Panthers push adversity aside to rally past Bears

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Muhsin Muhammad had something he needed to say to his Carolina Panthers teammates on the eve of Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears.

The veteran wide receiver's speech wasn't about the fact he had played for the Bears through last season or how much it would mean to him if the Panthers beat the former employer he had insulted by telling Sports Illustrated during training camp that Chicago was where "receivers go to die."

"It was about overcoming adversity, believing that the guy next to you was going to be doing his job and you being accountable by doing your job, and having faith that that's going to happen, having patience because you know that sometimes you make mistakes and there are ups and downs through the game, that there's this ebb and flow going on," Muhammad said. "But throughout all of that, the teams that overcome that kind of adversity are the teams that are going to win."

He couldn't have been more prophetic.

The Panthers overcame about as much adversity as a team could in their 20-17 home-opening victory over the Bears.

And the fact Steve Smith, their best offensive weapon, was missing the second game of his two-game suspension for a training-camp fight wasn't even their biggest obstacle. Nor was the fact they had lost their four previous home openers in Bank of America Stadium, which has proven to be more of a disadvantage than playing on the road since John Fox became Carolina's coach in 2002. Nor was the fact the temperature hovered near 90 degrees at kickoff with 78 percent humidity.

As much grit as the Panthers demonstrated a week ago -- winning their season-opener at San Diego on a last-second touchdown pass from Jake Delhomme to Dante Rosario -- they managed to dig out of an even deeper hole to improve their record to 2-0. On Sunday, the Panthers battled back from an atrocious first half filled with penalties and other assorted miscues, including allowing a punt to be blocked and returned for the game's first touchdown to help the Bears to a 10-3 halftime lead (which would grow to 17-3 early in the third quarter).

This is not to shortchange the Bears. They opened the season with a convincing win over the Colts at Indianapolis. They have an impressive rookie running back in Matt Forte, who rushed for a game-high 92 yards Sunday, and they have a highly talented defense.

But the Panthers were simply bad through two quarters. How bad? They nearly had as many yards in penalties (40) as they had in offense (47). They were called for multiple false starts and illegal-formation penalties (one of which was declined).

"I don't think we could have been any worse on offense," Panthers coach John Fox said. "We had nowhere to go but up."

At halftime, it was Fox and his assistant coaches giving the speeches. Their tone was a bit more urgent than Muhammad's had been. Their message was about paying attention to everything, including something that one would assume would be fairly elementary for offensive linemen: Delhomme's signal cadence.

"We challenged them as far as their focus level and being more physical in the second half," Fox said. "I thought they responded."

"We all just came (in the dressing room) and caught our breath and tried to refocus," said offensive tackle Jordan Gross, who drew a false start. "That first half was just so bad that you know you have something to prove."

No Panther has more to prove than Delhomme, who is making what many skeptics consider an improbable comeback from major surgery on his right (throwing) elbow. He put some of that to rest against the Chargers. Against the Bears, he was just part of the ugliness, throwing for 128 yards, getting sacked three times, throwing an interception and finishing with a passer rating of 55.3. He did manage to complete five passes to Muhammad, who filled in as the No. 1 receiver for Smith, for 59 yards. That pushed Muhammad past 10,000 career receiving yards.

But even when Delhomme isn't performing heroics with his arm, he is still the Panthers' primary leader. He knew his team needed some sort of emotional boost, and he provided it late in the third quarter after a six-yard run on third-and-12 to help set up a 45-yard John Kasay field goal that cut the Bears' lead to 17-6.

It wasn't so much the run as it was Delhomme's reaction to what appeared to be a late and hard hit by linebacker Lance Briggs at the end of the quarterback's slide to the Chicago 28. With his helmet off, Delhomme, despite being a little woozy, pounded his chest and exhorted his teammates to finish the drive with points and to keep fighting. They got the message.

"Yeah, we got a spark from that," rookie offensive tackle Jeff Otah said. "I don't like when people hit my quarterback. That makes me angry."

And when the 6-foot-6, 330-pound Otah gets angry, look out. For that matter, Briggs' hit only served to evoke a greater level of drive and passion from the Panthers' entire offensive line.

Jonathan Stewart, Carolina's rookie running back, couldn't have been happier. He began finding more and more holes to run through on the way to rushing for 77 yards (averaging 5.5 yards per carry) and two second-half touchdowns, the second of which gave the Panthers a 20-17 lead 3:52 left on the clock.

"In the second half, we were a different team," Stewart said. "The offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage, and that's what you've got to do to win games. The offensive line came out in the second half and really blew some things up."

So did the Panthers' defense.

The outcome was sealed with 1:52 remaining when, on fourth-and-1 from the 50, fullback Jason McKie was stopped for no gain. First, tackle Maake Kemoeatu overwhelmed the interior of the Bears' offensive line. After that, end Julius Peppers and linebacker Thomas Davis were free, along with other defenders, to make the tackle.

"Maake just blew it up," Peppers said. "It wasn't really much to it. He just blew the middle up and they didn't have anywhere to go to.

"We've got a lot of heart. That's just the type of guys we've got on both sides of the all. We struggled early, but we stayed together as a team and we fought to the end. That's how this league is. You've just got to play and not give up. That was the difference today. We didn't give up."

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