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Sunday, December 12, 2004
Updated: August 1, 5:53 PM ET
Things falling in place for Panthers

By Michael Smith
ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina has this neat little play it likes to run with three running backs where Jake Delhomme fakes a dive to the fullback, usually Brad Hoover, and flips to the tailback, lately Nick Goings, who takes it around the end. The Panthers ran it a few times Sunday against St. Louis with mixed results.

The last time they tried it was third-and-4 from the Rams' 35-yard line with three minutes, 38 seconds left. It didn't develop well. As soon as Goings gathered Delhomme's pitch, Rams right end Bryce Fisher was there, all set to drop Goings for a big loss, and at that moment the play looked a lot like the Panthers' season did five weeks ago. Over.

But Goings, carrying for the 28th time, fought through Fisher's tackle, broke outside, and picked up five yards and a first down. The run represents the kind of determined run the gritty Panthers have staged, turning turned what once looked like a lost season into five straight wins.

"He just kept moving," Delhomme later said of Goings. "That's the epitome of Nick. He doesn't ever give up. He doesn't ever stop."

This doesn't surprise me. You had some teams come out early and jump out the gates, look good early, and we looked a little sluggish early on. But now it's like we're coming together. I think we've got that feeling. The energy is back.
Julius Peppers

The same can be said about the Panthers, who, after the worst start ever to the following season by a Super Bowl participant, sit at 6-7 thanks to a 20-7 win over the Rams at Bank of America Stadium. As one of the NFC's two 6-7 squads, and now with the head-to-head tiebreaker over St. Louis, the playoffs are a real possibility for Carolina. The victory moved the Panthers into sixth place in the conference standings, and if they should win their remaining games (at Atlanta, at Tampa Bay, and home against New Orleans to end the season) and Seattle holds on to win the NFC West, they'll make the postseason as one of the two wild-card entries.

The postseason officially begins Jan. 8, but if the Panthers were to make it, for them it would merely be a continuation of the playoffs. Do-or-die time for them started a while ago. The second half of the regular season has been one big comeback for last year's "Cardiac Cats," who were on life support just last month.

"This is our playoffs right now," defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said. "We started four weeks ago. We either win or we go home. This is our playoffs now. If we get to the next one, that's a bonus."

The Panthers are one of the hottest teams in the league and, as one that knows all about defying the odds and winning on the road in the playoffs, they could pose a dangerous first-round threat for someone like Green Bay, Minnesota, or Seattle. If they get there they'll bring momentum, which is what the NFL playoffs are all about, anyway.

Carolina is all about playing a certain style of football. Defense and special teams setting up the offense. Running to set up the pass. Making big plays through the air here and there.

But the Panthers got away from their winning formula during their early-season struggles, when they were without so many of their key players from last season, including Stephen Davis, DeShaun Foster, Kris Jenkins, and Steve Smith. To compensate for the losses in the backfield they tried to put the offense on Delhomme and the passing game. On defense, they had Julius Peppers playing inside, where he is less effective, at the "5" technique (end) in the 3-4.

Look at it this way: The Temptations don't rap. They may replace group members, but they're still The Temptations, and they're still going to sing R&B. And they've stuck around. The Panthers figured out that they had to get back to being the Panthers if they were going to be around in the end.

They own a turnover margin of a plus-16 (22 takeaways) over the last five games. Goings tied Davis' team record with four straight 100-yard games. Delhomme has tossed 12 touchdowns to three picks in the last six.

"We call it 'Fox' ball,' " said Buckner, referring to the Panthers' steady head coach, John Fox. "At the beginning of the year we weren't doing that. And we weren't having success. The second half of the San Francisco game, for some reason it just clicked."

"Every year there's a determining point in the season," Hoover said. "I think our determining point was out in San Francisco when we came back in the second half (to win, 37-27). We always knew we could do it. It was just about coming together. The confidence level in this locker room has risen. We're playing good football right now and we have momentum. Every guy that we've put in there is playing at a high level, and that's the main thing."

Some familiar faces along with some emerging stars have led a resurgence that began with the Niners victory. Wideout Muhsin Muhammad is on a seven-week tear. Sunday he went over 1,000 yards for the season with 98 and a touchdown, his 11th, on six catches. Goings, Carolina's sixth tailback, hit triple digits for the fourth straight game with 108 yards and a touchdown on 31 tries. Peppers collected his 10th sack, his eighth in six games. And for once the Panthers got somebody back -- middle linebacker Dan Morgan returned from a three-game concussion-imposed absence to make two of Carolina's six interceptions of Rams quarterback Chris Chandler.

In contrast to Chandler's performance, Delhomme continues to make sound decisions. He's throwing it away when it's best to and making great throws when he needs to. He's adjusted his game to playing without Smith and Co.

The Panthers used to be able to just send their front four at the opposing quarterback. But without Jenkins, they're sending five rushers more often and using more zone blitzes. And with Morgan back, they aren't forced to bring in another defensive back in passing situations because of his speed.

Unlike earlier in the year, whatever the Panthers do these days seems to work. They just keep fighting, and runs go from being blown up in the backfield one moment to a first down the next. The players have grown to trust one another to do his job, even if some of them haven't worked here all year.

"People have to gel, people have to be comfortable with each other," defensive end Mike Rucker said. "And we're really starting to be comfortable now. We've had a lot of injuries, so that means we have new guys in there. They're starting to learn the system and believe in the system. We're just hitting on all cylinders."

"This doesn't surprise me," said Peppers, who said he predicted playoffs back when the team was 1-5. "You had some teams come out early and jump out the gates, look good early, and we looked a little sluggish early on. But now it's like we're coming together. I think we've got that feeling. The energy is back."

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.