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Panthers: Good, bad in Carolina’s streak

By Mike Cranston
Associated PressCHARLOTTE ó There are reasons for Carolina to feel confident. The dominant running game from 2008 has reappeared, Julius Peppers is on perhaps the best two-game stretch of his career and the Panthers have won two straight after an 0-3 start.
But the negatives are piling up, too. Jake Delhomme keeps throwing interceptions, Steve Smith is upset and the narrow, ugly victories of the past two weeks have come against the NFL’s doormats.
Through five games, it’s still tough to figure these Panthers.
A 28-21 victory over winless Tampa Bay provided the contradictions. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart helped the Panthers (2-3) rush for 267 yards and the defense, led by Peppers’ two sacks, allowed only one touchdown.
Yet the passing game remains one of the league’s worst. After being held to one catch for 4 yards ó the only passing play on Carolina’s 16-play, game-winning drive ó Smith let out his frustrations in the locker room.
“I’m no longer an asset to this team,” he said.
Coach John Fox said the constant double-teams Smith has faced helped get the running game going.
“I can’t call the opponent up and ask them not to do that. They get to do what they want,” Fox said. “That opens up other things for our football team and gives us an opportunity to win.”
The Panthers ran the ball 48 times and passed 17 against the Bucs, with Williams (152 yards, two TDs) and Stewart (110 yards, one TD) looking like the duo that dominated the second half of last season. Williams’ game-winning 1-yard TD run with 29 seconds left capped an eight-minute drive that showed Carolina’s might up front.
“There were some times where they had nine in the box and we were still getting 7 or 8 yards because they were just moving guys out there,” Williams said.
Delhomme ran his season interception total to an NFL-high 10 when Tanard Jackson returned a pick 26 yards for the tying TD.
Delhomme completed 9 of 17 passes for 65 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He and Smith still haven’t connected for a touchdown or a pass longer than 30 yards.
Smith has only 21 catches, 20 behind the other Steve Smith of the New York Giants, who is tied for the NFL lead.
“Out of the 10 years I’ve been playing, I don’t think I’ve been on one team where all 53 guys are happy. Not one year,” linebacker Na’il Diggs said. “I’m not surprised that a couple of guys are upset or feel like they’re not an asset. I can kind of understand where Steve is coming from, but he wears his heart on his sleeve, as everybody knows.”
Since an 0-3 start that had Carolina’s defense ranked last in the league against the run, Washington managed 198 yards of offense and the Bucs had 245.
And while Jon Beason created a story by calling out Peppers on a radio show and then apologizing for doing so, Peppers is on a tear. He’s recorded four sacks, five tackles for a loss, four quarterback hurries and one forced fumble in the two games since the incident.
“I think he’s played as well the last two games as I’ve seen him play, really, that I can remember,” Fox said.
Hollis Thomas continues to impress at nose tackle and Thomas Davis recorded eight tackles and an interception Sunday, but the special teams allowed 97-yard kickoff return in which Fox claims the Bucs had an illegal 3-man wedge.
The Panthers on Sunday have a chance to even their record against Buffalo, which is allowing nearly 182 yards rushing per game, worst in the NFL.
That could mean another steady diet of Williams and Stewart.
“Whenever you decide to throw the football, there are more working parts,” Fox said. “I think it’s whether you’d rather shoot a 3-pointer outside or a layup. Most guys would take the higher-percentage route, and that’s the layup.”

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