Playoffs still a possibility for Panthers

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 26, 2006

By Mike Cranston

Associated Press

CHARLOTTE — Last week the Carolina Panthers were moping around, injury-riddled and riding a four-game losing streak. Nearly every player acknowledged their playoff hopes were virtually over.

But one surprising win was good enough to get back into the race in the forgiving NFC. After a 10-3 victory in Atlanta, the Panthers (7-8) still have a chance to make the postseason.

“It was a gut check,” said cornerback Ken Lucas, who had an interception against the Falcons. “The season hasn’t been going the way we wanted it to. There’s still a slight chance we might make the playoffs, but there was no chance if we lost. So as long as we have hope.”

Carolina would make the playoffs if three things happen on the final weekend of the regular season: The New York Giants lose at Washington (on Saturday), the Panthers win at New Orleans and Green Bay loses at Chicago.

“We’ve squandered a lot of opportunities,” linebacker Chris Draft said. “I’m not surprised we’re still in the running for the playoffs.”

The Panthers had to improvise to beat the Falcons. Playing its third straight game without quarterback Jake Delhomme, Carolina decided to run the ball — even though it had managed 88 yards rushing in the past two games.

“Coach (John) Fox talked about it all week; he said we were going to run the ball until we got a first down,” center Geoff Hangartner said. “Luckily that happened pretty early.”

Carolina started with 12 straight running plays, and Chris Weinke’s 1-yard pass to backup tight end Jeff King accounted for the game’s only touchdown.

DeShaun Foster rushed for 102 yards on 28 carries, while rookie DeAngelo Williams added 82 yard on 21 carries while often taking direct snaps from center.

The Panthers, who had the worst third-down conversion rate in the NFL, went 8-for-16 on third-down conversions. Seven came on direct snaps to Williams.

“We needed a spark,” Fox said.

“We have not done too well over the last month. These guys have hung in there. We have been a little inoperable on offense.”

For a team that lost 11 players to season-ending injuries, the Panthers could still salvage a season that started with such high hopes. While Carolina never expected to at best finish 8-8, it may be good enough to reach the playoffs in the mediocre NFC.

The Panthers are also hoping that Delhomme will return against the Saints.

“We’re not giving up,” Draft said. “We have a lot of pride.”