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The Panthers look to protect their share of the top spot in the NFC South on Sunday when they host the Chiefs, who are hoping to build on their first win in nearly a year.
Carolina (3-1) pulled out dramatic comeback victories in its first two games, and followed up a road loss to Minnesota on Sept. 21 with a 24-9 win over Atlanta last Sunday. The Panthers are tied with Tampa Bay at the top of the NFC South, and are in position for their best five-game start since opening 5-0 en route to their only trip to the Super Bowl in 2003.
A meeting with lowly Kansas City (1-3) may have seemed like an easy way for Carolina to continue its strong start, but the Chiefs beat previously undefeated Denver 33-19 last Sunday. They more than doubled their season point total and snapped a franchise-record 12-game losing streak that dated to a 12-10 victory over Oakland on Oct. 21, 2007.
Chiefs coach Herm Edwards said he had a hard time sleeping after the game.
“I kept asking my wife about 1 o’clock, ‘We won, right?’” Edwards said Tuesday. “She said, ‘Yeah, you won, honey.’”
As relieved as Edwards was to end the skid, he was more excited for the numerous young players on the rebuilding Chiefs’ roster, many of whom he said had begun doubting they were ready for the NFL.
“I think they were questioning themselves,” Edwards said. “They were questioning their talent. You can’t question that. The way you overcome that, you’ve got to just keep playing. Just play with energy. Just keep going fast. Just keep playing hard.”
That’s good advice as the Chiefs head to Charlotte to meet a Panthers team that compiled a season-high 401 yards in last week’s victory, including 294 in the air - its highest since having a franchise-record 418 passing yards in a loss to the New York Giants on Dec. 10, 2006.
Muhammad attributed part of his success last week to the presence of No. 1 receiver Steve Smith, who had six catches for 96 yards and a TD in his second game since missing the first two of the season while suspended for punching teammate Ken Lucas during training camp.
“Smitty is a heck of a talent man, and you know it’s just great to be able to play with him,” said Muhammad, who hadn’t had more receiving yards in a game since Dec. 5, 2004. “I’m the co-host and I’m fine with that.”
Carolina’s passing game thrived despite the loss of both offensive tackles. Left tackle Jordan Gross left in the first quarter with a concussion, and right tackle Jeff Otah injured his right ankle with 2:26 to play in the third.
Gross’ streak of 84 consecutive starts for the Panthers will end this week, while Otah is listed as doubtful.
While the Panthers relied on their passing game last week, the Chiefs did most of their damage on the ground, as Larry Johnson ran 28 times for 198 yards and two touchdowns. After totaling 96 yards and no TDs in his first two games and complaining that he was being phased out of the offense, Johnson has 319 yards and three scores in his last two.
“I think it helped everybody as far as everybody being explosive and everybody understanding that we could run the ball,” Johnson said of last week’s performance.
Johnson’s success helped open up the field for Tony Gonzalez, who had three receptions for 47 yards and his 68th career touchdown catch - tops all-time among tight ends. With 10,058 receiving yards, the 12-year veteran is three shy of passing Shannon Sharpe for the record at the position.
Like the Panthers, the Chiefs could be without a starting tackle Sunday. Rookie Branden Albert, one of two first-round draft picks starting for Kansas City, injured his elbow in the first half last Sunday and was wearing a brace after the game.
“I would say he’s probably questionable this week,” Edwards said Tuesday. “His elbow is pretty swollen. He’s better than he was after the game, but his elbow is really swollen.”
Carolina won its last meeting with Kansas City 28-17 on Sept. 19, 2004 behind three touchdown passes from Delhomme. The Chiefs had won the only two previous games in the series.