Tuesday December 9th, 2008

There's no place like home in the NFC South this year, and that's why the significance of Carolina's thrilling 38-23 Monday-night beatdown of Tampa Bay (Recap | Box) cannot be overstated. No matter who won this one, the first battle of 9-3 teams since the Titans and Colts met in Week 14 of 2003, they were going to be in the driver's seat for the NFC South title and a first-round bye, with a shot to win out and overtake the Giants for the conference's No. 1 seed.

And if the thought of Carolina staying home throughout the postseason doesn't strike fear into the hearts of every other NFC playoff contender, it should. The Panthers are now 7-0 at home this year, and home teams in the NFC South are a staggering 24-2 (.923), by far the best such mark in the NFL. Only the NFC East teams at 18-8 are roughly even in the same neighborhood, and the NFC South's home record this year is by far the league's finest since the 1970 merger (beating out the 2003 NFC West, at 26-6).

Simply put, the Panthers can beat anyone at Bank of America Stadium this year, and that includes an 11-2 Giants team that suddenly seems less-than-invincible in light of their 20-13 home loss to the Eagles on Sunday. And that New York defeat nicely opened the door for the Panthers to dream about still earning the NFC's top seed, because 10-3 Carolina now trails the Giants by just one game with their Week 16 matchup at the Meadowlands looming ever larger.

Carolina has another home game on Sunday against unpredictable Denver (8-5), and then closes the season with road games at the Giants and at the Saints. The Giants meanwhile must go to Dallas Sunday night, before coming home to face Carolina, and finishing the season at Minnesota.

Monday's impressive defeat of Tampa Bay assures the Panthers of little except an avenue to one of the NFC's top two seeds, a first-round bye, and at least one home playoff game. But for a team that went a dreadful 2-6 at home last year, Carolina has built something special at home this season, and it could carry them a lot further than anyone expected.

The Panthers are now just the fourth team to notch 10 wins this season, and by far they've been the most unheralded in that group, which includes the Titans (12-1), Giants and Steelers (10-3). They've got some work left to do, but the Panthers on Monday night took a huge step toward challenging the season-long coronation of the defending Super Bowl Giants

• Can't remember anyone ever destroying Tampa Bay's run defense quite like the Panthers did. And we know that throughout the course of John Fox's seven-year coaching tenure in Carolina, when the Panthers run the ball, they win the game.

And run the ball really doesn't communicate the level of domination that Carolina displayed against the vaunted Bucs. We've been gushing over the Giants' Earth, Wind and Fire running game all season, but what then do we make of the two-headed "Smash and Dash" rushing monster that has emerged in Charlotte?

The Panthers ran 37 times for 299 yards Monday night, missing the first 300-yard rushing game in Carolina team history only when quarterback Jake Delhomme took a knee for the loss of a yard at the end of regulation. Third-year back DeAngelo Williams set a team record with 186 yards rushing on just 19 carries, with a pair of touchdowns. Rookie Jonathan Stewart added 115 yards rushing on 15 attempts, with another pair of touchdowns.

It was the first time in league history that a pair of teammate running backs have twice in a season gained 100-plus yards in the same game, with both runners averaging better than six yards per carry. And let's not lose sight of the really shocking statistic: Four Carolina rushing touchdowns, despite the Bucs entering the game having allowed just one rushing touchdown all season.

"We just felt like we needed to run the ball,'' Fox said in the post-game, taking the lead for NFL understatement of the year.

• With 1,141 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground this season, Williams has officially achieved breakthrough status. He's the first Carolina 1,000-yard rusher since Stephen Davis rumbled for 1,444 yards in 2003, and the last time the Panthers had a four-digit rusher, they also went to the Super Bowl. You make the call on the significance of that correlation.

Truth be known, the Panthers hadn't given up on Williams after he put up two rather disappointing NFL seasons (with just two career starts) in the wake of being the 27th overall pick in 2006. But in taking Stewart in the first round this year, Carolina was at least hedging its bet a bit on Williams' future.

Williams has been a Fantasy Football owner's dream this season, scoring touchdowns now in a team-record seven consecutive games, including six in his past two outings -- four at Green Bay in Week 13 and two more Monday night. And Stewart, while playing the No. 2 role in the backfield, is no slouch either. He's at 699 yards rushing with eight touchdowns this season, and just posted his second 100-yard game in the past four weeks.

Williams and Stewart just put the game away in the fourth quarter, gashing the proud Tampa Bay defense for huge chunks of yardage. The Bucs looked tired and almost powerless to stop Carolina's young and dynamic duo.

• I just heard Bucs head coach Jon Gruden in the post-game refer to the Panthers as "North Carolina.'' He's got that great ability to get so close to the right wording, but sometimes get it comically wrong.

• Despite their loss, the Bucs will still make the playoffs. At 9-4, with games at Atlanta, and home against San Diego and Oakland on tap, that's 11-5 material. But Tampa Bay really needs to win the division and get a bye and a home game in the divisional round, because they're 6-0 at home and just 3-4 on the road. With the Giants losing Sunday, the Panthers and Bucs are the only two remaining undefeated home teams in the league.

NFC South teams are now 10-0 at home this year in division games.

Steve Smith can't even astound me any more with anything he does, but as good as the Panthers ground attack was, his nine catches for 117 yards and a touchdown can't be overlooked in Carolina's win.

There's no better big-play receiver in the league, and no receiver who means more to his team's success than Smith.

• But while we're on the topic of eye-popping offensive nights, how do you not mention Antonio Bryant's show-stealing nine-catch, 200-yard, two-touchdown performance in defeat?

The Bucs receiver seemed open all night, and his one-handed touchdown stab in the fourth quarter was as good a catch as we'll see all season. Bryant committed a truly bone-headed delay of game penalty in the third quarter -- flipping the ball away from the referee in celebration of his own catch -- but the brain cramp didn't wind up hurting the Bucs.

You have to wonder exactly where this Antonio Bryant has been his entire underachieving four-team, six-year NFL career?

• What a back and forth, action-packed third quarter that was in Charlotte. The Bucs and Panthers traded big punches, and both landed repeatedly in what wound up being a punt-less 15 minutes. Tampa Bay scored touchdowns on both of its drives, and Carolina went interception and touchdown in its two drives, and was on the march to a second touchdown when the quarter ended.

If only every Monday night game was as good as Bucs-Panthers.

• After road teams ruled the NFL in recent weeks, going a combined 22-10 in Weeks 12-13, home teams re-asserted themselves in Week 14. With Carolina's win, home teams were 11-5 this week, after going 5-11 each of the past two weeks.

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