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Not to Be Denied: Panthers Win the South w/ 33-31 Win

“Not to be denied”… that was Muhsin Muhammad’s mantra in the locker room after the Panthers’ stirring win in New Orleans.

Whew… another dramatic ending for the Carolina Panthers. Fortunately for Carolina fans, the Cardiac Cats got the long end of the stick this week – they defeated the New Orleans Saints, 33-31, at the Superdome. The win in the Big Easy is a feat in itself, being that this is the first time this season that a team from the NFC South has beaten a division rival on the road. Moreover, the division’s 11-1 record amongst each other at home further suggests that the South is the class of the conference. Carolina ensured themselves of a home playoff game, which bodes well for them as they are the only NFL team to boast an 8-0 home record; and more importantly, also ensures that beloved team owner Jerry Richardson will get to attend the game, as he awaits a donor for a heart transplant.

Prolific passer Drew Brees of the Saints came within 16 yards of breaking Dan Marino’s record, thanks largely to Carolina letting him throw for 153 yards in the 4th quarter. It was popular opinion that New Orleans would probably attempt to pound the ball up Carolina’s middle, much like the Giants did last week, and abandon their potent passing attack in the absence of defensive starters Ma’ake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis. However, they only achieved 50 yards rushing, and of course there was every incentive to give Brees a chance to break the record, especially at home.

While gaining 178 yards on the ground, DeAngelo Willams broke legendary Panther Stephen Davis’ milestone of 1,444 yards in 2003 (I think that legendary is appropriate for Davis because he was an extremely important part of the Panthers’ 2003 Super Bowl run.) Williams rushed for 1,515 yards this season, setting a new single-season record, and garnered a lofty league-leading twenty touchdowns.

Stellar rookie running back Jonathan Stewart rushed for his 10th touchdown, while ending the season with 836 yards; he surpassed Fred Lane’s rookie milestone of 809 yards, and claimed his own record.

The “Double Trouble” duo of Williams and Stewart (the new nickname for the tandem was unveiled after the game by Williams) helped the Panthers achieve a franchise record 2,437 rushing yards this season.

It was a game of redemption… Steve Smith ironically redeemed his costly holding penalty in the waning moments of last week’s game with an incredulous 39-yard grab to salvage the game for the Panthers. Carolina had been leading 23-3 in the first half of the game, only to allow New Orleans to pull ahead of them 31-30, with 3:11 left in the fourth quarter. This time Smith’s contribution extended the drive, and helped get John Kasay in field goal range to win the game. Also curious was Kasay’s 50-yard attempt last Sunday was no good, sending them to impending doom in overtime with the Giants. Kasay calmly kicked this week’s game-winning 42-yarder with :01 left on the clock, sending the Panthers to the postseason in high style with the division crown, a home playoff game, and a first-round bye. Thank you, Mr. Kasay.

Smith finished with 5 catches for 134 yards, and Muhsin Muhammad grabbed 7 for 79; quarterback Jake Delhomme was efficient, completing 14 of 20 passes for 250 yards with 1 touchdown, and no interceptions. Apparently it was receiver D.J. Hackett’s turn to play, as Fox seems to be rotating him with Dwayne Jarrett almost weekly; he had two catches for the 37 yards.

Carolina safety Chris Harris had a key interception, and special teams stepped up with a forced fumble that was returned by CB Dante Wesley for a score.

The Panthers unfortunately left New Orleans with another pair of injured starters; prized offensive lineman Jeff Otah injured his toe, and versatile OL Geoff Hangartner tweaked his ankle.

Carolina has a week to get healthy, and prepare to play either the Minnesota Vikings or the winner of the Atlanta/Arizona game on Saturday, January 10th at 8:10pm.

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