The Carolina Panthers, for a day at least, looked like the Carolina Panthers of old.
DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined to chew up 245 yards on the ground and the Panthers rushed for a total of 270 yards, good for second-best in franchise history.
The Panthers' defense was everywhere on Sunday, proving to be equally as involved in the impressive 34-21 win as the offense.
There are some wildly ironic numbers that can be found on the stat sheet from Sunday's game. Kurt Warner, Jake Delhomme's close friend and mentor from their NFL Europe days, turned in a performance that was nearly identical to Delhomme's in last year's playoff loss to the Cardinals. Warner completed 27 of 46 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns.
It starts to get weird when you look at what led to the outcome of the game. Warner committed six turnovers overall—five interceptions and a lost fumble. Delhomme also posted five interceptions and a lost fumble in the playoff loss. What makes it more ironic is that Warner contacted Delhomme earlier in the week to offer his support and to urge his friend to keep his head up despite all of the negative press and the possibility of him losing his starting job.
On Sunday, Delhomme redefined the phrase "game manager," with his ultra-conservative yet ultra-effective approach. Delhomme completed 7-of-14 passes for 90 yards and a 50-yard touchdown to Steve Smith, his first touchdown pass to a wide receiver this year.
Although he only completed half of his passes, Delhomme's throws looked much more accurate at most times than they have in the last several games. He didn't force the ball and he didn't make bad decisions when pressured. The touchdown to Smith was a classic Jake-to-Smitty connection, with Smith completely toasting Dominique Rogers-Cromartie on a stop-and-go route that was accompanied by a timely Delhomme pump fake. All in all, Delhomme did what he does best—turn around and hand the ball off to Double Trouble while making enough throws to keep the defense at least somewhat honest.
Delhomme would leave the game with a chest injury in the third quarter after taking a hard hit from the Cardinals' Darnell Dockett. He returned for one series after the initial injury, but upon returning to the sideline Delhomme said that he was feeling "chilled," raising the concerns of the Panthers' training staff. He was taken to a local hospital for a chest x-ray which showed only a contusion. He said after the game it was "nothing serious." Matt Moore, who Panthers fans have been calling for to start, finished 0-for-1 but wasn't really needed.
Speaking of Double Trouble, the Panthers' dynamic duo destroyed the Cardinals' league-best rush defense on Sunday. Williams carried the ball 23 times for 158 yards, including a 77-yard scamper that would set up Stewart's second touchdown of the day, which put the Panthers up for good at 14-7 on the first play of the second quarter. Stewart finished the day with 87 yards on 17 carries.
The Cardinals set out to force Delhomme to throw the ball, but were unsuccessful to say the least. Williams and Stewart methodically pounded the ball through the Cardinals' defense, running inside and outside all afternoon. Cardinals' nose tackle Bryan Robinson put it best when he said "We knew what they were going to do and we couldn't stop it."
Carolina set the tone for the game after receiving the opening kickoff. The Panthers set out on a 15-play, 74 yard drive that used up 7:32 of game clock, running nine times and throwing six. The drive was reminiscent of last year's playoff game, where the Panthers marched down the field and scored to open the game before falling apart at the seams, only the outcome was much different.
The Panthers' defense also appeared to be clicking on all cylinders, with the league's number one pass defense hawking the ball all day long and proving that their ranking wasn't simply due to a string of below-average quarterbacks on the schedule. The five interceptions more than doubled their season total of three, with three of the day's picks coming from unusual suspects.
Rookie Sherrod Martin, a second-round pick out of Troy, made his first career start for the injured Charles Godfrey at free safety and notched two picks. Martin was impressive all day long, knocking down two passes and recording four tackles to go along with the interceptions. Thomas Davis and Richard Marshall took credit for one interception each.
Julius Peppers continued his outstanding play of late, dabbling in nearly every stat category. Peppers finished with two tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and and interception return for a touchdown. The touchdown came on the Cardinals' first play from scrimmage following the Smith touchdown reception and extended the Panthers' lead to 28-7.
The Cardinals would make the game interesting, coming within 10 points, but two fourth quarter John Kasay field goals would keep Arizona from having any real shot at a comeback.
Let's take a look at how the Panthers' fared in what was by far their most impressive outing of the season.
/\ Play calling—The Panthers used their tried and true formula for success, running the ball twice as much as they threw it while playing outstanding defense. A week after throwing 44 passes against the league's worst rush defense, the Panthers' coaching staff woke up and stuck with what works, a sign that maybe all is not lost after all.
/\ Jake Delhomme—Jake has been through a lot of negative situations so far this year, so a performance like Sunday's was a welcome sight for Panthers players, fans, and coaches alike. Delhomme wasn't outstanding, but he was efficient and mistake-free, which is all they need from him when the running game is working like it was in Arizona. The biggest improvement in my eyes was his patience and diligence in finding the open receiver as opposed to forcing the ball to Smith or trying to thread the needle to someone who isn't open. Delhomme has always been sort of a streaky player, and perhaps exercising the demons from his gut-wrenching playoff performance will get his confidence headed back in the right direction.
/\ Julius Peppers—Since the Panthers' bye week, Pep has been on an absolute tear. In four games since the off-week, Pep has six sacks. His performance on Sunday will, for the most part, stay out of the stat sheet. On nearly every play, Peppers was blowing up his opposing blocker and finding a way to at least make Warner think about him before making a play. His interception return for touchdown was the second of his career, and helped the Panthers put the Cardinals away early. Peppers is merely a shell of his old self these days, having stepped up and given a speech to his teammates about effort and intensity before the Tampa Bay game. It's too early to get into this conversation now, but you have to wonder, if Peppers continues to experience success like he has in recent weeks and enjoys himself while he's doing it, whether he will end up signing that elusive long-term deal with Carolina.
/\ Double Trouble—D-Will and J-Stew steamrolled the Cardinals and their top-ranked rush defense for 245 yards between the two of them, putting on a performance that brought back memories of last year's late-season win against Tampa Bay on Monday Night Football that flushed the Bucs' season down the drain. The Panthers are built to be a running team and these guys are two good reasons why. If the Panthers can use their game plan from this game as a launching pad for the rest of the season, the gauntlet that is the Panthers' remaining schedule will become much more manageable.
/\ Sherrod Martin—How's that for a rookie debut? In his first start as a Panther, Martin snatched two interceptions, deflected two passes, and made four solo tackles. While it is only one game, he could challenge Charles Godfrey for his starting spot when he is healthy. Godfrey has been decent, but not overwhelming since taking over for Panthers legend Mike Minter at free safety at the start of last season. Martin's nose for the ball in college impressed the Panthers, who figured a guy like that might boost their turnover production on defense. They are batting a thousand so far.
/\ Captain Munnerlyn—Speaking of rookies, Munnerlyn recorded seven solo tackles from his nickel back spot on Sunday, second on the team behind Jon Beason's eight.
/\ Dwayne Jarrett—For one play, we saw a glimpse of how valuable Jarrett could be if he could grasp the pace and complexities of the NFL. On the Panthers' second third-down attempt of their first drive, Delhomme found Jarrett on a post pattern for a 17-yard gain and a first down. The catch wasn't an easy one, but Jarrett used his monstrous hands to reel the ball in while falling to the ground. He would wind up catching both balls thrown his way on the day for 22 yards. Nothing to write home about unless...you're Dwayne Jarrett.
\/ Jeff Otah—Otah was responsible for two false start penalties Sunday. On a day where not too much went wrong, that'll send you to the south side of The Elevator.
\/ Chris Gamble—Gamble was the one who was touted all week to be covering the Cardinals' explosive Larry Fitzgerald, even saying himself that he wanted to take on the challenge. Fitzgerald finished the day with six catches for 66 yards. Gamble finished the day with no tackles, one pass deflection, and a pass interference penalty. Credit him with knocking the ball loose from Jerheme Urban on Martin's second interception, but you still have to pose the question: Is it too late to re-think his ridiculous extension?
\/ Return game—Something is not going right when you can't average 20 yards on a kick return. Something is going seriously wrong when you aren't averaging 20 yards per kick return, yet the returner nearly runs over his lead blocker trying to get out of the endzone from four yards deep when the blocker is telling him to stay in there (cough, Mike Goodson, cough). It didn't burn them on Sunday, but the Panthers have to start producing on special teams, especially the return game, to ease the workload on the offense as the season grinds on.
The Panthers won't have any time to celebrate Sunday's performance, as they will head to New Orleans for a big NFC South matchup next weekend. The Saints play the Falcons on Monday Night Football this week, meaning one of those teams will be one heavier in the loss column which only helps the Panthers. Carolina and their number one ranked pass defense will have another big test against Drew Brees and company.
The bottom line for the Panthers is that their win Sunday is just one of many they will need to record before the season comes to a close if they want to find themselves in the playoff picture.