The Carolina Panthers, once again, managed to only put together one half of complete football. The difference in tonight’s game over the last couple weeks is that they played the last 30 minutes to perfection. After a first half of blown opportunities, mediocre defense, excessive penalties, and zero offense outside of a field goal, the Panthers made one hell of a halftime adjustment and saved their season by defeating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24-10 to move up to 5-4. Steve Smith had a night very becoming of him, 149 yards and a touchdown. Julius Peppers had three sacks, leading the defense. The most impressive part of this game, though, was how the Panthers began mixing Brad Hoover into the offense. Coming into tonight, he had three carries all year; he had four tonight, including his first touchdown. Mixing him into the offense opened a new dimension for a running game that had barely gotten anything going to that point, and helped to really open up the rest of the offense. I hope they continue to make Hoover the X-factor of sorts in future games and, to borrow a phrase from Panther Keyshawn Johnson, give him the damn ball more. He’s always been a competent runner; Carolina fans will never forget that Monday night game in 2000 where he got the start in place of an injured Tshimanga Biakabutuka and proceeded to run for 114 yards and a touchdown.
The above being said, the Panthers have to play better than they did tonight — i.e. put together 60 minutes of high-quality football — in order to garner any serious consideration as a contender for the NFC South title (or even a wild card spot). They’re still not at the level they should be, but tonight was a good start toward that. Let’s hope they can keep this momentum going and put together a solid run — it really doesn’t get much easier from here for them, and if they want anything resembling a decent seeding in the playoffs, they almost have to run the table at this point.