NFL: Panthers 30, Broncos 10
By David Shaw
CHARLOTTE ó It looks like Dorothy Gale from Kansas was right all along. There truly is no place like home.
The Panthers won’t argue with that line of thinking after drilling Denver 30-10 in a clash of division leaders Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
“We’ve had some tough games at home. They haven’t all been cakewalks,” left tackle Jordan Gross said after Carolina (11-3) finished 8-0 at home for the second time in team history. “It’s a huge step. We’re kind of set up right now, right where we want to be.”
Carolina used a balanced attack ó 253 yards passing and 147 on the ground ó to build a two-game lead in the NFC South with two to play. Wideout Steve Smith led the parade with nine receptions for 165 yards and a first-quarter touchdown. Jon Beason paced the defense with 10 tackles while Thomas Davis, Tyler Brayton and Charles Johnson recorded sacks.
“We’ve tried to have that balance the whole season,” said Carolina coach John Fox. “Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. Fortunately for us, 11 times it’s worked out pretty good.”
The Panthers entered the match averaging 146 yards rushing per game and were confronted with a steady diet of six-man rushes and eight-man fronts. They had only 24 yards on the ground in the first half, forcing quarterback Jake Delhomme to look elsewhere for yardage. He found it in Smith.
“There was a big third-down completion to Steve,” Delhomme said after completing 17 of 26 passes. “And we were able to get rolling. We knew we needed to try to put up some points today.”
Delhomme helped the Panthers erase an early 7-0 deficit by finding Smith three times on Carolina’s initial drive, a 74-yard march capped when Smith skipped into the end zone on a 15-yard screen. Then, in the second period, he fired a pair of strikes to Smith and another to Jonathan Stewart, fueling a 73-yard TD drive that put the Panthers up 17-10.
Jon Kasay’s late field goal gave the Panthers a 10-point halftime lead before DeAngelo Williams put the game out of reach with a 56-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter. He was initially stalled at the line of scrimmage, but circled away from the scrum and found an open seam right down Broadway.
“That was one of those fluke plays that happen in football,” said Denver linebacker Jamie Winborn. “We really killed the front side and the guy just cut back. With a fast guy like that, it’s hard to catch him.”
Kasay’s third field goal ó a 42-yarder with 11:21 remaining ó closed the scoring. Later, Denver quarterback Jay Cutler (21-for-33, 172 yards) was visibly frustrated after the Broncos fell to 8-6.
“We had a turnover. We had two turnovers. We couldn’t get the running game going,” he spewed. “Then they started to bring the heat, so we had it hard.”
Perhaps the best news for the Panthers is that they’ll likely host a first-round playoff game in January.
“This is a good feeling,” left guard Travelle Wharton said in the lively Carolina dressing room. “But first of all we have to take care of the business at hand. Then everything will fall into place.”
NOTES: The Panthers have won three straight games and seven of their last eight. … Denver had won four of five, including three against NFC South opponents. … The 1996 Panthers went 9-0 at home, including a first-round playoff win over Dallas. … Williams rushed for 88 yards and moved within 215 of matching the team record (1,444) set by Steven Davis in 2003. … The Broncos hadn’t allowed a sack in their past three games. … The Panthers close their regular season with road games against the New York Giants next Sunday night and New Orleans on Dec. 21.