Cats keep recording dramatic wins

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Keep putting him through white-knuckle finishes like the one that earned his team a 27-24 victory on Sunday afternoon, Carolina Panthers coach John Fox allowed a few minutes after the latest gut-wrenching success, and his already gray mane likely will be white by the end of this season.

Then again, if the youthful but rapidly maturing Panthers keep growing up, Fox might not mind if he quits growing hair altogether.

A "chrome dome" as tradeoff for a trip to the NFL's only retractable dome, for the Super Bowl at Reliant Stadium in Houston, huh? Yeah, the Panthers' second-year coach would make that deal anytime, although one has to wonder after Sunday's outcome if he and a few of the Carolina veterans might already have struck a deal with the devil.

"Something is definitely going our way," said strong safety Mike Minter, whose 29-yard interception return for a touchdown got the Panthers out of the box quickly here Sunday. "If it's luck, well, let's hope we stay lucky. But we think we're pretty good. And this win was another (validation) of that."

Sure enough, after a franchise wins in as many diverse ways as the Panthers have created in 2003, it might be time to stop ascribing their success merely to good fortune. Now 7-2, the Panthers essentially own the NFC South, and it would take a complete collapse for the club to squander away its monstrous division advantage.

But the Panthers are starting to conjure up visions of even loftier goals now and Sunday's victory against Tampa Bay, the second win this season over the reigning but fading Super Bowl champions, nudged Carolina up the maturity ladder another rung.

The Panthers played the game minus tailback Stephen Davis, the centerpiece of offensive coordinator Dan Henning's rudimentary attack, and a player who had blasted through the Bucs' interior in the earlier meeting. Middle linebacker Dan Morgan was getting through a second straight concussion. They were also attempting to rebound from an upset loss at Houston last week, a stretch in which they had lost two of their last three outings, and a general funk in which it appeared the season's nova team was about to plummet to earth.

Most significant, though, they were facing a Tampa Bay franchise fighting for its playoff life, hell-bent on imposing its will on a younger Panthers club, and convinced that they could intimidate the younger Carolina players. Instead, the bullies were confronted eye-to-eye, and it was the Bucs who finally blinked in the end.

But not before a matchup that, had it been a heavyweight title bout, would definitely have been promoted by Don King.

Indeed, the verbal jousting that marked the week of preparation escalated into a contest on which it seemed every snap was accompanied by extracurricular contact. It was not necessarily a game punctuated by penalties -- although much-maligned Bucs offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker drew four flags, all for major penalties, with only one of them declined -- but referee Tom White's officiating crew had to break plenty of clinches.

It was, agreed Panthers defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, smash-taking of the highest order.

"They put on their red (jerseys) and I put on my blue," Jenkins said. "Yeah, it was kind of likes the Bloods and the Crips, I guess. And the good gang won."

And won in a style that, while frenetic and somewhat harrowing, will help the callow Panthers as they continue to speed through their apprenticeship. That was especially true of quarterback Jake Delhomme who, given Davis' absence, was asked to make more than his typical quota of plays.

The Carolina offense, as designed by veteran assistant Dan Henning, is about as low-risk as anyone can imagine at the NFL level. For the most part, Delhomme throws the ball short, as evidenced by the fact a dozen of his 20 completions Sunday came on "hitch" or "swing" passes, and attempts to just manage the game without losing it. But the Panthers went deep a few times Sunday, caught the Bucs playing "Cover 2" on key occasions, and came up with some big plays.

One of those plays, a 66-yard touchdown pass to slot receiver Ricky Proehl, came when Tampa Bay strong safety John Lynch overplayed an "under" hook route by wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad. When the wily Proehl saw Lynch move forward and corner Ronde Barber flatfooted, he turned a route designed just to clear a void for Muhammad deep up the field. On the game-winning drive, he beat Barber on a "seam" route.

That winning series came after a stunned Panthers team had surrendered 17 consecutive points to fall behind 24-20, and after Delhomme had tossed a killer interception on a pass he was attempting to throw away, out of bounds. Delhomme hooked up with tight end Kris Mangum for 10 yards, then found Karl Hankton for 12 yards, before nicely looping a 29-yarder to Proehl up the right seam.

He then lobbed a pass to Muhammad, the ball seemingly floating in the air forever like a mini-Hindenburg, for 22 yards. On first-and-goal from the five-yard line, he rifled a slant to the left to Steve Smith, who had gotten inside Corey Ivy.

"Those are the kinds of drives," Proehl said, "that push the curve for a quarterback. You get a win like that, coming from behind, and people start believing in you. And, the other thing is, you start believing in yourself."

A career backup in New Orleans, before signing with the Panthers as an unrestricted free agent this summer, Delhomme remains a work in progress. There are times, appropriately enough, when he will have Fox and Henning pulling their hair out. But if he can win his share of follicle-raising finishes, as he has in a season that also includes three overtime victories, it will be worth all the accompanying angst he produces.

"I guess it would be nice," Delhomme joked, "to win one in a runaway. But we keep taking them down to the wire. I know it gets nerve-rattling but we certainly are giving people their money's worth. And maybe giving them a few heart attacks, too, huh?"

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.