Week 14: Carolina (9-5) at New Orleans (10-3)
EASIER SAID THAN DONE:
Every opponent says about the same thing when they are preparing to play The Saints at the SuperDome: "You've got to disrupt Drew Brees."
Most every defense leaves the SuperDome thinking, "Wow. Brees is unstopable."
On Sunday Night, Brees continued to make history with his arm becoming the fastest quarterback in NFL history to cross the 50,000 yards passing threshold. He also became the only quarterback in NFL history to post six consecutive 30-plus touchdown seasons.
The Panthers, who came into Sunday's game with the NFL's top defense, had a plan for Brees. DE Charles Johnson, who was returning from a knee injury, told me they would rush Brees on every play
and try not to get discouraged.
The seven-year vet acknowledged Brees' ability to get rid of the ball quickly, but he said if Carolina's defense could consistently send the front four to rush and allow the back seven cover, Brees would eventually become uncomfortable and have trouble finding open receivers.
The Panthers forced a three-and-out on the Saints' first possession of each half. Outside of that, Brees was able to find Marques Colston all night.
Carolina's vaunted front four were not nearly as effective as expected Sunday Night. There may be a variety of reasons for their underwhelming performance, and one of those could be some pain a couple of guys are playing through.
Johnson was coming back from a knee injury that kept him sidelined the previous two weeks. He told me he was excited and a little nervous about playing on his right knee, which he had sprained three weeks ago in the win over New England.
(The injury came when he was leg-whipped by Marcus Cannon, who apologized to him after the game but was still fined $15, 750.00)
Johnson told me before the game in New Orleans that his knee wasn't bothering him, and he thought making a couple of plays early would alleviate his nerves. He played seemingly unhindered, but it's possible he was not yet at full strength.
His line-mate, DE Greg Hardy, came to the bench in the first half where trainers removed a soft cast from his left hand. It was a struggle to cut through the thick plastic and get it removed. And just as the cast was finally pried off, Hardy jumped around wincing in pain.
I noticed Hardy had some fairly large stitches on the inside of his left thumb. Panthers representatives told me he had been dealing with a hand injury most of the season, though they would not specify the injury.
Trainers re-bandaged the thumb and looked for an alternative to the soft cast, which appeared to be getting in Hardy's way. The staff finally settled on a glove like a wide receiver would wear. They then taped over the glove.
It's worth noting that the left hand is the one Hardy puts in the dirt in his three-point stance.
Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis made some key defensive plays in the losing effort Sunday Night. His level of play is made even more remarkable by the fact that he has come back after tearing the ACL in his right knee three times in the last five years.
In 2009 he played seven games before going on IR with the first tear.
In 2010, Davis missed the entire season after re-injuring the knee in training camp.
The former Georgia Bulldog came back for the 2011 season only to tear the same ACL a third time in the second game of the season.
Last season Davis was relived to be back and play fifteen games. This season, Davis isn't even thinking about the knee. He told me he simply wants to play at a high level and help his team win games.
His teammate, LT Jordan Gross, loves to poke fun by saying, yeah, Thomas Davis tore up his knee three times, but his body got three years of rest! Davis agrees, saying he's definitely got more tread on his tires than most nine-year linebackers. Davis ranks 21st in the NFL with 99 total tackles.
And while Davis' "football body" feels young, he marvels at the advanced "football maturity" of teammate Luke Keuchly.
Davis was extremely impressed last season with how quickly Keuchly picked up the Carolina defense in his rookie season. As Davis put it, "To be able to diagnose offenses in this league the way he can -- it speaks volumes about his study and the time he puts in."
On top of that, Davis says Keuchly is an even better person than he is a player. Davis called his young teammate "a joy to be around," saying, "His energy and attitude bring everyone around him up."
Keuchly leads the Panther's and is 7th in the NFL with 113 total tackles.
CAROLINA SPECIAL TEAMS STAFF
Carolina's Special Teams Coordinator Richard Rogers was the player who called the legendary 5-lateral kickoff return that beat Stanford in the 1982 Cal/Stanford game, which ended with the band on the field. He told me that play resulted in a lot of good things in his life, including his job with Carolina.
His current assistant, Bruce DeHaven, was also part of some memorable special teams plays. But unlike Rogers, DeHaven would rather forget the game-ending moments he oversaw.
DeHaven was on the losing end of Scott Norwood's "Wide Right" missed FG in Super Bowl XXV; The Music City Miracle in the 1999 NFC Wildcard game; and Tony Romo's fumbled snap in Seattle in the 2006 NFC Wildcard game.