Well, the Panthers should have lost this game.
Anytime you give the ball away three times, you probably should lose. But John Kasay won this game for the Panthers, and not just with his final field goal. Time after time, the Panthers would drive into Buc territory only to have to settle for long field-goal attempts against a run defense that’s among the league’s worst.
The patchwork O-line allowed Bucs rushers — and the Bucs didn’t blitz much — to sack Delhomme three times, twice causing fumbles. I know they’re patchwork and I know Jordan Grossman is out of position at left tackle, but guys, this is as good as that line is going to get personnel-wise, so you’d better figure out how to work together or it’s going to be a long, ugly season.
The bright spots (and there were several): Steve Smith returned, and even at less than 100% he’s still a very good, very dangerous receiver. We got glimpses of what Carolina’s passing game could (and, I hope, will) be like with Smith and Keyshawn Johnson at the wideouts, and what we saw — a combined 14 grabs for 209 yards and a TD — looked very good. It was important for Keyshawn to have a good day against the team that fired him, and he did — catching a 31-yard TD on the Panthers’ first play from scrimmage, then making a point of finding a fan in the stands who was wearing a Panthers jersey (a Julius Peppers jersey, in fact) to hand the ball to. And you know it must have hacked off the Bucs and their fans no end for Johnson, not known for blazing speed, to score a TD on an end-around. Johnson looks like he feels happy with the Panthers, and his play to date shows it.
The Panthers’ run defense stiffened, holding Carnell “Cadillac” Williams to 48 yards (yeah, he was coming back from an injury, but still). But the pass rush didn’t get to Chris Simms nearly often enough — Peppers got the team’s lone sack — and Simms turned out not to be nearly as horrible as he had looked in the first two weeks. (UPDATE via Herb: But I guess they made it count. Simms had to have his spleen removed Sunday night and will be out for several weeks.)
(ANOTHER UPDATE: You can’t make this stuff up, folks: Three days before the game, President Bush actually gave advice to Simms and the Bucs. So, Chris, how’s that workin’ out for ya?)
Even if the Panthers lost the Vikings game when they should have won it, they won this game when they should have lost. Either way, they’re 1-2. 0-3 would have been a deep hole to try to climb out of, especially since the Falcons and Saints, both 2-0, play tomorrow night, meaning one of them will end up 3-0 and three games ahead of the Bucs. The Bucs, based on what I saw today, are a better team than 0-3 would indicate.
The Panthers are home next Sunday against the Saints. If the Saints lose tomorrow, the Panthers can pull even with them for second in the division by beating them. But after an 0-2 start, every game is still a must-win.