Nine lives

Charles Robinson
Yahoo! Sports

TAMPA, Fla. – You had to point an eardrum right at Dan Henning since his cotton-soft words were being drowned out by heavier and more boisterous throats. The Carolina Panthers players around him squeezed their voice boxes and came up with all of the typical retreads to describe their sudden success.

Not a single microphone was safe from each player's Wizard of Oz spigot of overflowing words – terms like heart, courage and belief.

As Carolina's offensive coordinator, Henning had seen his unit display all of those characteristics. But even after Sunday's 37-20 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – a victory that positioned the Panthers on the cusp of a playoff berth – Henning didn't waste his breath with a lather of clichés. Instead, he explained Carolina's reversal of fortunes with simplicity over melodrama.

"We're good," Henning said. "We're good."

Heart and courage can't be counted, but statistics and wins can. And the numbers say Henning's reasoning is most sound.

Despite a monumental first-half flop to begin the 2004 season at 1-7, Carolina could be one win away from the postseason. With a St. Louis loss on Monday and a win over New Orleans next week, Carolina would lock up the final NFC wild card. That's a sweet feat considering the Panthers were a whisker from being the 21st team in history to miss the playoffs one year after appearing in the Super Bowl.

"We've been, in essence, in the playoffs for about the last seven weeks," Panthers head coach John Fox said.

That's no understatement. Woefully beaten up early in the schedule, Carolina now looks like a burgeoning bully in a weak NFC. With Terrell Owens out in Philadelphia, and Carolina having already shown the ability to go toe-to-toe with Atlanta, the Panthers could be a fearsome matchup for anyone in the conference.

This despite losing three of four offensive aces to injury – running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster and wide receiver Steve Smith – and enduring the mighty struggles of the fourth ace, quarterback Jake Delhomme. Those realities wreaked havoc early in the season and spoiled momentum from last season's Super Bowl run.

"We had put quite a bit of offseason emphasis into what we were going to do with Steve Smith," Henning explained. "When Smith went down, we had to go back to our thought process of Stephen Davis and a controlled passing game. Then Stephen Davis goes down. Then DeShaun goes down.

"Pretty soon, we had to reinvent ourselves."

It wasn't an easy project, especially in a league where even minor schematic alterations can lead to a coma. That much was made clear early on, when the injuries spun Carolina out of control to a 1-1 beginning followed by six consecutive defeats. In that skid a frazzled Delhomme, hindered by a non-existent running game, fell into massive strides of regression. The problems shifted weight onto a defense that had injuries of its own, notably to linebacker Dan Morgan and defensive tackle Kris Jenkins.

"At that time, we'd have given anything just to string two wins together," offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. "You just wanted to get back on your feet. It was such a hard grind, those six losses in a row. At that point, you know, nobody was really thinking too much about the postseason."

Seven games later, Carolina has spun on its axis, leaning on the core supporting players who still remain from last season's sprint in the playoffs. The defense hitched itself to defensive end Julius Peppers, who has thrust himself into the running for Defensive Player of Year. Meanwhile, the offense discovered running back Nick Goings, whose serviceable play removed some of the heat on Delhomme.

Yet, it has been Delhomme who's brought the final balance to a team that, according to him, "never pointed fingers, never wavered, never had disbelief in what we did."

With the solid, steady, unpretentious play that made him so potent last season, Delhomme lifted Carolina's offense from the ranks of the average, turning it into at least a familiar facsimile of last season's Super Bowl unit. During Carolina's last six wins, he has thrown 13 touchdowns against only three interceptions and harnessed the heat of a branding iron with wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who has caught 10 touchdowns in the last seven games.

Now, Delhomme has vaulted Carolina to a place most thought was long gone two months ago: contention.

"We're playing as good as we can play," defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said. "I don't want to compare us to anybody else. We're playing the best football we can play right now. Our best is good enough to beat anybody in this league. That's what we've got to continue to believe."

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