NFL: Panthers 20, Bears 17: Carolina rallies again
By David Shaw
CHARLOTTE ó Linebacker Na’il Diggs doesn’t know how the Panthers’ 2008 season will end, only how it has started ó with two straight, come-from-behind victories.
“Two-and-oh, man,” he said after making a game-clinching tackle in Sunday’s 20-17 win over visiting Chicago. “And that’s better than 1-0, and a whole lot better than 1-1.”
Carolina overcame its own third-down ineptitude (2-for-13) and a rash of false-start penalties in the first half to gain an unlikely win. It struggled throughout and never led until rookie running back Jonathan Stewart scored on a 1-yard touchdown rush with 3:52 remaining.
“It’s not where you start the race. It’s where you finish it,” coach John Fox told the media after the Panthers rallied from a 17-3 third-quarter deficit. “We made some adjustments and our defense kept us in the game in the second half.”
The game may have turned on a questionable play with about six minutes to go in the third period. Trailing by two touchdowns and facing third-and-12 from the Chicago 34-yard line, quarterback Jake Delhomme was pressured out of the pocket and forced to run for his life.
“I had no choice,” he said after being sacked three times. “They were coming.”
Delhomme turned a potential loss into a six-yard gain when he scambled up the middle and did one of his signature sliding halts at the Bears 28. Almost immediately, Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs deposited his 240-pound frame across Delhomme’s shoulders and helmet, releasing a chorus of boos from the crowd of 73,828. No penalty was called.
“I heard the fans,” Delhomme said afterward. “It got them and some guys on the sideline juiced up. But (Briggs) was just coming in to make a play. It was an aggressive play.”
And a pivotal one. One snap later Carolina kicker John Kasay booted a 45-yard field goal ó his second of the game and sixth of the season ó trimming the deficit to 17-6.
Just 18 seconds later a fumble recovery by Carolina’s Chris Gamble gave the hosts a first down on the Chicago 26. And five plays later, Stewart ó the first-round draft pick from Oregon ó drove four yards up the middle for his first NFL touchdown.
“He’s a guy we’re just finding out about,” Fox said after Stewart bumped and bruised his way for 77 yards on 14 carries. “He’s a powerful guy and a hard runner. I think he’ll get better every week.”
Carolina’s defense forced punts on Chicago’s next three possessions before Delhomme launched the go-ahead drive from his own 45 with 6:46 remaining. He completed passes to three different receivers ó ex-Bear Muhsin Muhammad, Ledford High graduate Brad Hoover and a key, 23-yard spiral to tight end Jeff King, who was dragged down on the 1-yard line.
“It’s a four-quarter game,” said Bears’ linebacker Brian Urlacher. “I don’t think any team feels like it’s out of it when they’re down 10 or 11 points or whatever it was. We still felt like we were in control.”
That all changed when Stewart bulldozed his way off right tackle and into the end zone, giving the Panthers their first lead. From there it came down to defense ó and Carolina put up a China Wall-sized partition.
“We knew it was on right there,” the Panthers’ Jon Beason said after making 11 tackles. “It was our opportunity to make a big play. There were a lot of ‘I love you’s’ from the big, strong guys after that.”
Chicago’s final drive stalled when a fourth-and-1 jam shot by fullback Jason McKie was repelled with 1:52 to play. Diggs, a savvy, nine-year veteran, was smack in the middle of the rejection committee.
“They hit that same play on us earlier and got about four yards,” he reported. “It was almost a given they were going to him, the way they lined up real tight and put all the big guys in. All we did was take away the gaps.”
And with it, the Panthers erased some early-season doubts about their ability to overcome adversity.
“I can’t remember the last time we were 2-0,” defensive end Julius Peppers said. “We just played together and got a good push when we had to. There was really nothing to it.”
NOTES: All-Pro receiver Steve Smith sat out his second game. He returns from a pre-season, team-imposed suspension today. … The Panthers had lost their previous four home-openers. … Darius Rucker, the ex-frontman for Hootie & The Blowfish, sang the national anthem. … Carolina visits Minnesota next Sunday.