Panthers shock Chargers
SAN DIEGO - Sometimes, two seconds can last forever.
Empirically speaking, in football, they can last as long as a play can endure as long as the ball is snapped before the clock hits triple zeroes. As long as the blockers can hold snarling pass rushers out of the passing pocket, as long as the quarterback can dart around and search for an opening, as long as it takes for some potential pass-catcher to find open space, and as long as it takes for all of those things to come together and create a crevice through which the football can fly.
Sometimes, though, the time crawls. A tsunami of noise is muted. And Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, in his first regular-season game in nearly 12 months, two seconds on the clock and destiny in his hands.
"I'm just standing there," he said, "and it was like it was going in slow motion, just looking, looking, looking."
Then, the controlled mayhem of 21 men moving around and in front of Delhomme drew into focus -- in the form of No. 88, tight end Dante Rosario.
"Dante and I just caught eyes."
Delhomme pumped. He threw.
"I threw it and I said to myself, 'It might have a chance,'" Delhomme said. "The next thing you know, he's holding it and mayhem broke loose."
This was a different sort of mayhem than the one that surrounded Delhomme seconds earlier -- one without control or restraint.
<img> http://i114.photobucket.com/albums/n250/Delhome/080907_rosario_catch_g.jpg </img>
Somewhere amidst a mob of blue-shirted humanity at Qualcomm Stadium late Sunday afternoon, Rosario had the football, Delhomme ran around -- "like (former North Carolina State basketball coach) Jim Valvano," by his own admission -- and the Panthers had a 26-24 win over the San Diego Chargers.
The unfettered celebration was strictly spontaneous. The mayhem of the pass that proceeded it, however, had something of a plan when Delhomme came back from the sideline and addressed his teammates in the huddle.
"Jake literally told everyone, 'I want five verticals (routes); everyone get into the end zone, get open; I'm throwing it up,'" Rosario said.
"It was kind of a sandlot play," added left tackle Jordan Gross. "Just two seconds left, find somebody."
Admitted Delhomme: "It's a play we haven't run much. This was five verticals going to the end zone. This happens only at the end of the game; you've got to throw it in there."
But that play wouldn't have been possible without some crisp planning and drilling of the situation that came before it -- a six-yard pass from Delhomme to Muhsin Muhammad that made possible the final heroics.
"I think what helped us more than anything was the play before," Delhomme said. "We had six seconds and we still had a timeout, so we still had that in our pocket and we called all slants and all the guys knew to get down; it's a situation we've practiced numerous times."
It worked to perfection.
"As soon as (Muhammad) caught it, he went down and everyone's calling timeout," Rosario said.
The official record of the game shows an 11-play, 68-yard drive to Rosario's 14-yard touchdown -- just the third of his career. It shows that the Panthers seized a 19-10 lead early in the fourth quarter, and then lost it after surrendering two touchdowns in four minutes and 18 seconds.
But it doesn't show the significance of the last two seconds to a quarterback returning from an injury that might have threatened his career, a tight end who is just beginning to show what he can be, and a team that went into the game with one of its key components suspended and watching back in Charlotte, with Steve Smith hoping his team could pull through without him, knowing his team wanted to win it for him.
"We didn't have Steve today but we wanted to win for him because I know he wanted to be out there bad," said cornerback Chris Gamble.
"You know what? The greatest thing we did today is win without Steve, and that's a compliment to Steve. He is -- he's our best player. Everybody knows it. And we do miss him. But as a team we needed to win without him, " Delhomme said, "When he comes back, he's going to make you that much better.
"I know this game killed him because I know for a fact he was texting with (head athletic trainer) Ryan Vermillion all game long. Ryan told me in the third or fourth quarter; he said, 'We're killing Smitty; he's texting me like crazy.' I'm happy he watched and I'm happy he was so into it, and I promise you he has a smile on his face."
And after those two seconds that left the Panthers beaming, the comparison to Delhomme's game-winning drive and touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl in the 2003 season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars was obvious.
"This is 100 times greater," Delhomme said.
"This one's better, honestly," Gross said. "This is one game, one win, but this is a huge win for us."
And it was a win that happened in two seconds ... two seconds that can last a lifetime for Delhomme, Rosario, their giddy teammates and their fans watching from afar.
THE FIRST 59:58
The stunning finish will spin incessantly through highlight reels for the next few days; but the game that preceded it was like three hours of tug of war, wobbling back and forth as the Panthers and Chargers exchanged momentum like stock shares.
Through the travails -- including injuries to offensive linemen Jeff Otah and Travelle Wharton, a fourth-down incompletion at the goal line in the first quarter and two second-quarter drives that saw Carolina advance into the San Diego red zone but only come out with a pair of John Kasay field goals -- the Panthers' faith in themselves was unshaken.
"We never doubted -- not for one moment -- that we could come into San Diego and win this game today," cornerback Ken Lucas said.
"Yeah, we had some injuries," added wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who snagged six Delhomme passes for 56 yards in his first game as a Panther in over three years. "We had some guys come in and fill some spots. We played without our superstar, without Smitty, and we knew it was going to be a challenge for us to come on the road and be able to win the game without him.
"We all stepped up and made plays. It wasn't pretty; it wasn't perfect, but it was effective and enough to get the job done."
An aura of confidence rose to the surface from the moment the Panthers strode onto the Qualcomm Stadium grass for pregame warmups. That was something the team sought to keep under wraps publicly as the days until kickoff dwindled.
"We had that swagger all week long," Lucas said. "There were times when we wanted to say, 'Man, we're going to beat this team,' but we couldn't say that, because you want to be humble about the situation. But when we got on the field, it was time to show it then. There wasn't any more hiding it."
The game remained scoreless until a 44-yard Kasay field goal 2:25 into the second quarter gave the Panthers a 3-0 advantage. At that point, the game began settling into its back-and-forth rhythm, with the teams exchanging the lead five times over the next three quarters until the Delhomme-to-Rosario provided a sixth -- and final -- lead change.
Defense dominated throughout the first three quarters, as the Chargers turned in three red-zone stops while the Panthers had one of their own, a third-quarter clamp-down completed when Jon Beason and Thomas Davis met LaDainian Tomlinson in the open field on a third-and-18 from the Carolina 15-yard-line; their tackle limited Tomlinson to six yards and forced the Chargers to settle for a 27-yard Nate Kaeding field goal that put San Diego in front 16-9.
Less than four minutes later, the Panthers reclaimed the advantage after Chris Harris stripped loose the football from San Diego tight end Antonio Gates after a 7-yard reception on a third-and-5 situation. Carolina cornerback Chris Gamble picked up the football and remained untouched for a 31-yard dash to the end zone that put the Panthers in front 16-10 with 1:29 left in the third quarter.
"When (Rivers) threw it, I thought I was just going to get a huge shot on (Gates) and that he was going to go down off the initial hit," Harris said. "But he didn't, and when his body turned, as he was going down, I just saw the ball sitting out there. So I just went for the strip, and it popped up, and Chris just takes it in there and picks it up and takes it to the house."
With the game in a decidedly defensive posture to that point, Harris surmised that might be the only touchdown Carolina would need.
"I thought that was going to be the game-winning touchdown, to be honest with you," he said. "But they get paid to play, too. They came back and made some big plays."
Those came in the fourth quarter, as a 25-yard Rivers-to-Vincent Jackson connection one play after the Panthers took a 19-10 lead seemed to ignite the Chargers, who drove 80 yards to a touchdown, recovered a D.J. Hackett fumble three plays later and then marched 28 yards in seven plays to a second touchdown in a four-minute, 18-second span.
But that simply proved to be prelude to a final drive and a climactic play that sent the Panthers flying home with a 1-0 mark and a win over a team that came into Sunday having won 15 of its last 16 home games."To come in here and hang in there, fight, scratch, bite -- that was a heck of an effort," said head coach John Fox.
"For future reference, I was sort of hoping for a suggestion that didn't sound like it came from that Bolshevik Muppet with all the dynamite.”
- Jim Butcher