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I think the Panthers have an excellent chance of reaching the playoffs as champions of the NFC South. I don't know if I'd consider them a strong Super Bowl contender, but they definitely have the necessary ingredients to be a factor deep into the postseason.
I don't see last weekend's poor showing against the Raiders as an indication that the Panthers are in any sort of serious trouble. I fully expect Jake Delhomme to bounce back from his worst performance as an NFL starter. As a whole, the Panthers should take on the look of an unstoppable powerhouse when they face the Lions at home. Just about every team has that sort of game against Detroit.
What will it take for the Panthers to be a force through the balance of the season and into the playoffs?
They must have a consistently effective running game. DeAngelo Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart, who has been bothered by a sore ankle, should have a big day Sunday against a defense that has allowed an average of 161.2 yards per game. That would do wonders for Delhomme's confidence and help minimize the pressure opponents are able to apply. The Panthers' defense needs to maintain the excellent level it displayed in registering five sacks against the Raiders. If they can get Daunte Culpepper to move in the pocket and disrupt his ability to find Calvin Johnson and other receivers, they should be able to put the Lions into a hole from which they won't be able to escape. The Panthers also must have their special teams again play as exceptionally well as they did against the Raiders. Mark Jones came close to breaking a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown.
If there is a missing piece to the Carolina puzzle it is consistency. The Panthers so far have cleared a huge hurdle by proving they can win at home, which once was a major problem. Now they must keep their three-game winning streak alive through the second half of the season to show that they are mature enough to handle success.
Winning on the road
Question: Has there been a year in recent memory where we have seen such a discrepancy in strength of schedules? The AFC East teams were lucky enough to get matched up with both the AFC West and the NFC West. On the flip side, the AFC North battles the AFC South and the brutal NFC East. In looking toward the AFC playoffs, would it be a fair evaluation to say the winner of the Jets-Patriots game has a clear shot at the No. 2 seed? I just can't see how Pittsburgh or Baltimore would be able to compete for the all important bye. -- Greg B.
It's a little early to make such judgments, although I agree that the AFC East is going to send multiple teams to the playoffs. Some of it is because of the ability of every club in the division to beat up on weaker opponents in the AFC West and NFC West.
But I also think it is worth noting how much some of the AFC East teams have done to improve themselves. The Jets made a bunch of major acquisitions, including Brett Favre and Kris Jenkins. The Dolphins have been dramatically upgraded by the direction of a renowned fixer of struggling teams, Bill Parcells, as well as by the excellent work of rookie coach Tony Sparano and the highly efficient quarterbacking of Chad Pennington, whom the Jets sent packing after they acquired Favre.
Question: I'm a Buffalo Bills fan and want to know why are the Bills doing nothing about upgrading the pass rush, especially when Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila is out there? It seems like he is a quality person that the Bills are always looking to fill their roster. With Aaron Schobel out for a while -- and there is no definite guarantee that he will be effective if he returns -- they can't let this inept pass rush continue. Upgrading the pass rush will immediately upgrade our pass defense. If the Bills do nothing, there will be no playoffs. What is the deal with KGB? -- David D.
What they see is a player with substantially diminished skills and who is too often hampered by injuries. Gbaja-Biamila had steadily seen a reduced role in Green Bay. If the Packers -- who are desperate for good depth at defensive end -- didn't see any value in keeping him on their roster, then why should the Bills or another team?
The harsh truth is that no team is going to significantly upgrade its pass rush, or pretty much any area, at this time of the season.
Question: Do you think the amount of sacks Ben Roethlisberger takes comes more from a mediocre offensive line or his apparent tendency to hold on to the ball too long? Perhaps it's a little of both? -- Bill, Harrisburg, Pa.
It's both, although I think Big Ben hurts himself, and especially his line, by too often taking his sweet time to get rid of the ball. Some of it is because of his desire to wait to make the absolute best play possible, but it also seems as if he is not making his reads fast enough.
Byron Leftwich, his backup, brought a much faster pace to the offense when he replaced the injured Roethlisberger in the second half of the Week 9 game at Washington. Leftwich would make quick, five-step drops, and throw, establishing an immediate upbeat rhythm with his appreciative receivers.
The Steelers' offensive line has been hit hard by injuries, but it clearly responded better to the way Leftwich ran the offense. If Roethlisberger can take some lessons from watching his backup, it would be a tremendous help to him as well as to his line.
Question: The 49ers have struggled for several years now and don't look like turning the corner any time soon. What do you think are the main causes and what should the Niners do about it? -- Ben L., London.
I'd say their biggest challenge, however, is getting some continuity at head coach. Mike Singletary has done a good job so far of attempting to change the Niners' culture with his tough, no-nonsense style. He is getting his players to embrace his approach and is driving what had been a toxic atmosphere out of the organization.
But Singletary needs some victories to validate that he's doing things the right way and is capable of making the transition from interim to full-time head coach. He came extremely close to that first defining win against Arizona, but the fact the 49ers allowed the Cardinals off the hook in those final frantic seconds (thanks in no small part by horrendous clock management and questionable play-calling) was a sign of just how much growth and development they have in front of them. Everyone needs to learn from that experience, especially Singletary and his coaching staff.