Tis the season to be a Panthers fan
On the Sidelines

By Jeremy Trantham
Times-News Staff Writer

Published: Monday, December 15, 2008 at 4:30 a.m.

CHARLOTTE — You didn’t have to look hard before kickoff Sunday at Bank of America Stadium. The evidence was everywhere.

Marines were collecting toys as fans, some wearing teal and white Santa hats, filed past. Inside, they were treated to Carolina’s cheerleaders, the TopCats, all dressed as Mrs. Claus at her most audacious.

Tis the season, indeed, to be a Carolina Panthers fan.

With Sunday’s 30-10 victory over the Denver Broncos, Carolina completed its home slate at 8-0. It’s a far cry from the last two seasons, when the Panthers went a combined 6-10.

“We’ve got a unique bunch,” said Carolina coach John Fox. “It’s something they put on their list of goals.”

The announcement that Atlanta had outlasted Tampa Bay in overtime heightened the festive mood. The outcome meant that no matter what happened against the Broncos, Carolina would remain atop the NFC South standings. A Panther win would put them two games ahead of the field with just two games remaining.

By the crowd’s reaction to the 13-10 final score, you’d have thought the Falcons wrapped roughly 73,690 gifts and shipped them up I-85. Like the Falcons, the Broncos were in a giving mood too, handing the Panthers a field goal after Selvin Young fumbled in Denver territory with seven seconds remaining in the first half.

Kicker John Kasay’s 39-yarder put the Panthers up 20-10 at halftime, despite the team rushing for just 24 yards on 12 carries.

“You take what they give you,” said Fox, who watched Steve Smith catch nine passes for 165 yards. “They were stacking the box pretty good and were susceptible to the big play. We’ve had teams earlier in the season play us with similar-type stuff and we didn’t connect.”

“There was a lot of man-to-man coverage,” said receiver Muhsin Muhammad. “A lof of single safety. A lot of opportunities in the pass game. When we needed to run the ball at the end of the game, the offensive line stepped up.”

After DeAngelo Williams cut back for a brilliant 56-yard touchdown early in the third quarter, the Panthers were firmly in control. Of the game. Of the NFC South, and, of their own playoff destiny.

If Carolina wins out, at the New York Giants and at New Orleans, it will hold the No. 1 seed in the NFC — home cooking, where the Panthers are unbeaten this season, throughout the playoffs. Of course, the Panthers could also still slide out of the division lead, but with their postseason spot all but assured with Sunday’s victory (a Cowboys’ loss on Sunday night would put Carolina in at least as a wild card), they can now focus on improvement.

“(Rookie free safety) Charles Godfrey played like a veteran today,” said Julius Peppers. “The young guys are coming around and having an impact on the game.”

Apart from the blowout win, perhaps the best gift the Panthers delivered Sunday was the assurance that everything would be OK in the defensive backfield. Entering Sunday’s game perhaps the lone glaring weakness was the secondary. Denver, which entered the game averaging 280.5 passing yards per game (third in the NFL), managed 172 passing yards. The Broncos gained 109 total yards from scrimmage in the second half and quarterback Jay Cutler was sacked three times. At halftime Cutler had gone 15 straight quarters without being sacked.

This all came after the Broncos marched right down the field for a touchdown to start the game.

“I thought our defense came on on and did a good job against a very, very potent offense,” Fox said.

But, the football gods giveth and they taketh away.

Starting defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu (ankle) and starting right guard Keydrick Vincent (groin), left the game and did not return.

Beloved Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who attended the game, is awaiting a heart transplant.

“We didn’t know that he was going to be here,” said tackle Jordan Gross. “The crowd really erupted when they showed him. I think he’s doing well. We’re trying to do everything on our end to brighten his spirit.”

“Obviously getting the news that he wasn’t feeling well is in the back of our minds,” Peppers said. “Somebody asked if there was anything we could do for him and he said, ‘You’re already doing it.’”

But enough bah humbug. The Panthers are 8-0 at home this season, and looking at handing their fans at least one more home game.

Funny thing about giving is that, like winning, once you start it’s hard to stop.