The NFC South had its coming-out party Monday night. But apparently only one team got the invitation.
The Panthers (10-3) rumbled over the Buccaneers (9-4) in punishing fashion Monday night, cranking out an impressive, old-school style 38-23 victory in the battle for first in the NFC South. More importantly, the Panthers:
- Clearly established themselves as a serious challenger for the NFC title.
- Surpassed the Giants as the most dominant ground team in the NFL.
- Did it on a week in which the Giants looked so impotent offensively.
- Set up the biggest regular-season showdown of the 2008 season: a Dec. 21 date against those Giants at the Meadowlands that looks like it will determine the NFC's No. 1 seed.
The story of the game – and what could prove to be the story of the season if Carolina makes a deep run in the playoffs – is a ground game that looked as awesome as any we've seen all year ... maybe in several years. The Panthers ripped off a destructive 299 rushing yards on 37 carries – an awesome average of 8.1 yards every time they ran the ball. It would have been 301 yards, if not for two kneel-downs to run out the clock at the end of the game.
Carolina was so dominant on the ground that it didn't even look like an NFL contest. It looked like Tom Osborne's Nebraska Cornhuskers crushing overmatched Iowa State into tiny specks of Great Plains dust.
Somewhere, I.M. Hipp, Dean Steinkuhler and Tommy Frazier beamed with delight.
DeAngelo Williams was a rock star, with 186 yards on just 18 carries (9.8 YPA) and two scores. Jonathon Stewart, the rumbling bowling ball of a rookie, added two more TDs and 115 yards on just 15 attempts (7.7 YPA).
It was awesome enough when Carolina humiliated the Lions with 264 rushing yards just three weeks ago. But those were the Lions. Humiliating the Lions has become something of a national pastime.
Stepping it up against the Buccaneers leaps out as one of the command performances of the year. Tampa, after all, entered the game with one of the best defenses in the league. In fact, it boasted a front seven that ranked No. 6 on our Defensive Hog Index
entering the game and had allowed opponents a meager 3.82 yards per attempt on the ground.
But that unit proved no match for a Carolina team that's suddenly firing on all cylinders as we enter the most critical weeks of the year. In fact, the Cold, Hard Football Fact of the game is this: The Bucs had surrendered just one rushing TD all year. The Panthers scored four times on the ground Monday night alone.
In the process, Carolina gained some semblance of revenge.
The Bucs held the Panthers to their worst rushing effort of the year the last time they met, as Carolina produced just 40 yards on the ground on 20 attempts. Tampa won that day, 27-3.
Since then, the Panthers have been on a mission from the Gridiron Gods. In the seven games since that loss, Carolina has easily been the best rushing team in football, with 1,243 yards on 216 attempts (5.75 YPA).
More importantly, the Panthers are 6-1 over that stretch and now hold the inside track on a first-round bye: they're two games ahead of fellow division leaders Minnesota and Arizona with three games to play.
But here's the most encouraging part for Carolina fans: the Panthers are rising rapidly – especially in their production on the ground – just as the Giants are showing weaknesses offensively.
As we noted Monday
, the Giants have averaged just 94.3 YPG on the ground in their last three outings. The Panthers have averaged 187.0 YPG over the same three weeks – and two of their opponents are possible playoff teams (Atlanta, Tampa). Go back four weeks (to include the Lions), and the Panthers average 206.3 YPG on the ground.
The Panthers, however, had no such problem when their quarterback struggled. Jake Delhomme completed 14 of 20 passes against Tampa – but for just 173 yards, with 2 picks. In fact, he was easily outplayed by Tampa QB Jeff Garcia (24 for 38, 321 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT).
But Delhomme's performance proved a non-factor – at least for this week – for a Carolina team that's running on all 16 diesel-powered cylinders right now.
And they're doing it just in time to threaten the Giants for the title of most intimidating offensive team in the NFL and, more importantly, as the best team in the conference.
But well find out a lot more in the old-school blood bath shaping up on Dec. 21 at the Meadowlands.