How 'bout the Panthers?
How about Panthers as third NFC contender?
By Vic Carucci
National Editor, NFL.com
(Aug. 28, 2005) -- Let's presume that the Philadelphia Eagles are still the team to beat.
Pretty safe presumption, even with the Terrell Owens sideshow and season-ending injuries suffered by Todd Pinkston and Correll Buckhalter. As long as Andy Reid is still coaching and Donovan McNabb is still quarterbacking (and Owens can allow his immense receiving skills to do the bulk of his talking), the Eagles remain as formidable as they were when they won the 2004 NFC crown.
Let's also presume that the Atlanta Falcons, who lost to the Eagles in the conference title game, should again be a strong contender despite mounting preseason injuries at receiver. Michael Vick, a commitment to the running game, and solid defense offer a compelling case for the Falcons to return to the Super Bowl hunt.
Now that leaves a question: Which is the third team that figures to pose the greatest challenge for NFC supremacy?
The Minnesota Vikings are understandably a popular pick. Even without Randy Moss, they still have the makings of a dynamic passing game. Daunte Culpepper has had a remarkable preseason. But will their defensive makeover truly make a difference? And how will the Vikings be able to overcome the loss of offensive line anchor and primary leader Matt Birk to season-ending surgery?
Thus the door is open for another team to rate strong consideration as a contender: The Carolina Panthers.
Back to good health after injuries turned their 2004 squad into a shell of the club that reached the Super Bowl in 2003, the Panthers look strong in every possible way.
In their 23-20 preseason victory over Cleveland on Aug. 26, they showed just how effective their offense can be with Steve Smith, who missed almost all of '04 campaign with a leg injury, back in the lineup. He is as impressive as ever running crisp routes, exploding out of cuts, changing directions quickly and creating nice separation against one-on-one coverage. Smith won't hesitate to go over the middle, will make the tough grab in traffic, and usually catches the ball in stride while finding a second gear in the open field.
He demonstrated all of those qualities while catching three passes against the Browns for 59 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown pass on which he devoured one-on-one coverage.
Jake Delhomme, who often pressed too hard to make up for Smith's absence last year, is performing with much greater confidence and command.
There is a lot to like about Delhomme. He has good arm strength and there is substantial zip on his outside throws, but he also throws with excellent touch on underneath patterns and fade routes. Delhomme has a strong enough sense of anticipation and timing so that he can put the ball in a particular area of the field as opposed to always having to wait to see the receiver make his break. He competed 9 of 13 passes for 122 yards against Cleveland.
The Saints will defeat Carolina on opening day. Count on it.
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