Editor's note: Michael Silver will not have a Live Trippin' session on Tuesday, Nov. 11. Live Trippin' will return on Nov. 18.
OAKLAND, Calif. – It is the mark of a good football team that it can win when looking like an aging Hollywood starlet without her makeup. The Carolina Panthers took that notion to an extreme on Sunday.
On a day in which they managed only 10 first downs and had trouble tackling their opponents – and quarterback Jake Delhomme had the ugliest game of his 10-year career – the Panthers recorded a relatively stress free, 17-6 victory over the Oakland Raiders to improve to 7-2.
Yes, they were playing a truly atrocious team, one that hasn't scored a touchdown in more than nine quarters and which is averaging seven points a game during the illustrious Tom Cable era. But the bottom line is that NFC South-leading Carolina, despite little fanfare, has already matched its 2007 victory total and owns the NFL's third-best record in '08.
"We're under the radar," says veteran cornerback Ken Lucas. "We're soooo happy we're not one of those big-market teams where everybody's paying attention to every move we make. Sure, there's a part of us that wants to be noticed for what we're accomplishing. But we hope people don't really notice us until we're playing for a championship."
Despite being one of the league's better cornerbacks for much of this decade, Lucas was a relatively anonymous performer until this past August, when he got punched in the nose by Carolina's star wideout, Steve Smith, during a training-camp practice in Spartanburg, S.C. Since that bloody incident, which caused him to undergo corrective surgery, Lucas has been lampooned by some thoughtless antagonists as a real-life Rocky Balboa.
Stunningly, some of them resided in the "Black Hole" Sunday. With the Raiders (2-7) backed up toward the Oakland Coliseum's south end zone early in the fourth quarter, Lucas was surprised to hear screams of "How's your nose?" and other unflattering taunts. "It kind of shocked me," said Lucas, who simply pointed to the scoreboard in response, "because that incident is ancient history."
It may be something that Panthers have put behind them, but you can't tell the story of Carolina's ascent without referencing the confrontation's significance. Smith's contrition helped instigate the healing, but it was the class, restraint and big-picture selflessness that Lucas displayed in the wake of the wideout's sucker punch that brought this team together.
"It was an unfortunate situation, and a lesser man wouldn't have reacted so constructively," Panthers coach John Fox said after Sunday's game. "Our team would not be where it is today if he hadn't handled it the way he did."
Smith and Lucas, who had a history of ill will, had clashed during a passing drill in Spartanburg and were jawing back and forth before the two men removed their helmets and retreated to the sidelines. With Lucas on one knee, Smith stood up and cold-cocked him, setting off a massive breakup effort that involved numerous other players and team officials. Lucas was led away to a medical tent – he ended up missing two weeks of practice – while Smith was sent home to Charlotte (the team ultimately suspended him for the season's first two regular-season games).
Yet three days after the incident, Lucas told reporters, "I feel like what happened was a blessing in disguise. It's something that has brought this team closer together. You all may say I'm crazy for saying that. But I really think it's bigger than me and Steve."
Many people, myself included, were indeed skeptical of Lucas' positive spin. Apparently, the Panthers weren't – which, of course, is all that matters. For one thing, Delhomme says the players-only meeting that ensued facilitated the airing of numerous other grievances between teammates and produced a collective resolve to move past them.
"It was something that could've divided a team," Delhomme says. "Some people would've held a grudge, but it's a testament to what kind of man Ken is that he didn't. With him leading the way, we as a team made sure that nobody was hiding anything and that we all knew there was something bigger that we were trying to accomplish together. We took an extreme negative and turned it into a positive."
To star defensive end Julius Peppers, Lucas' decision to accept Smith's conciliatory gestures and grow closer to his antagonist was not an unexpected development.
"We always knew Ken was a stand-up guy, and it really doesn't surprise anybody that he took the high road," Peppers says of Lucas, who joined the Panthers in March of '05 after four seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. "But for the young guys to see that kind of love for a teammate, even though he broke your nose and split open your face, that's huge. It's a big reason we have the camaraderie we do at this point."
Lucas concedes that in the immediate aftermath of the incident, showing Smith love wasn't his first instinct. Thoughts of retaliation flashed through his mind. "Initially, of course the human flesh says that," Lucas says. "But once I had a chance to calm down and think about it, I realized that wouldn't be the best response.
"We're not barbarians. I like to think we have some type of class about us. What are we going to do – fight each other over and over until one of us dies?"
Smith remains one of the league's most explosive receivers in more ways than one. On Sunday, he abruptly ended an interview session when the San Francisco Chronicle's Nancy Gay asked a question about Carolina's choppy offensive performance, snapping, "I'm not even going to go there, sweetie." They ultimately talked through their differences, though it's unlikely Gay will soon be receiving a football after one of Smith's touchdown catches, as Lucas did in September against the Falcons after Smith's first score of the season.
"It made my trophy case look a little better," Lucas says. "But he didn't have to give me that football. We had already decided to put it all behind us, that what this team is trying to accomplish is bigger than us."
On Sunday, Lucas did his part, though it wasn't obvious to the naked eye. For all the numbers that stood out on the stat sheet – Delhomme's four interceptions (part of a 7-for-27, 72-yard stinker of a day); DeAngelo Williams' 140 rushing yards; Peppers' three sacks – Lucas barely made it into the box score, with only a single tackle and no passes defensed.
That's life as a non-marquee corner, especially one who prides himself on playing steady and sometimes suffocating coverage that causes opposing quarterbacks to look elsewhere. On Sunday, he also contributed to the cause by sealing off inside running lanes and helping to limit a couple of solid gains by Raiders backs that could've turned into breakaways.
"Even though corners are flamboyant by nature, and all players like to get the flashy plays, sometimes you've just got to do the dirty work that doesn't get noticed," Lucas said. "[Sunday], that was my role."
If the Panthers fulfill their lofty goals, Lucas' role will have been an enormously important one. That's not something he's necessarily comfortable with, but he understands that it's not for him to decide.
"I just look at myself as a sacrificial lamb," he says. "I don't want to take the glory; (God) is the one who should get the glory. And it's not just me – Steve did everything he was supposed to do to make amends. A lot of times it takes adversity to bring people together for a common cause. The incident could've easily broken this team, but we wouldn't allow that."
As a result, even when the Panthers play unsightly football, broken teams like the Raiders are destined to be their victims.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• The two teams with better records than Carolina, the Titans (9-0) and Giants (8-1), reaffirmed their respective roles as midseason conference favorites, with each team proving its resourcefulness in the process. Tennessee, which typically passes only to give halfbacks Chris Johnson and LenDale White a breather between carries, got stuffed in Chicago by the Bears' defense, which held the Titans (averaging an AFC-best 149 rushing yards per game coming in) to 20 yards on 29 carries. So coach Jeff Fisher and offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger unleashed 35-year-old quarterback Kerry Collins, who completed 30 of 41 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns in a 21-14 victory. And, as usual, Tennessee had defenders making key plays down the stretch that caused most observers to think, "Who the hell is that guy?" (Example: cornerback Eric King, who broke up a pivotal pass late in the game.) As for the Giants, New York's offense did the heavy lifting in Sunday night's 36-31 triumph over the Eagles in Philly, in contrast to the dominant defense in key victories over the Steelers and Redskins. Led Sunday by halfback Brandon Jacobs, the Giants ran for 219 yards and eclipsed 34 points for the fourth time in nine games. Neither the Titans nor the Giants has to play a certain style in order to win – and that's a disquieting notion for future opponents.
• Though the NFC East may be football's best division, the AFC East and NFC South are far more entertaining – though there is a caveat to the across-the-board success of the latter two quartets: Remember that each of the AFC East teams plays all four NFC West counterparts this season, while the NFC South faces the AFC West. Because the West is the worst in '08, the AFC East and NFC South teams have been able to pad their victory totals. OK, now that we've gotten that disclaimer out of the way, how about that ultra-competitive AFC East? The Patriots' convincing, 20-10 victory over the Bills Sunday sent Buffalo (5-4) to its fourth defeat in five games and set up a Thursday night showdown for first place between New England (6-3) and the Jets (6-3). Quietly New York, which annihilated the Rams Sunday, 47-3 – the largest margin in franchise history – has won five of its last six. The latest Belichick-Mangini Bowl will be a very telling game, but don't sleep on the Dolphins (5-4), who repelled a late Seattle two-point conversion attempt to defeat the Seahawks, 21-19. With Ricky Williams (12 carries, 105 yards) having his most productive game since the '05 season finale, Miami won its third straight and can look forward to a home game next Sunday against the Raiders before hosting the Patriots the following week. Looking even farther ahead, the Jets host the Dolphins and the Bills host the Patriots on the final Sunday of the regular season. It looks like the schedule-makers knew something the rest of us didn't – or else they got very lucky.
• I'm not one of those people who thought Drew Brees was the league's leading MVP candidate midway through the season, his gaudy numbers notwithstanding. But after what we saw Sunday, perhaps those of you who believed the Saints' quarterback has been the NFL's best player in '08 might want to consider this alternative thought: Is it possible that Matt Ryan is even more valuable? I know rookie quarterbacks not named Dan Marino are supposed to fall within a range of abysmal to surprisingly capable (Ben Roethlisberger, Vince Young), but Ryan is beyond all that. The No. 3 overall pick is putting together what may end up as the second-most exceptional effort for a first-year passer since the merger, behind only Marino's terrific '83 campaign. On Sunday at the Georgia Dome, while Brees was throwing three interceptions, Ryan (16 for 23, 248 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) was coolly leading Atlanta (6-3) to a 34-20 victory, spreading around his 16 completions to seven receivers. "The dude has ice water in his veins," says veteran linebacker Keith Brooking, one of many Falcons who have been blown away by Ryan's poise. Adds center Todd McClure: "He's special. He's got a confidence about him that most rookies just don't have, and he never seems to get rattled." Yet another veteran, safety Lawyer Milloy, says his favorite Ryan moment came in the season's second week, when the young passer and the Falcons got smacked around in a 24-9 defeat to the Bucs in Tampa. "That's when he gained my respect," Milloy says. "It's one thing to shine when things are going well, but in that game he was getting beat up and made some mistakes early on. Yet he kept competing, and we still had a chance to win. I've been around some other very good quarterbacks, like Tom Brady, and this kid is legit."
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• This year's Falcons provide hope to any downtrodden franchise that a quick turnaround is possible, but it's hard to imagine the Raiders following Atlanta's model (bring in a new GM and coach and give them the power to change the culture) while Al Davis wears the pants. Davis' early season-firing of Lane Kiffin isn't looking so transformative now that the team has become virtually incapable of crossing the goal line in the five games since The Cable Guy has taken over. As for those high-profile offseason acquisitions? Well, Javon Walker (two catches, 27 yards) made his typically benign impact on Sunday, while DeAngelo Hall agreed to a deal with the Redskins, having been waived by Oakland earlier in the week. I can see why the team got rid of Hall, who two Sundays ago tried to start a fight with Falcons rookie receiver Harry Douglas as the two teams coalesced in the Coliseum tunnel heading into halftime, according to an Atlanta player who witnessed the incident. (Brooking, in a radio interview with Buck and Kincade on Atlanta radio station 680 The Fan, spoke of "one of our ex-players, sitting there in the tunnel, waiting for us to come through … to pick a fight with one of my teammates.") But the bottom line is Hall cost the Raiders $8 million and a pair of draft picks for eight games in which he badly underperformed. And what good are interceptions (Oakland had four on Sunday) when your defensive scheme doesn't allow for proper gap control on basic running plays?
• Last Wednesday, interim Rams coach Jim Haslett gave a sobering speech to his struggling team. Noting that St. Louis, after upsetting the Redskins and Cowboys in his first two games after former coach Scott Linehan's dismissal, had since suffered a pair of losses to slip to 2-6, Haslett reminded his players that he wasn't the only one fighting for his professional future. "He said, ‘If you (expletive) quit on us, you might lose a job,'" halfback Steven Jackson said last week. "The tough thing is that when you look at our situation, it's very easy to say, ‘We're not going to the playoffs,' and it's tempting for some guys to shut it down. We'll see how it comes out over the next eight games." Judging by what happened on Sunday at Giants Stadium, the Rams seem to have collectively responded, "Go ahead and bench us all, because we've totally checked out." St. Louis fell behind 40-0 at halftime en route to a 47-3 defeat to the Jets, a performance that Haslett accurately described as "embarrassing." Speaking of which, they'll visit the 49ers next Sunday in a game that has 0-0 tie written all over it.
• Three calls that bugged me on Sunday: 1) The officials' failure to see that Wes Welker had only one foot inbounds on a 21-yard reception that set up New England's first touchdown in a 20-10 victory over the Bills. Worse, Buffalo coach Dick Jauron's dead-fish toss of the replay-challenge flag wasn't spotted by the referee. Realistically, I think the Pats still would have won the game, but the whole sequence was regrettable. 2) The apparently incorrect call by referee Alberto Riveron that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had thrown an "illegal forward pass" from the end zone in the second quarter of the Pack's 28-27 defeat to the Vikings at the Metrodome, resulting in the first of two safeties in a slapstick-filled, 11:40 span. Having recovered his own fumble, Rodgers released a desperation, underhanded heave that landed short of the line of scrimmage but did not seem to meet the standard of intentional grounding. As for an "illegal" forward pass – well, if spontaneous scoop passes while falling forward weren't allowed, that would be news to Rodgers' legendary predecessor, who used to do that semi-regularly. I think Riveron goofed on this one. 3) Andy Reid's decision to call consecutive short-yardage handoffs to 5-foot-10, 203-pound halfback Brian Westbrook as the Eagles were trying to drive for a game-winning touchdown against the Giants Sunday night. The first play, on third-and-three from the Philly 43 with two minutes remaining, gained two yards; the second was stuffed for no gain, turning the ball over to New York, which ran out the clock. Wouldn't a sneak or bootleg by Donovan McNabb have had a decent chance of succeeding? Or, better yet, wouldn't it be nice if the Eagles had a true power back (like Jacobs) to complement the elusive Westbrook?
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How CNN can turn commentators a thousand miles away into holograms that appear in its studio – and why the 24-hour news network would possibly unveil the creepy, superfluous technology on one of the most monumental nights in American history.
2. Why 49ers coach Mike Singletary felt compelled to apologize to tight end Vernon Davis, as the NFL Network's Adam Schefter reported on Sunday. Further, Schefter said, Davis is expected to have an expanded role in tonight's game against the Cardinals in Arizona. I have no problem with an interim coach trying to motivate an underperforming player, but doesn't this new strategy of appeasement sort of undermine the message Singletary tried to convey when he kicked Davis off the field during his debut against the Seahawks? I mean, either you're an old-school, no-nonsense tough guy or you're not, right? The next thing you know, Singletary will be warning his players to "cover your eyes" before dropping trou in the locker room.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
DeSean Jackson, that was so cute the way you announced your alma mater as Long Beach Poly during the Sunday Night Football telecast of the Eagles-Giants game, ignoring your three-year stint at the University of California. Not only did you manage to diss the nation's No. 1 public university in a very public way, but you also – quite shockingly – drew attention to your favorite person: DeSean Jackson. Yes, I know, that whole selfishness thing at Cal was totally overblown. Even though the coaching staff once punished you for a violation of team rules by forcing you to learn the names of each of your teammates, I'm sure they were just tripping. But I have a feeling that after Sunday's conspicuous disavowal of your Golden Bear ties, many of my fellow alums – including the ones who blasted me on message boards when I referred to you as "MeSean" before the draft – are probably rethinking their devotion. Congratulations on another good game in a successful rookie season. And, from the bottom of my blue-and-gold heart, thank you for leaving early.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"In Denver now. Was walking up 2 podium to san (diego) flight and guy cuts in front of me. Turned out 2 b fonzie (henry winkler). I wanted him 2 say he was wroouu."
– Text Sunday morning from my friend Dan the Man, a ramp-service employee for a major airline, referencing a classic "Happy Days" episode in which The Fonz was physically unable to apologize
"(Expletive) is also going 2 put my ass in a coach middle seat!"
– Text 10 minutes later from Dan the Man, as his day became less happy
"A monumental event is happening"
– Text Tuesday night from my father as the election results unfolded
"I am 40 yds from the podium!!!!!!!!!! Yes we did!! Only place I'd rather be is Wasilla"
– Text Tuesday evening from my former SI colleague Seth Davis, calling the election earlier than the networks