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Old 12-17-2006, 05:19 AM   #1
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Scott Brown
Sunday, December 17, 2006

A season of unfilled expectations generally lead to comments like this one:
"People have to understand that this is our livelihood, and no one is more frustrated when it doesn't unfold the way you want it to than the players and coaches because we throw everything into it."

Steelers coach Bill Cowher said that Monday.

The words could have just as easily come from the mouth of Carolina Panthers coach John Fox.

The teams that played in their conference's championship game last season -- one of them, as fans in these parts may recall, went on to win the Super Bowl - will essentially stage an elimination contest today at Bank of America Stadium.

And one that is considerably earlier than Feb. 4 when some pundits had the Steelers and Panthers meeting in the Super Bowl.

The teams have many things in common, not the least of which are 6-7 records and dire situations that few could have foreseen before the start of the regular season.

"Every year, everybody has their prediction of who's going to be in Super Bowl contention and whatnot," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said. "Coach Cowher always speaks about the fine line (between winning and losing). There's a couple of games that could have easily bounced our way, and we win those games, and we could easily be at 8-4 right now."

The Steelers would gladly take 8-5 or even 7-6 given the start in which they lost six of eight games and often beat themselves with untimely turnovers.

Turnovers have also been an issue with the Panthers, who were expected to at least win the NFC South.

While the Steelers are minus-eight in turnover ratio, a statistic that has a direct correlation to winning and losing, the Panthers have seven more turnovers than takeaways.

As Fox sees it, the Panthers have not been opportunistic enough (they have forced 18 turnovers, the fourth fewest in the NFC).

That may seem odd considering Carolina fields a fearsome front four that features Julius Peppers, as well as space-eating and running back-swallowing tackle Kris Jenkins.

But just as injuries contributed to the Steelers' turnover problems - quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw five interceptions in his first two games following an emergency appendectomy and four in his first game back after sustaining a concussion - they have also neutered the Panthers' defense and their ability to take the ball away from opponents.

Carolina lost inside linebacker Dan Morgan to a season-ending concussion in its first game and the secondary has been ravaged by injuries.

Starting cornerbacks Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas missed last Sunday's game, allowing struggling Giants quarterback Eli Manning to have a get-well game against the Panthers and New York to get a badly needed win.

Carolina's drop off this season can also be attributed to the Panthers' struggles on offense.

"They have a lot of weapons that they can go to at any time," Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend said.

They do on paper.

Steve Smith is perhaps the best wideout in the NFL, and the Panthers signed Keyshawn Johnson last offseason to complement him.

They also took DeAngelo Williams in the first round of last April's draft to bolster a running game that has relied on talented but injury-prone running back DeShaun Foster in the past years.

Smith and, predictably, Foster have missed some games due to injuries but the offensive line has been hit hardest by them.

Left tackle Travelle Wharton and center Justin Hartwig were essentially lost for the season in the Panthers' first game.

The cumulative effect of those injuries has most been felt by Jake Delhomme if his uneven play is any indication.

The quarterback that led the Panthers to a Super Bowl and pair of NFC title game appearances the previous three seasons has struggled (15 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions and a 79.4 passer rating) at times.

Criticism of Delhomme, who appeared to have achieved cult status in Charlotte after signing with the Panthers as an unheralded free agent, has mounted.

He missed last week's game with a thumb injury and watched Chris Weinke set a franchise record with 423 passing yards. Of course, Weinke threw 61 passes because the Panthers fell behind early and got intercepted three times.

The 2000 Heisman Trophy winner will start again today if Delhomme is unable to play because of a bad thumb on his throwing hand

"We've lost a lot of close games, and that's tough," Weinke said. "Because of that, being in the position that we are in, Jake took a lot of heat. He's handled it very professionally. He comes to work every single day and doesn't change."

The Panthers have had trouble closing games, and in five of their losses, they led in the fourth quarter. The Steelers have had a similar problem in that one or two plays may have been the difference in some of their close losses, especially early in the season.

Back when the Steelers and Panthers were considered Super Bowl contenders.

"I'm sure they're as disappointed as we are," Cowher said. "Their opportunity is probably a little bit better considering the conference they're in at this point."

Indeed, the Steelers have won four of their last five while the Panthers have lost three in a row, but Carolina somehow enters today's game in better shape.

If the Panthers win their final three games they will likely claim one of the wild-card spots in the mediocre NFC.

"That is the way I am looking at it," Fox said. "Time will tell."

And more than likely run out for at least one preseason Super Bowl favorite today.
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