Ok, time to take a break from fantasizing about the playoffs and instead focus on the immediate task at hand: taking down the Carolina Panthers...on the road. When the 2006 schedule came out, I was immediately concerned by this game. Plenty of pundits declared Carolina the team to beat in the NFC prior to Opening Day. Since then, just about everybody agrees they've been one of the biggest disappointments in football.
Carolina enters Week 15 with a 6-7 record. Most years, they'd be all but out of contention. Not this year though. So, even though Carolina is reeling, having lost three in a row, they're still alive for a playoff berth and will be playing for their season come Sunday.
Carolina has multiple issues to straighten out on both sides of the ball. First, Jake Delhomme. Has anybody ever gotten more credit and been given more slack for one incredible half of football. I'm referring to the Super Bowl several years back when Delhomme matched Tom Brady tit-for-tat in what turned out to be one of the more dramatic and entertaining halves of football in Super Bowl history.
Since that defeat, Delhomme has been more Jake Plummer than Tom Brady. At times, he's been brilliant, exploiting the talents of Steve Smith to their fullest. Too often though he's been mistake-prone. For the year, Delhomme has thrown 11 INTs, and has a lousy quarterback rating of 79.4, which puts him in the bottom half of the league. The turnovers should come as no surprise though. Delhomme has thrown for at least 15 picks every year since becoming a full-time starter in 2003.
You can't put all the blame on Jake however. The running game has been a glaring weakness for Carolina all year. The Panthers rank in the bottom 1/3 in rushing yards, and have scored only 6 TDs on the ground, good for the 4th lowest total in all of football. It certainly hasn't helped that DeShaun Foster and Nick Goings have both been banged up for considerable amounts of time this year. But, in the end, the offensive line simply hasn't done a good job controlling the line of scrimmage. If Pittsburgh can contain De'Angelo Williams from breaking long runs, the Steelers should be able to gear up their pass rush and hopefully force a few turnovers out of the Carolina QB.
It's not clear who will start Sunday for the Panthers. Delhomme is listed as questionable for Sunday because of an injury to the thumb on his throwing hand. If he can't go, the Panthers I believe would turn to Chris Weinke, the QB with the lowest winning percentage in NFL history . Weinke was his usual pathetic self last week against the Giants, throwing 3 critical interceptions in a 27-13 loss to the Giants. My guess is Delhomme will be out there if it's at all possible. The writing is most certainly on the wall for Carolina. Lose, and the season is all but over for Carolina. Despite his struggles, I do have to give credit to Delhomme for his toughness. If there's anyway for him to be out there competing, he will, and won't offer any excuses if his play is affected.
More coverage from Week 15 to come, including a look at the recent defensive struggles of the Panthers. You can also expect mini-previews from this week's games that most directly affect our (minute, but nevertheless real) playoff chances.