On Monday night, I had the opportunity to attend the Carolina Panthers’ game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a battle for first place in the NFC-South. Instead of writing my usual recap of the game as I would in a regular week, I have decided to write a recap of the entire evening from my point of view in the stands. Hope you enjoy it!
Monday could not come soon enough. As I sat at the bar on Sunday and watched a full slate of exciting NFL games, I couldn’t help but think about Monday night and how excited I was to attend my first Monday Night Football game.
The rest of the NFC helped the Panthers in every way they could, opening up the stage for the Panthers to be able to come in and make a statement while dropping their name in the drawing for home-field advantage.
Monday morning came and, in line with the blackout theme that was to be in effect at Bank of America Stadium that night, I suited up in my black dress shirt, black pants, and Panther blue tie.
I got into work a few minutes early and found it easier than I thought it would be to concentrate. I got through all the necessities and got the go-ahead from the boss man to hit the road early. I left the office about 3:00—five-and-a-half hours before kickoff.
I got home and met up with the guys who were going to the game with me. We enjoyed some heated sports discussions, a preview of the festivities of the night, and a few spirits before heading uptown to join the thousands of other folks just as excited as us for the night to get underway.
Battling both rush hour and game traffic, we weaved and screeched our way in and out of cars and turned into one of the first parking lots we saw to keep us from having to wait in any more traffic. We parked and proceeded to polish off a few more brews before heading towards the pregame festivities.
Walking up Morehead St. in Charlotte, we relentlessly heckled any and every Tampa Bay fan we saw; young and old, big and small. We reminded them of the temperature (mid-30’s at kickoff) and how their team usually plays in the cold.
We reminded several that Mike Alstott was retired (due to their jersey choice). This earned us several dirty looks and a few obscene gestures, but for the most part the Bucs fans were too cold to argue our points.
We stopped by the local sports radio station’s home away from home, the WFNZ Dog House, to catch a few minutes of local sports personality Billy “Packman” Packer’s show before heading to the stadium.
If it weren’t for the cold weather, we’d have mingled with the tailgating public a little bit more, but our hunger and thirst for another round of beers led us to the gates.
Once inside, we took a traditional first peek at the field from the nearest tunnel, sending shivers down my spine. The only other time I had seen Bank of America Stadium dressed for a night game was for a preseason game against Buffalo in 2006.
Obviously, the preseason isn’t quite as spectacular as Monday Night Football. Seeing the desk set up for the panel of Steve Young, Emmitt Smith and company and seeing the ESPN cameras everywhere was great. There were a good number of people in their seats before 7:00 and the stadium was electric.
We wandered around the lower concourse for a while, talking to a couple of friends we ran into along the way and taunting more Bucs fans. We ran into Michelle Beisner from the NFL Network, who was filming Panthers’ fans best impressions of a Steve Smith touchdown celebration. My friend Adam and I gave it our best shot and will have to wait and see if we made the cut for the show.
As kickoff came closer, the stadium continued to fill and we decided to make the trek to our seats. Since we had only decided a few days ago that we absolutely had to be in the building for this game, the tickets we got from StubHub.com placed us near the top of the upper deck near the lights.
The walk to the seats was a daunting one (in fact, I’m still feeling the after effects), but once we sat down it was clear that there is not a bad seat in the house at Bank of America Stadium.
Sitting in the upper level is much more satisfying from a pure sports fans’ point of view. The real fans that don’t make the big bucks and can’t afford the luxuries of the lower level are all packed into the upper sections, creating a great atmosphere for the true fan.
I’m not trying to take anything away from the fans who occupy the lower seats, but it always seems to be more intense up top. We were lucky enough to have a group of Bucs fans directly behind our seats who did not hear the end of it all night. As a few more Tampa Bay fans filed into the seats around ours, we let them know how welcome they were and how much we were enjoying their presence in our house.
Panthers fans have often been labeled as a mediocre fanbase. Opposing players have likened the atmosphere to a "wine and cheese" affair, challenging the fans to make it an intimidating place to play.
Until this season, all of those accusations have been warranted but, as Monday night proved, Bank of America Stadium is quickly turning into a tough place to play. The pregame ceremonies were deafening as the crowd lost its mind every time another player was introduced. My voice was gone by the time the introductions had come to a close.
The Panthers won the coin toss, chose to kick off, and the game was finally underway.
The crowd never settled down during the Bucs first drive, and Tyler Brayton sacked Jeff Garcia on second down to send the place into a frenzy. I could feel the sound in my bones as I shouted at the top of my lungs for the Panthers to get a stop on third down and when they did so, the decibel level rose to a new high.
The Panthers took over and, thanks to a few Jake Delhomme-Muhsin Muhammad hook-ups, the Cats were able to take a 3-0 lead after their first possession.
Every time the Bucs got the ball throughout the night, the stadium erupted. I found it hard to concentrate while looking through the media guide, much less calling plays down on the field.
The crowd at Bank of America Stadium has often been criticized for their inability to control their excitement when their team has the ball. That was not the case on Monday Night. Although myself and some surrounding fans had to kill an attempt by a neighboring section to start the wave when we were driving the ball, the fans were generally wise with their noise.
The Bucs and Panthers traded positive drives that ended with negative results. The Bucs’ Matt Bryant missed a 40-yard field goal and Ronde Barber intercepted Jake Delhomme as the Panthers were marching into Tampa Bay territory.
That turned into points for the Buccaneers as Bryant was good from 20-yards after the Panthers held tough on a goal-line stand following a 52-yard catch by Antonio Bryant.
Before I go much further, I would like to dish out some props to Bryant, who caught nine passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns on the night and was pretty much the only bright spot on offense for Tampa Bay.
The Panthers would not be outdone, however, and behind six straight runs and a pass to the goal line to Steve Smith, they answered the Bucs with a two yard Jonathan Stewart touchdown run with less than two minutes to go in the half.
It was obvious that the Panthers would not be treated the same as they were in Tampa Bay in Week 6 and that they had come to play.
Garcia led the Buccaneers onto the field with hopes of a successful two minute drill yielding points before halftime but after two complete passes to start the drive, Garcia was sacked by Richard Marshall and then two plays later by Julius Peppers and Charles Johnson.
The two sacks riled up the crowd and sent the teams to the locker room with the Panthers leading 10-3.
The Bucs had allowed only one rushing touchdown the entire season prior to Monday Night’s game, but had already let Stewart score once on the evening; a precursor for things to come.
As the fans continued to file back to their seats, the second half kicked off. I was pleased to see the Panthers come back out of the tunnel with the same intensity they entered it with and put together a nice drive to start the second half.
Just after Stewart rattled off another long run, though, Delhomme was intercepted again. This time, it was more of a great defensive play than a bad play by Jake. Jermaine Phillips had the ball come to him while he was on the ground and after bobbling it for a second, he was able to secure it before it hit the ground.
That set off the Jake-haters in the crowd, including a few around our seats. I am not a Delhomme homer, but I feel as though he gives us the best chance to win by far out of the quarterbacks on our roster, and I believe in him through and through and have faith in him each time he is under center.
It is tough to ignore the years of success this team has enjoyed since he took over for Rodney Peete at halftime of the season opener in 2003 and led the famous comeback over the Jacksonville Jaguars that solidified his spot as the starting quarterback.
The fans didn’t have much time to complain about Delhomme because Garcia hooked up with Bryant for a 50-yard touchdown two plays into the drive. For the first time all night, the stadium quieted down a little bit as everyone pondered whether or not the Panthers had run out of energy and emotion in the first half.
Delhomme redeemed himself quickly by completing four of four passes on the ensuing drive with the last being a 38-yard touchdown pass to Smith that brought the crowd back to their feet to stay.
Every time the Bucs had the ball, the crowd cheered as if it were third down on every down, obviously rattling Garcia and his tendency to audible out of plays at the line of scrimmage.
However, the Bucs were able to answer the Panthers once again with Cadillac Williams’ first touchdown since blowing out his knee in Bank of America Stadium last year during the Bucs’ visit.
The teams were evenly matched and the game was a push heading into the fourth quarter as the score was tied at 17-all. That’s when the Panthers took over. Carolina rode 145 fourth quarter rushing yards between DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to the victory.
The fourth quarter featured a four-play, 90-yard drive for the Panthers that consisted only of rushing yardage.
Williams scored the clinching touchdown with a little over two minutes to go in the game following the second Garcia-Bryant touchdown connection of the day by only 22 seconds.
The victory set off pandemonium in Bank of America Stadium as fans chanted and yelled from the concourses to the parking lots. Honking horns, hollering, and shouting obscenities at the exiting Buccaneers fans was commonplace following the Panthers win.
It was perhaps the most satisfying walk I have ever been a part of and the excitement and electricity that could be felt on the streets of Charlotte following the game is unparalleled by anything I have ever felt before.
DeAngelo Williams finished the day with 186 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries and Stewart ended up with 115 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries.
The rushing performance put on by the Panthers’ “Smash 'N' Dash” (yes, I took your nickname LenWhale, what’s up?) backs was something I have never seen in person before.
If they can keep up the type of domination they had Monday Night, then the Panthers will be a scary animal come playoff time in the NFC.
Delhomme finished up with a respectable day passing, completing 14 of 20 passes for 173 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions. Both interceptions were good defensive plays to Jake’s credit and the touchdown was a beauty to Smith. Speaking of Steve, he finished with nine of Delhomme’s 14 completions for 117 yards and the aforementioned touchdown.
The Panthers defense was suspect at times, particularly in the secondary. On one particular play, Ken Lucas got burned, fell down, and committed an illegal contact penalty all in the same play.
That is the type of thing that must stop if the Panthers are going to make a long playoff run and this Sunday will be a good indicator of how they will fare as they go up against the Denver Broncos and their third-ranked passing offense.
Julius Peppers recorded a sack-and-a-half in his only two tackles and was joined in the sack column by Tyler Brayton, Damione Lewis, Richard Marshall, and Charles Johnson, who had the other half of Peppers’ first sack.
The five sacks exploited the problems that the Bucs have been having recently on the offensive line, as Jeff Garcia has now been sacked 15 times in the last four games.
After about an hour in the parking lot, we were finally able to get out into traffic and get moving on the way home. It wasn’t long after I got home that I was asleep, exhausted by the festivities and the great game I had just seen.
Ever since I saw the Panthers play the 49ers with Steve Young and Jerry Rice in 1997 on Monday Night Football at then-Ericsson Stadium, I have wanted to be a part of a prime-time football atmosphere.
There is an added sense of urgency and an elevated level of excitement that goes along with any prime-time game, and Monday night was no exception to that rule.
It was great to see the Panthers and the way the fans are responding to their success. If I have it my way, I’ll be back in the building sometime in January when we host a playoff game!