Panthers' patience pays

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:17 AM ET

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Just as a thoroughbred is born to run, Jake Delhomme knows that as a quarterback it is in his blood to throw the football.

By the nature of his position, the Carolina Panther also knows he is going to have his patience put to the test.

Yesterday at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Delhomme refused to bite.

Not at the blanket the Buffalo Bills were throwing over the NFL's leading pass catcher, Steve Smith. And not at the anti-offence field goal fest that was daring any quarterback worth his pedigree to force a big play.

Instead, Delhomme waited. And after almost two games without a Panthers touchdown, the quarterback called a clever three-yard pass play to third-string tight end Michael Gaines, who was wide open in the end zone.

With just 2:16 left in the game, it was enough to give the Panthers (8-3) a 13-9 win over the Bills (4-7).

"You ask any defensive coordinator and they will tell you they believe a quarterback will get antsy and want to go down the field," said Delhomme, who completed a sharply efficient 20 of 27 attempts for 191 yards. "It's tough but it's the biggest thing with this job -- take what they give you."

So rather than force-feeding Smith, Delhomme handed the ball to DeShaun Foster or Stephen Davis.

He carefully managed the offence, showing the poise that helped carry the Panthers to the Super Bowl two seasons ago. And a team that never led until the final score in a game it could not afford to lose, instead found a way.

"I know everybody had us as the worst team on the planet after (last week's loss to the Chicago Bears)," Panthers coach John Fox said. "But this has been a resilient bunch."

Instead, with the Bears beating Tampa Bay yesterday, the Panthers are not worst but alone in first in the tough NFC South.

Even after Gaines' game-winner, Bills quarterback J.P. Losman, who is making baby steps of improvement, had time to take a giant leap forward on a final drive.

But Losman badly overthrew a wide-open Eric Moulds streaking down the left sideline that would have resulted in an easy touchdown.

On the next play he was picked off by the Panthers corner Chris Gamble and it was game -- and possibly season -- over for the Bills.

As tedious as this struggle was at times, it had one entertaining sideshow. Buffalo's Nate Clements, who describes himself as a "lock-down corner" and Smith traded verbal jabs after almost every play.

Smith was held to just three catches, but back-to-back grabs of 17 and 29 yards were crucial in setting up a third-quarter field goal.

Far more importantly, by forcing Buffalo to devote two of its best defenders -- Clements and safety Troy Vincent -- to cover him, opportunities bloomed elsewhere.

Afterwards, Smith laughed off the Bills' approach, saying that by having Vincent to "breast-feed," as he put it, the Bills didn't believe Clements could get the job done.

"I just think it's a thing where the corner may think he's good enough, but the defensive coordinator obviously doesn't think he's good enough," Smith said. Ouch.

The Panthers, meanwhile, feel they are good enough to make another run at the NFC Championship and possibly the Super Bowl, even when opponents stifle Smith.

"It's huge for us," Panthers guard Mark Wahle said. "If we're going to go anywhere this season, we've gotta know that if they're going to shut Smitty down, we can do some other things to be productive."


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