- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Carolina Panthers can accomplish something tomorrow they didn’t do last year until the NFC Championship — win a sixth straight game.Left for dead after starting 1-7 and losing running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins and receiver Steve Smith to season-ending injuries, the Panthers have roared back to life with five consecutive victories.

Incredibly, Carolina (6-7) is in position for the NFC’s second wild-card berth thanks to last week’s 20-7 thumping of fellow contender St. Louis. With rematches against recent victims Tampa Bay and New Orleans remaining, Carolina could make the playoffs even with a loss tomorrow at Atlanta.

Coach John Fox, who turned a 1-15 team into an NFC champion in just two years, has done almost as amazing a job this season. Ten of the 22 players who started the Super Bowl are gone because of injuries or offseason moves. Fourteen Panthers, including all three running backs on the opening roster, are on injured reserve.

“It’s a tribute to everybody in the organization,” Fox said. “It would have been easy just to fold our tent, and guys didn’t allow that to happen.”

A five-game stretch against Atlanta, Denver, Philadelphia, San Diego and Seattle dropped the Panthers to 1-6 and seemed fatal to Carolina’s hopes of making the playoffs for a second straight year. A home loss to a bad Oakland team continued the losing streak and could have sent Carolina spiraling back toward 1-15.

Instead, the Panthers haven’t lost since. The defense that carried them to the Super Bowl has allowed 14 or fewer points in three of the last five games. The offense, which topped 17 points just twice during the 1-7 start, has averaged 29 during the 5-0 tear.

With no-names like fullback Casey Cramer, guard Travelle Wharton, defensive tackle Kindal Moorehead and linebacker Vinny Ciurciu in the lineup, Carolina has joined 12-1 Philadelphia as the only NFC teams in the top 15 in both scoring and scoring defense.

“For a while there, [the injuries] just never seemed to stop, but once they kind of stopped … we kind of became a new team,” said Fox, who has added 10 players since the start of the season. “We had a lot of different people. It takes a while to build that chemistry. We’re just now starting to kind of find ourselves as a team.”

Former second-string fullback Nick Goings is the prime example of coming from nowhere. After playing mostly on special teams and carrying just 10 times in 2003, Goings has run for at least 100 yards in four straight games, tying the team record Davis set last season.

Defensive end Julius Peppers, Carolina’s healthiest high-profile player, is also on a roll. Peppers blocked a field goal try, returned an interception for a touchdown and had a sack and two hurries in a 21-14 victory over the Buccaneers on Nov.28. Only Arizona’s Bert Berry has more sacks in the NFC than Peppers’ 10.

John Kasay and receiver Muhsin Muhammad, the last survivors from Carolina’s 1996 NFC West champions, also have played well. After missing three games with an injured leg, Kasay returned to kick six field goals to beat the Saints 32-21 on Dec.5. Muhammad, who had 23 catches for 290 yards and two touchdowns in the first six games, had 46 catches for 770 yards and nine touchdowns in the last seven games.

Mr. 1,000? — Atlanta’s Michael Vick has rushed for 821 yards in 13 games, a 63.2-yard average. Vick needs 148 yards (49.3-yard average) in the final three games to break the quarterback record set by Chicago’s Bobby Douglass in 1972 and 179 yards (59.7-yard average) to become the first quarterback to run for 1,000 yards.

Long time coming — Two decades after his last college game, a California Bowl victory over Toledo, former UNLV quarterback Randall Cunningham will receive his degree in leisure studies — an appropriate major — Monday. Of course, Cunningham was pretty occupied for 16 of the next 17 years (he sat out 1996) playing in the NFL.

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