NFL: Panthers have home opener today
By Mike Cranston
CHARLOTTE ó When the NFL schedule came out, Chicago at Carolina appeared almost certain to match teams desperate to avoid 0-2 starts.
Coming off 7-9 seasons, the Panthers and Bears had retooled rosters, numerous unanswered questions and faced seemingly impossible Week 1 road games against elite AFC teams.
Then the Panthers, playing without suspended star receiver Steve Smith, stunned San Diego with a touchdown on the final play. Their reign as the NFC’s biggest surprise winner lasted all of four hours, until the Bears, behind a rookie running back and a dominant defense, finished a thorough dismantling of Indianapolis.
Now instead of just being a game featuring a couple of ex-Bears looking to settle scores against their former team, today’s game is suddenly a marquee matchup of two possibly emerging teams with plenty of confidence that they’ll be factors in an unsettled NFC.
“When you are the big underdogs I guess it gets people’s attention when you are able to win,” Chicago coach Lovie Smith said. “Similar to the Panthers, I think they were a 9-point underdog also. You have to get to that first game and then you can see exactly what you’re dealing with.”
If Week 1 is the barometer, the Panthers and Bears appear ready to rejoin the upper echelon after going to Super Bowls earlier this decade.
“We look a lot like them,” Smith said.
And they know a lot about each other. Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad and safety Chris Harris are former Bears, and their exits from Chicago were far from rosy. Muhammad was unceremoniously released in the offseason after managing only 40 catches in 2007. This summer he told a national magazine that Chicago, with its quarterback carousel over the years, “is where receivers go to die.”
Quarterback Kyle Orton, who was seen jawing with Muhammad on the sideline on several occasions, was asked this week for his reaction to Muhammad’s remarks.
“I don’t have one,” a terse Orton replied, before walking off the podium.
Harris was jettisoned from Chicago in training camp last year for a fifth-round draft pick. The Panthers, desperate for safety help, immediately made him a starter. He responded by leading the NFL with eight forced fumbles. The Panthers gave him a new contract in the offseason, and he responded by ripping the ball away from Antonio Gates on Sunday in San Diego. Chris Gamble returned it 31 yards for a touchdown.
“I think I’ve already proved them wrong,” Harris said of the Bears. “I was a little bitter when it happened, of course. I’m their opponent now, so I’m going to give them hell.”
He’ll face an offense that has new weapons since he left. Rookie Matt Forte rushed for 123 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown, in his NFL debut Sunday. Chicago rolled up 183 on the ground against the Colts. Orton threw for only 150 yards, but was composed.
“I’m confident that I can play well. I don’t know about making any statements or anything like that,” said Orton, who won the starting job over Rex Grossman. “I thought that I played well and made the right decisions.”
The Panthers’ shocking win in San Diego came after they blew a 19-10 fourth-quarter lead. Jake Delhomme threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dante Rosario as time expired.
Squashing any fears his elbow wouldn’t hold up, Delhomme threw for 247 yards and no interceptions, despite being without Smith. The three-time Pro Bowl selection will sit out again Sunday to complete his unpaid suspension for sucker-punching teammate Ken Lucas in a training camp.
“We needed to win without him. That’s not a knock on him, that’s for this team. We have to try to win games without Steve,” Delhomme said. “It just makes you feel good when you can do that. … Certainly we’re going to welcome him back on Monday, but we need to go out and try to play good football.”
In other games today, Green Bay is at Detroit; the New York Giants at St. Louis; Indianapolis at Minnesota; Oakland at Kansas City; New England at New York Jets; New Orleans at Washington; Tennessee at Cincinnati; Buffalo at Jacksonville; San Francisco at Seattle; Atlanta at Tampa Bay; Miami at Arizona; San Diego at Denver; and Pittsburgh at Cleveland.
Philadelphia is at Dallas on Monday night along with Baltimore at Houston, moved from Sunday because of Hurricane Ike.