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Week 10 Judgements: Panthers on the prowl

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Carolina is far more than merely legit, the Panthers are suddenly playoff contenders with swagger.

OK, so they didn't produce much offense vs. San Francisco. The point is, they didn't need to.

Their defense shut down 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and an offense that produced 31 or more points in each of its previous five starts and held them to -- get this -- 45 yards on six second-half series. The Panthers have been looking for a signature victory. They just found it.

The Panthers woke up Monday back in the Eastern time zone with only a one-game deficit behind the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South.

2. That makes Carolina 11-4 in its last 15 games, and let's just say you can remove Ron Rivera's name from the list of coaches on the hot seat.

3. That's the 49ers' second loss at home where they did nothing on offense, and here's why that's a problem. They absolutely, positively, must beat Seattle in one month when the Seahawks come knocking. But the Seahawks not only have a top-shelf defense; they're 5-1 on the road where they're supposed to be vulnerable.

4. Kansas City defenders should send a bouquet of roses to San Diego and defensive lineman Corey Liuget. Nope, the Chargers didn't beat Peyton Manning, but they did beat him up -- and look no farther than that Liuget's hit on Manning late in the fourth quarter, with the quarterback scheduled for an MRI Monday. Next up for Manning and the Broncos: Yep, it's unbeaten Kansas City.

5. The Cincinnati Bengals should be worried. It's not a defense without playmakers Geno Atkins and Leon Hall that's crippling the Bengals; it's an error-prone offense, with Andy Dalton throwing six interceptions the past two weeks. This was the season Dalton was supposed to establish himself as a premier quarterback, but he's in a funk ... and the Bengals are, too. Baltimore and Cleveland are only one loss behind, and with Dalton struggling, Atkins and Hall out and coach Marvin Lewis taking unnecessary risks, the Bengals are making the AFC North race closer than it should be.

6. The big winner in that Cincinnati-Baltimore game? Cleveland. I can't believe we're saying this, but next week's Browns-Bengals is for ... yep, supremacy in the AFC North. The Browns are tied with Baltimore with one loss behind the Bengals.

7. Yeah, sure, Richie Incognito's actions were, as he puts it, "coming from a place of love." It snows in San Diego, too.

8. Somebody will take a hit for the Miami Dolphins-Jonathan Martin-Incognito fiasco, and GM Jeff Ireland is the early favorite. But you can't ignore coach Joe Philbin. He's the guy who put Incognito on a six-man leadership council ... after he abused a female at a Dolphins' sponsored golf tournament, and that's not just a question of leadership. It's a question of common sense.

9. Chin up, Richie. You'll find another job. The Eagles forgave Riley Cooper, and look what happened. Trust me, someone will take the bait and convince themselves Incognito's not such a bad guy.

10. Peyton Manning has a passer rating of 121.0. Nick Foles? Try 132.5. Just saying.

11. The Steelers release a statement saying they have no intention of trading Ben Roethlisberger ... and this is a story? Of course, they have no intention. The guy's a franchise quarterback. I don't care if he's unhappy or not. You don't get rid of a big-time quarterback who's taken you to three Super Bowls.

12. We should've known. Not having running back Andre Brown was the Giants' problem the first half of the season.

13. So that's what happens when you take Dez Bryant away from the Dallas offense.

14. One explanation for Baltimore's struggles: Ray Rice. In his last two games he has 47 yards in 29 carries, an average of 1.6 yards per attempt, with no run longer than five yards. Hey, diddle-diddle, Ray Rice suddenly plays little.

15. James Ihedigbo, the U.S. Olympic volleyball team is looking for you. The safety had two interceptions, but he also unconceivably batted the ball in the air and into the arms of wide receiver A.J. Green to send the Bengals-Ravens game to overtime.

16. Trent Richardson's numbers since he landed in Indianapolis: 83 carries, 248 yards (a 3.0-yard average) and four touchdowns, including two receiving. Richardson last week said he finally felt in rhythm with the Colts' offensive line, and it showed. He had 20 yards in eight attempts.

17. Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff insists head coach Mike Smith "is going nowhere." But that's the problem.

18. Philadelphia's in trouble. The Eagles' next three games are home. They haven't won there in 10 games.

19. Say this about Oakland defensive back Tracy Porter: He plays no favorites. He treated Eli Manning just as he treated big brother Peyton -- with an interception return for a TD.

20. So now the Packers are down to third-stringer Scott Tolzien as their starter. Brett Favre, please stand by.

FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED

1. Indianapolis will be downgraded as a Super Bowl threat. That's what happens when you get thumped at home by St. Louis and Kellen Clemens. And let's not forget: This is the team that had to come from 18 points behind last weekend to catch Houston.

2. Rookie wide receiver Tavon Austin is the real deal. It's always been a matter of someone getting him the ball. Finally, the Rams did, and Austin responded with 314 yards on nine touches and three TDs. It's about time, guys.

3. Dallas without linebacker Sean Lee is like a jockey without a mount. Essentially, they're lost, and it's not as if the Cowboys aren't used to playing without the guy. He hasn't played a complete season yet. Too bad, too. He's one of the Cowboys' two best defensive players, and without him they're toast.

4. Don't schedule the Giants after their bye. That was their sixth straight victory immediately following a regular-season weekend off.

5. Detroit is legit, too. The Lions were 1-7 vs. Jay Cutler going into this season. Now, they've beaten him twice, and, OK, so Cutler played hurt Sunday. He still lost. Now Detroit is on top of the NFC North, and with Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers sidelined another two weeks this is their chance to put some distance between them and the rest of the division. They play Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay -- a combined 3-14 -- before a Thanksgiving date with Green Bay when Rodgers is expected to return.

JUST ASKING BUT ...

Could someone put out an APB on Hakeem Nicks? The Giants wide receiver might want to be reminded he's playing for a new contract.

Does the Sunday night shellacking of the Dallas Cowboys mean the Saints are back?

Carolina or New Orleans?

How does Denver minimize hits on Peyton Manning?

Can Green Bay survive another two weeks sans Aaron Rodgers?

FIVE GUYS WHO HAVE SOME EXPLAINING TO DO

1. Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. He never should've gone for it on fourth-and-2 in overtime. Baltimore had trouble moving the ball all day vs. the Bengals' defense, so punt the ball and bottle up the Ravens deep in their own end. Instead, he gambled, and it cost him another game.

2. Oakland left tackle Khalif Barnes. He's the guy who moved too soon on third-and-goal at the Giants' 1, drawing a five-yard penalty and forcing the Raiders to take a field goal instead of a touchdown. When you lose by four, yeah, that's big.

3. Anyone on the Dallas defense ... if that's what you call it. Granted, the Cowboys lost key players to injuries, including linebacker Sean Lee, but injuries are part of the game. Someone has to make a play. Someone? Anyone? New Orleans piled up an NFL-record 40 first downs and could've named its score in a beatdown where, too often, it looked as if Drew Brees was playing against air. NBC's Al Michaels called it a "tough night" for Cowboys' defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. No, it wasn't. It was a disgrace.

4. San Diego cornerback Derek Cox. He acted like a traffic cop on Julius Thomas' 74-yard touchdown catch, waving Thomas down the sidelines, but someone remind him this is tackle football. On second thought, never mind. The Chargers benched him.

5. Tennessee coach Mike Munchak. How do you lose to Jacksonville? No, how do you lose to Jacksonville when you're home? Answer: Easy. In the past 14 months, the Jags are 2-1 vs. Tennessee, and 0-19 vs. the rest of the schedule.

NUMBERS THAT MAY MEAN SOMETHING

0 -- Dallas third-down conversions in nine tries

5 -- Philadelphia Eagles WR Riley Cooper TDs the last two games

5 -- Tennessee fumbles, three of which the Titans lost

6 -- Straight games with an Andre Brown rushing touchdown, dating back to last year

6 -- Carolina sacks of Colin Kaepernick

8 -- Seasons where Peyton Manning had 30 or more TD passes

14:03 -- San Diego's time of possession in the first quarter

19 -- Straight Drew Brees completions vs. Dallas

46 -- Net passing yards by San Francisco

134 -- Cincinnati yards in penalties

625 -- New Orleans yards vs. Dallas

2008 -- Last time Green Bay lost consecutive regular-season games at Lambeau

NEXT WEEKEND'S FIVE BEST GAMES

Kansas City @ Denver

Baltimore @ Chicago

Washington @ Philadelphia

San Francisco @ New Orleans

New England @ Carolina
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