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NFL: Panthers face uncertainty

By Mike Cranston
Associated Press
CHARLOTTE ó Perhaps to punish himself, Jake Delhomme got up Sunday morning after the little sleep he managed and popped in the video of the worst game of his career.
Delhomme winced as he watched himself throw five interceptions and lose a fumble, ruining his 34th birthday and helping the Carolina Panthers become one of the biggest upset victims in NFC divisional playoff history.
“As easy as it can be and you want to sweep it under the rug, you want to see,” Delhomme said. “You want to turn it on and look at it and get some closure to it.”
Delhomme and his teammates gathered for a final meeting Sunday morning, cleaned out their lockers and headed for vacation at least a week before almost anyone expected following their stunning 33-13 loss to Arizona a night earlier.
“Its amazing how one second you’re on top of the world and the next second you’re packing your stuff,” linebacker Jon Beason said. “It’s a learning experience. We’re a young team and we’ll be back.”
Beason will certainly be back after his first All-Pro season. Coach John Fox said the Panthers plan to have Delhomme back for the final year of his contract despite his horrible night. But some other big names may not return in what promises to be an eventful offseason.
The biggest unrestricted free agent, four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers, didn’t sound Sunday like somebody who was eager to stick around.
“Ideally I want to be in the best situation possible for myself and this organization,” Peppers said before exiting the stadium parking lot. “I’m thankful for everything they’ve done for me and I don’t want to leave them crippled or in a bad situation and I don’t want to do that to myself either. So whatever works out best for both sides is what I’m comfortable with.”
The Panthers have been trying for over a year to lock up Peppers to a long-term deal. Carolina could place the franchise tag on Peppers, who had a career-high 141/2 sacks this season. That would mean they’d keep him ó barring a holdout ó but Peppers would be due a whopping $17 million in a one-year deal.
Carolina, which can use the franchise tag on only one player, slapped it on left tackle Jordan Gross this season. He’s also an unrestricted free agent.
But looking ahead to offseason moves was difficult for the Panthers a day after their meltdown. After scoring a touchdown on their first drive, they watched the Cardinals ó 10-point underdogs who had won three playoff games in their history ó score 33 consecutive points.
Delhomme was the primary culprit. Missing reads, overthrowing receivers and trying to force the ball into Steve Smith, Delhomme was awful a year after he began his comeback from ligament-replacement surgery on his right elbow.
After an effective season and leading the Panthers to five more wins than last year, Delhomme was booed by the home fans, and already there are calls for the Panthers to bring in another QB in the offseason.
“He had a bad game. He didn’t have a bad season,” Fox said in a news conference Sunday. “He’s not a bad quarterback. He had a bad game. It happens.”
While Delhomme received support from several teammates, too, he was struggling with the ramifications of his struggles on the big stage.
“I never anticipated in a million years that we would go out and play that way or I would have a hand in playing the way I did last night,” Delhomme said. “You have those days and you’d like to come few and far between. It’s unfortunate that it came in the biggest game of the year.”
The defense deserves blame, too, completing a late-season swoon with the help of a questionable strategy from coordinator Mike Trgovac.
Despite facing one of the NFL’s top receivers, the Panthers’ shaky secondary came out with a soft zone coverage on Larry Fitzgerald instead of having top cornerback Chris Gamble shadow him.
Fitzgerald proceeded to run free, abusing cornerbacks Ken Lucas and Richard Marshall. Fitzgerald had six catches for 151 yards and a touchdown ó in the first half ó as Arizona built a 27-7 lead.
The ugliness ended with the Panthers allowing 30 or more points for the fifth time in seven games.
“If we could figure out why we didn’t play as well as early on, I think we’d still be playing,” defensive tackle Damione Lewis said. “We fought hard and played hard but we just gave up too many plays.”
The loss remained tough to fathom for the Panthers, who seemingly had every edge. They were 8-0 at home, healthy and rested after a bye week and playing a team that had been horrible on the East Coast.
But it all crashed down behind a sea of mistakes by Delhomme and a defense that clearly regressed.
And about four hours after players filtered out of Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, the loss stung even more when Philadelphia knocked off the New York Giants.
If the Panthers had won Saturday, they would have hosted the Eagles in the NFC championship game.
Instead, the Panthers have only an ugly video to watch from the rainy night their season came to an abrupt end.
“It’s something that you think about a good bit,” Delhomme said. “I know I will.”

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