Upset-minded Panthers suddenly have great expectations
by Tom Sorensen of The Charlotte Observer

When you talk about great moments in Charlotte's sports history, you now talk about the Carolina Panthers' 12-9 overtime victory Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Or you don't talk about it. You shout it. The Panthers beat the reigning NFL champions in their city, on their turf, in front of their crazed fans. The Buccaneers make a living out of being the toughest team on the field. They are the most famous collection of bullies in all of sports. They come at you with Warren Sapp, who might be the best defensive tackle in the NFL; Simeon Rice, who might be the best outside pass rusher; and Derrick Brooks, who is the best linebacker.

No opponent ever will admit it, but visitors often are intimidated before they step into Raymond James Stadium, the stadium with the pirate ship and the pirate flag and the plundering defense that ought to wear black patches over one eye. And as crazed as the Bucs and their fans usually are, they were even more crazed Sunday. The Bucs gathered on their field before the game to celebrate their 7-month-old, 27-point Super Bowl victory. They reminded their fans they were the best in the NFL last season, and they implied they were going to give them even more.

The world expected them to. The Panthers were 9 1/2-point underdogs, the second-biggest underdogs this week in the NFL. But not for a moment were the Panthers, despite their aqua-blue jerseys, intimidated. Never once did they take a step backward. Although they weren't as famous, they believed they were just as good, and through four quarters and one period of overtime, for 3 hours and 50 minutes, that's how they played.

The game was sloppy. The Panthers and Bucs together were penalized 288 yards. Carolina's offense failed to generate 288 yards. It was sloppy in part because of the passion with which these teams went after each other. Officials called 33 infractions. How many you think they missed? Tampa Bay kept waiting for the Panthers to wilt and fade and go back to the bottom of the division. Not likely. Not Sunday and perhaps not again.

Here's how tough the Panthers were: As time expired in regulation, Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson hit Keenan McCardell in the back of the end zone. The Panthers had been leading since the first quarter. Now the game was tied, and the play had used up the last five seconds. While fans danced and hugged and screamed, the Panthers stood there in their aqua-blue jerseys, not moving and not quite believing what the Super Bowl champions had done to undermine all of the good work Carolina had done.

All that remained was for Martin Gramatica to kick the extra point that in the NFL is automatica. But Carolina tackle Kris Jenkins, who earlier had overpowered the Tampa Bay snapper to block a kick, powered past him and blocked one more. All of dancing in the bleachers ceased, and it would not start again. That's because, in overtime, Carolina return man Steve Smith, awaiting a punt, watched the ball bounce at the Carolina 8 and, in a move both dangerous and exhilarating, picked it up, slipped two diving tackles and beat two more tacklers so badly they were slapping at air. He returned the punt 52 yards, and five plays later John Kasay kicked the field goal that gave Carolina its biggest victory since the playoffs after the 1996 season.

The Panthers are in first place by themselves in the NFC South. They have won two games in the final seconds. They've had even peripheral fans screaming at the television and then hugging it. A season expected to be good suddenly feels like a whole lot more.