- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Two things probably come to mind when you think about the Carolina Panthers: Stephen Davis and good defense.

It was that combination of Davis’ powerful runs and the front seven’s stifling defense that propelled Carolina to an unlikely NFC South title this season and a wild-card date with the Dallas Cowboys.

Davis and the defense have been there all year. Last night Jake Delhomme and his dynamic receiving duo decided to join the party, and the end result was a Panthers team that looked every bit as dominating as any participant in this postseason.

Behind Delhomme’s 273 passing yards, Davis’ 104 rushing yards and a lights-out performance from its defense, Carolina ran roughshod over the Cowboys for a 29-10 victory before 72,324 at Ericsson Stadium.

Something of an afterthought in the NFC heading into these playoffs, the Panthers (12-5) suddenly look like a team to be reckoned with. They’ll surely be underdogs against the high-flying Rams on Saturday in St. Louis, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in these parts who doesn’t believe in this upstart squad.

“We’re not the most flashy team in the world; we have a methodical approach,” Delhomme said. “But that’s fine with us. If we just keep chugging along, doing the right things, that’s fine with us.”

It’s been easy to overlook the Panthers this season, what with Donovan McNabb winning every week in Philadelphia, Marshall Faulk and Co. lighting up the scoreboard in St. Louis and Brett Favre working miracles in Green Bay. But two years removed from a 1-15 record, coach John Fox has built himself a contender in Charlotte that would appear to have all the necessary ingredients to make a run at a championship.

Entering last night’s game, no one was questioning Davis’ prowess out of the backfield or Carolina’s intimidation on defense. Plenty of folks, though, had their doubts about first-year starter Delhomme and his ability to win in January.

The down-to-earth Louisiana quarterback proved them wrong in what he called “by far the biggest game of my life” — and against the NFL’s top-ranked defense nonetheless. Completing 18 of 29 passes for 273 yards and a touchdown, Delhomme played every bit like a postseason veteran, not a fresh-faced newcomer.

“He’s a guy that I’ve had tremendous confidence in,” Fox said. “I don’t know if people around the country have shared that confidence. He’s continued to improve. He’s a gym rat as far as watching tape. I was very pleased with his performance.”

Delhomme connected with receiver Steve Smith (five catches, 135 yards) on a 70-yard pass on Carolina’s third play from scrimmage, missing a touchdown by 1 yard. Later in the first half, he hit wide-open Muhsin Muhammad (four catches, 103 yards) for a 49-yard gain that turned into 57 yards when Muhammad fumbled the ball at the 10 and then recovered it at the 2.

A 24-yard pass to Muhammad kicked off a third-quarter scoring drive capped three plays later by a pretty 32-yard touchdown toss to Smith, who outleaped cornerback Terence Newman in the front corner of the end zone. Delhomme’s lone touchdown pass of the game put the Panthers ahead 23-3 and all but ended the night for the Cowboys.

Like its counterpart, Dallas (10-7) entered the playoffs with a stingy defense and questions on offense. Unlike their opponents, the Cowboys didn’t live up their reputation on defense and didn’t come close to answering any of those questions on offense.

Quarterback Quincy Carter struggled in his first postseason start, going 21 of 36 for 154 yards and an interception. Tailback Troy Hambrick (eight carries, 29 yards) was non-existent, failing to provide Dallas with any semblance of life.

“I’m not here to assess anyone’s performance,” a steamed coach Bill Parcells said. “We lost the game, so whatever the performance was, it wasn’t good enough.”

In control from the start, the Panthers took a 16-3 halftime lead, but it easily could have been 24-3 had Carolina simply been able to punch the ball in from the 1-yard line. Twice the Panthers had first-and-goal from the 1, and twice they came away with nothing more than chip-shot field goals from John Kasay.

In the end, it didn’t matter. Carolina needed only two offensive touchdowns — Smith’s acrobatic catch and Davis’ 23-yard scamper in the second quarter — coupled with Kasay’s record-tying five postseason field goals to do away with the Cowboys and advance to the NFC divisional playoffs.

“This was as complete a game as we’ve had all season,” Fox said. “That’s critical when you get into a playoff run. We picked a good time to start clicking.”

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