but couldn't. His status moving forward will be key for an offense that counts on him for big plays.

What's next? The Panthers are at Atlanta for the regular-season finale against the Falcons. Carolina won the first meeting between these teams 34-10 on Nov. 3 at Bank of America Stadium.

Halftime report: Panthers 7, Saints 6

December, 22, 2013
12/22/13
2:43
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- From losing leading receiver Steve Smith to a knee injury to losing an onside kick, not much went right for the Carolina Panthers in the first half of Sunday's NFC South game against the New Orleans Saints.

Yet the Panthers lead 7-6.

Here are four key observations:

Importance of turnovers: The Panthers failed to force a turnover in the first meeting against New Orleans, a 31-13 loss. That ended a streak of 16 games with at least one. Outside linebacker Thomas Davis came up an interception with 1:54 left in the first half, and the stagnant Carolina offense answered with a 43-yard touchdown run by DeAngelo Williams to take the lead.

Gritty defense: Carolina's second-ranked defense lived up to its stingy reputation in the first half, holding the Saints to two field goals while being on the field for almost 20 minutes. A big key was pressure on quarterback Drew Brees, who was sacked five times.

Red zone blues: The Panthers blew an opportunity to score on their first possession when Cam Newton threw behind receiver Ted Ginn Jr., who tipped the ball that was intercepted by the Saints after Carolina had a first down at the New Orleans 11. It was a reminder of the first game when Carolina had to settle for two field goals inside the red zone in the first quarter for a 6-0 lead instead of taking control.

Smith injured: Carolina lost Smith with a left knee injury in the first quarter. The injury occurred on a freak play where Newton missed Smith in stride over the middle and nobody hit the receiver. Smith tried to return, but was taken back to the locker room where he was ruled out.

Davis best choice for Payton nominee

December, 17, 2013
12/17/13
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I wrote earlier today about how Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis was making a big impact off the field as well as on it.

The Panthers obviously felt that as well.

[+] EnlargeThomas Davis
AP Photo/Bob LeveronePanthers owner Jerry Richardson says linebacker Thomas Davis is a "leader who is unselfish with his time and energy to help those around him."
On Tuesday, the team nominated Davis as one of 32 players -- one from each team -- for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award. Players are selected for their community service as well as excellence on the field.

Davis exudes both.

As a player, the team captain already has a career-high four sacks and 128 tackles for the league's second-ranked defense. He was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance at Minnesota in Week 6 and the Defensive Player of the Month for November in helping Carolina to a 4-0 record.

He's not only a leader on the field, he's a leader in the locker room.

Off the field, Davis and his wife Kelly run the Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation that has promoted programs that enhanced the quality of life for more than 2,000 underprivileged children and their families.

Davis spent his off day on Tuesday giving toys to about 300 children who might normally not get a Christmas present. This past summer, he put a $60,000 playground in his hometown of Shellman, Ga., to help give kids a direction.

Davis also is actively involved with the team's community outreach efforts -- including the NFL Play60 programming -- and makes regular visits to the local children's hospital. He is a strong advocate for hunger relief efforts and a spokesperson for a heart health testing program for local student-athletes.

"I have had the pleasure of watching Thomas Davis grow into the confident mature, caring man he is today," Panthers owner Jerry Richardson said in the team release. "No one takes his position of influence more seriously than Thomas on the field or in the community.

"He is a leader who is unselfish with his time and energy to help those around him, whether that is the younger players on the team or the youth in the Carolinas. He is committed in to his profession, his family and his charity work. and that is why he has made our community a better place to live."

"Thomas Davis lives his life the way that Walter Payton did -- family and community first," said Carolina coach Ron Rivera, who was a teammate of Payton's with the Chicago Bears. "His commitment as a husband and father reflects Walter’s loving spirit.

"Thomas' strength to come back from three knee surgeries is indicative of Payton's toughness on the football field. I can think of no other Panthers player who is as deserving as Thomas."

Davis wasn't given serious consideration for the NFL's comeback player of the year last season after coming back from three ACL surgeries on the same knee in three years. He's spoken openly how that bothered him, even though he understands why Peyton Manning won the award.

Perhaps if he wins this award it will somehow make up for that. It will be announced at the Super Bowl, which is his ultimate goal for the 10-4 Panthers.
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.''

Exactly.

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.

Saints made Carolina D look average

December, 9, 2013
12/09/13
2:45
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NEW ORLEANS -- Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly perhaps put it best.

"They got us," Kuechly said after Sunday night's 31-13 loss to the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome. "They got us today."

The Saints did to Carolina's second-ranked defense what no other team has done this season, what coach Ron Rivera and his players didn't think possible before this prime time game.

They did what I didn't think possible.

They made the defense look average.

Worse than average.

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Luke Kuechly
AP Photo/Dave MartinRe-signing free-agent tight end Jimmy Graham this offseason is a must for the Saints.
The Saints scored three touchdowns in the second quarter against a unit that had given up only three touchdowns in the previous four games. Quarterback Drew Brees threw four touchdowns against a unit that hadn't allowed more than two touchdowns in any game all season.

New Orleans' 247 yards a halftime were about 42 yards shy of what the Panthers were giving up per game.

What's worse, after being stopped on their first series, the Saints made it look easy.

They got almost no pressure on Brees even though they sacked him twice. Receivers got off the line of scrimmage and were allowed to roam the middle of the field as though they were invisible.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brees was 22-of-26 against four or fewer pass-rushers, the highest completion percentage the Panthers have allowed in a game in the past six seasons.

The Saints were so effective that Carolina was forced to blitz more than normal, and that created more opportunities for receivers.

"It's frustrating," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "And to know we can go out and play better and not have that happen ... that's very disappointing."

It should be. Even more disappointing, the team that has been so good at making halftime adjustments never effectively did. The Panthers were lucky Marques Colston's knee hit the ground fractions of a second before he got the ball over the goal line for what would have been his third touchdown catch.

About the only bright spot was Carolina kept the Saints from scoring a touchdown on the next three plays.

"We didn't play very well," coach Ron Rivera said. "That was the bottom line."

The problems were across the board, from breakdowns in the secondary to giving Brees too much time to set and throw. He finished with a passer rating of 124.4 against a unit that was allowing an average of 77.4.

"Got to keep this fresh in our minds and use it against the Jets," safety Mike Mitchell said of Carolina's next opponent.

What he meant was correct the errors and take out the frustration players were feeling on the Jets just as the Saints took out their frustrations on the Panthers after a 34-7 loss to Seattle on Monday night.

"I hate losing," defensive end Greg Hardy said. "I'm going to be up tonight trying to figure out what I've got to do to get better."

The defense should lose sleep over this one. The Saints exposed an area that others certainly will attempt to.

As Davis said, "This one was on the defense."
Cam NewtonAP Photo/Bill HaberCam Newton and Carolina were upended in New Orleans, losing for the first time in nine weeks.

NEW ORLEANS -- The Carolina Panthers got a taste of what the New Orleans Saints got at Seattle six days ago.

Humility.

Embarrassment.

Frustration.

The Panthers' defense, the second-best in the league, was made to look like the second-worst by quarterback Drew Brees and an offense that scored more points (21) in the second quarter than Carolina had given up in any game during its eight-game winning streak. The Saints defense that gave up 429 yards against the Seahawks completely bottled up Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who had been mentioned in MVP conversations the past few weeks.

The best news for the Panthers in Sunday night's 31-13 shellacking was they played so poorly that the Superdome crowd attempting to break the Guinness world record for noise, set in Seattle six days ago, had little to get rowdy about after halftime and came up short.

At least the Panthers (9-4) didn't have plane troubles for their return flight and won't have to spend another night on the road, which is what happened to New Orleans after its 34-7 Monday night loss in Seattle.

"It stinks," Carolina tackle Jordan Gross said. "It's a good reminder [that] if you don't play well, you get your butt kicked."

It's also, Gross reminded, not the end of the world.

"The sky isn't falling," he said. "We just got used to winning eight weeks in a row. We wanted to win. We prepared well. We just didn't play well."

How Carolina responds next week against the New York Jets after its franchise-record winning streak was brought to a screeching halt will be key. Winning the NFC South is almost out of the question unless Carolina wins out and New Orleans (10-3) losses two of three -- including the rematch in Charlotte in two weeks.

The Panthers also aren't guaranteed a wild-card spot. They have a one-game lead over Arizona (8-5), which owns the tiebreaker against them based on a 22-6 victory before the winning streak began.

"I feel good we can learn from this and get a little revitalized," Gross said. "You win eight in a row and everything is peaches and cream. When you lose, you get reminded of all your little faults, so it might be good for us. We're right in the mix of the playoff picture. The worst thing we can do is mope and hang our heads and let one loss turn into two."

The Saints didn't let that happen, for sure. They took out all of their frustration from the embarrassment in Seattle. They dominated Carolina in just about every phase, particularly on offense.

Brees had four touchdown passes against a defense that had given up only three touchdowns -- period -- in the previous four games, a defense that was allowing a league-low 13.1 points per game.

The future Hall of Fame quarterback looked like he was shooting fish in a barrel against the Carolina secondary, completing 30 of 42 passes for 313 yards. His receivers got off the line so cleanly, they looked uncovered at times, particularly Marques Colston, who had nine catches for 125 yards and two touchdowns.

"We have to put this loss behind us right now. ... The Jets will not feel sorry for us," outside linebacker Thomas Davis said.

The Panthers weren't feeling sorry for themselves, either. While there were long faces after a game for the first time in more than two months, there wasn't a sense of panic.

"We will get over this one very quickly because we still have a lot of football left to play and a lot still left on the line," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said defiantly.

Rivera also was disappointed. He expected a better performance and never dreamed even the Saints would put up 31 points against his defense.

"We're a better football team than we showed," he said.

The Panthers showed little on this night. After settling for field goals on their first two drives for a 6-0 lead when they could have made a statement with touchdowns, they did little right. Whether it was a lack of execution, as players and coaches blamed, or simply superior execution by the Saints can be debated. But there is no debating that this was a good old-fashioned whipping.

And because of it, the Panthers are again under the pressure of having to win.

"We've kind of been in that position since we started in that 1-3 hole," Gross said. "We've been in must-win [mode] to get in the playoff picture. Nothing has changed as far as that goes.

"We might have a better sense of urgency now than had we won. I'd rather get our butt kicked this week than four weeks from now. It's frustrating. Now the ball is out of our courts as far as the division goes, but we've got a good team. Still no need to panic."

That was the message throughout the locker room. Newton called it a "great measuring stick for who we are and where we have to go."

And the Panthers will get to measure themselves again against New Orleans in two weeks.

"I felt those guys were better than us today," Newton said. "Are they better than us? No."

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