Greg Hardy caps huge week with huge game

ATLANTA -- The past seven days have been huge for Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy.

It began a week ago with three sacks against New Orleans, followed by a selection to his first Pro Bowl on Friday, followed by a team single-game record four sacks in Sunday's 21-20 victory over Atlanta that gave him 15 to tie Kevin Greene for the team's single-season record.

That should make for a huge paycheck for the fourth-year player, who is a free agent after the season.

But that's not his focus.

"I'm talking about championships right now," Hardy said. "They pay a whole more for that."

He paused.

"You know I like the money," he continued. "I won't lie to you."

Hardy does like the money. He often talks about having enough to buy an expensive, fancy car to park in the team's parking lot. He should get that and more, whether it's from the Panthers or another team.

And while his first choice is to return to Carolina (12-4), to the point Hardy recently said he'd take less money than another team might offer to stay, that could change with his recent hot spell.

As he told one reporter on Sunday, "I'll go anywhere they pay me more money."

But Hardy knows that will come if he continues to collect sacks in bunches like he's done the past two weeks. His primary concern is on helping the Panthers win a Super Bowl.

He wasn't even aware of his sack total or the team record until reporters told him.

“It's not about individuals. It's about the team," Hardy said after helping Carolina clinch the NFC South title and a first-round bye. "I know we got the team record and that's all that matters. Consistent pressure from everybody. That's what wins games, and that's what is big around here.

"That's what is going to keep us winning. Continuing to be a team that wants to win.”

As a team, the Panthers sacked quarterback Matt Ryan nine times, the most given up by the Falcons since 2001. That was key on a day when the Falcons showed some of the offensive explosiveness they were expected to have all season before injuries to key players such as wide receiver Julio Jones.

Hardy was a big part of that. He had two in each half, and added eight quarterback hurries.

"It feels good to be part of a unit that's this good and has this much potential,” Hardy said.

Hardy's potential in many ways is untapped. Until this two-game breakout, he spent most of the season playing in the shadows of end Charles Johnson, who in 2011 got his big paycheck in the form of a six-year, $72 million deal.

Now Hardy is in the spotlight.

"It's like I couldn't do anything wrong," he said.

And he has a hunger to excel and keep this momentum going. This is unchartered territory for him in more ways than sack records.

"If I had the words, I'd give them to you," he said when asked to put the day into perspective. "I've never been here before. I'm dumbfounded."

So are quarterbacks that face him.