Panthers claw way to the top

John Fox takes a time-honored formula, a wicked defensive line and a journeyman quarterback into tonight's NFC championship game.

For 19 weeks of the 2003 season, it has been the perfect blend for the Carolina Panthers.


If Carolina's second-year coach can navigate his team past the Philadelphia Eagles and on to Houston for the Feb. 1 Super Bowl, it will underscore one of the most remarkable journeys in modern NFL history.

Carolina was a 1-15 mess when Fox arrived in 2002, fresh from a stint as the New York Giants' defensive coordinator. In short order - using a formula of solid defense, strong running game and efficient special teams - he brought the Panthers past respectability and to a spot among the league's elite.


At Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field against the NFC's top-seeded Eagles, Fox will try to put the final touches on the reclamation project.

"I think whenever you get that formula, all things are possible," he said last week. "We have got some good guys in all areas of this organization, from the top down, that have worked very, very hard, along with our players and the commitment and investment of time they have made in this."

It is the second championship game in Carolina's nine-year history. The first ended with a 30-13 loss at Green Bay seven years ago in their last playoff season.

Because of the long playoff drought and their futility under George Seifert, the coach from 1999 through 2001, the Panthers (13-5) weren't viewed as a Super Bowl threat this season.

Until now.

"It is like any reputation," Fox said. "It takes awhile to develop, and we haven't been there in a long time. The other teams have. In my opinion, it just as easily could be our time."

If this is Carolina's time, that means that time may be passing the Eagles by. At 13-4, they are playing in their third straight NFC championship game and second straight at home. They lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season and St. Louis Rams the year before.

In the Super Bowl era, six teams played consecutive championship games at home, but none ever lost both.


Four times, however, a team has lost three consecutive championship games - the Oakland Raiders twice (1968-1970, 1973-1975), the Los Angeles Rams (1974-1976) and the Dallas Cowboys (1980-1982).

Although there is urgency among his players to avoid that fate, Eagles coach Andy Reid won't acknowledge the burden of dodging a third straight championship game loss.

"We don't try to avoid losing. We try to win," he said. "That's the approach we take. We don't look at what happened before, we try to look at the present and things we can control, and that's getting ourselves ready to play a heck of a football team. We get ourselves right."

Getting themselves right means handling Stephen Davis or DeShaun Foster in Carolina's dominant running game. Davis strained his left quadriceps in last week's double-overtime win in St. Louis and remains questionable for tonight's game. The Eagles have been wretched in run defense this season, allowing eight 100-yard rushers.

"We don't stop the run, we control the run," said Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, chuckling at his choice of words. "That's the philosophy. That's my new thing, I think. The biggest thing is for some reason we're giving up some big plays."

The other big issue for the Eagles is protecting quarterback Donovan McNabb against what is regarded as the best defensive line in the league. Carolina's front four of Julius Peppers, Brentson Buckner, Kris Jenkins and Mike Rucker produced 24 1/2 sacks this season.


McNabb was sacked three times in the Eagles' 25-16 win at Carolina on Nov. 30 and rushed only twice for 6 yards. In last week's overtime win against the Packers, he was sacked eight times and rushed for 107 yards.

"We've got to get pressure on him," Peppers said. "The last time we let him escape, he made a couple of runs on us. When he gets out of the pocket, he can throw, too. So we just have to try to affect him any way we can."

The Panthers counter McNabb, a former first-round draft pick, with Jake Delhomme, a 29-year-old former free agent who was cut three times by the New Orleans Saints before signing with Carolina.

In his first season as an NFL starter, Delhomme manufactured fourth-quarter or overtime winning drives eight times. In the Panthers' two playoff games, he has shown great poise in the second half, completing 20 of 28 throws for 321 yards and two touchdowns.

"I have had a lot of confidence in Jake Delhomme from the very first regular-season [game]," Fox said. "I have seen him grow, mature. He does not feel pressure; he applies it. He has got that intangible.

"I think a lot of people in the country are figuring out who he is, but I have known who he is for a while."


Tonight's NFC game

Matchup: Carolina Panthers at Philadelphia Eagles

Site: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia

Time: 6:45

TV: Chs. 45, 5

Line: Eagles by 4


NFC numbers to watch

100.8 Playoff quarterback rating of Panthers' Jake Delhomme.

.600 Pass-completion percentage of Eagles' opponents this season.