Panthers are on the prowl

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:03 AM ET

When they were making an unlikely run to the Super Bowl a year ago, it was difficult to believe the Carolina Panthers were for real. They had an unheralded quarterback leading a bland offence yet seemed to have every bounce go their way.

When they started 1-7 this season the verdict seemed so clear: This was a one-hit wonder in the inferior NFC, a team that would never be heard from again.

Don't look now, but if the post-season were to begin this weekend, at 6-7 the Panthers would hold down a wild-card spot.

They still have tough games against the Falcons and Bucs, and none of the teams they've beaten on their recent five-game streak had a winning record. Should the Panthers get in, they would be the first team to rebound from a 1-7 start to do so in NFL history.

"It's not worth talking about until it's done," Panthers coach John Fox said yesterday. "We're taking it one game at a time and if we can win out, there is always a first time for everything."

Not so long ago, the Panthers were worried about beating anyone. Besieged by injuries, with as many as 15 starters out of the lineup at one time, the offence was struggling and the defence was getting worn down.

But this is the woeful NFC, where a hot streak can make a contender out of just about anyone in less than a month.

And the Panthers certainly are a streaky outfit, going 5-0 last season before suffering a three-game losing skid in mid-season.

They then won six in a row and nearly pulled off an upset of the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

Knowing that they can produce in the playoffs could well make the Panthers a dangerous opponent should they get there again.

The way they held the Philadelphia Eagles to three points in the NFC Championship last season means they won't need to fear anyone, either.

And when he's on, quarterback Jake Delhomme is a confident player.

"We've been in the playoffs the last six weeks," Fox said. "We'll just see where we are when the dust settles at the end. People don't keep track of halftime scores.

"It's where you finish and the jury is still out on us."

BROWN-ED OFF

The benching interim Cleveland Browns coach Terry Robiskie hung on Jeff Garcia Sunday against the Buffalo Bills smacked of a personality conflict.

So was Robiskie rubbing it in when he finally put Garcia into the 37-7 debacle with no chance to succeed?

Garcia took over from loser Luke McCown late in the third quarter with the ball inside the Browns 10-yard and a weary offensive line that was getting steamrolled by Bills defenders.

No one is suggesting Robiskie was setting Garcia up to get hurt, which happened.

But not so clear was whether it might have been a slap in the face for Garcia's criticisms of Robiskie earlier this season.

WHO'S THE MANNING?

Not that he would have had the chance to play in San Diego this season, but Eli Manning's manipulative holdout on the Chargers sure has blown up in his face.

Manning has handled himself well with the New York Giants, but his numbers are abysmal. Since taking over as starter, he is 0-4 and the team has all but been erased from playoff contention. He has just one touchdown toss and has thrown six interceptions.

Even Jesse Palmer, now the Giants' third-string QB, was more productive in his late-season trial a year ago.

Worse for Manning, there doesn't appear to be an upside any time soon for the Giants.

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SNAP JUDGMENTS

Rob Longley looks at the winners and losers of Week 14

STEELERS: After a couple so-so wins, they showed up to knock off an AFC contender.

RAVENS: Offence awakens at the right time and they'll need more of the same this week.

JAGUARS: The sleeper of the AFC wild-card race is a tough team to score on.

VIKINGS: In no shape to be trying Randy Moss gimmick plays as their playoff hopes fade again.

BRONCOS: Even in winning ,the Broncos look bad. Edging Miami won't build confidence.

COWBOYS: Getting thrashed at home by the Saints is just the latest blight to expose their inconsistency.


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