No longer under the radar, Panthers reach for top

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Let's get this out of the way at the start: The Carolina Panthers are the best team the NFC has to offer right now.

Kind of ironic because that's the kind of attention their fans have been begging for all season. It's also ironic because that's exactly the same type of attention their coach, general manager and owner absolutely despise.

If John Fox, Marty Hurney and Jerry Richardson were piloting a plane up to New York for Sunday night's showdown with the New York Giants, they'd be scraping the ground all the way. These guys didn't invent flying under the radar -- they just have mastered it.

Tell Fox his team is 11-3 and he instantly will tell you the only thing guaranteed is the Panthers will finish with 11 wins. Pick up a phone in the Giants Stadium press box in the final moments of a 2005 playoff shutout of New York and start making hotel reservations in Chicago for the following week's game and Hurney, the bizarrely-superstitious general manager, will start screaming at a reporter, "Stan, hang up that phone right now. This game's not over. You're going to jinx us."

Richardson, the owner who brought the franchise to the Carolinas, gets bashed on talk radio for not giving any interviews. In recent years, he's sat down with a beat writer or columnist from The Charlotte Observer once or twice a year for one-on-one chats. In those settings, Richardson shows a tremendous mind and a brilliant common touch. He'll give good answers and, inevitably, the beat writer or the columnist would look at him and say, "See it's not so hard. Why don't you do this more often?" Richardson would then say he prefers not to because it's not about him, it's about the team.

Then, Richardson would sit for an hour or two and talk off the record, asking the columnist about his family or asking the beat reporter what parts of the team could be run better. Part of it was a genuine concern about the person he was talking to and part of it was to take the attention off himself.

But it's no longer possible for Fox, Hurney and Richardson to stay under the radar. Their team is playing the defending Super Bowl champions in a prime-time slot -- nobody's overlooking the Panthers anymore.

Maybe those fans who have been beating their chests and sounding like helicopters can stop. The Panthers are getting attention and respect.

As I said at the start, the Panthers are the best team in the NFC right now. And I'll take it one step further and say the Panthers are the NFC's best bet to get to the Super Bowl.

Here are five reasons why:

1. TIMING. In case you haven't noticed, the Giants have issues. Brandon Jacobs is banged up, Plaxico Burress is a bad shot and Tom Coughlin is raving about his team's season -- a sure sign he's worried about what's been happening lately. The Panthers are the exact opposite and they're peaking at just the right time. They got their adversity out of the way early, when receiver Steve Smith slugged cornerback Ken Lucas in training camp. The Panthers suspended Smith for the first two games, Lucas immediately forgave Smith and all indications are this team is harmonious as it's ever been. The Panthers suddenly have the kind of momentum they did in their 2003 Super Bowl run, it looks like the momentum the Giants played with down the stretch last year.

2. SMASH AND DASH. Or whatever you want to call Carolina's backfield of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. They combine power and speed and their numbers have been outrageous for the last few weeks. One scout I talked to in recent weeks said, "You run the ball like that, you can win a Super Bowl."

3. THE OFFENSIVE LINE. Right now, and we emphasize "right now," the Panthers have the best offensive line in the league. They've been blowing up defensive lines for the last month. That's precisely what Hurney was hoping for when he talked about blowing up the line after last season. The Panthers wanted to get bigger and more physical up front. They did. They drafted right tackle Jeff Otah, a mauler out of Pittsburgh. They signed oversized free agent Keydrick Vincent and put him at right tackle. They took second-year pro Ryan Kalil off the bench and put him in the middle at center. They took right tackle Jordan Gross and moved him to the left side, where he made the Pro Bowl. They took left tackle Travelle Wharton and slid him inside to left guard, where he darn near made the Pro Bowl.

Otah, Kalil and Gross each missed some time early on with injuries. But they've been back together for the last four games and that's when the offense started getting dramatically better. One other thing: This line's only going to get better with each game it plays together.

4. FOX. The guy gets knocked for his conservative approach. But that conservative approach in 2003 was good enough to get the Panthers within a field goal of a Super Bowl victory. This is the first time Fox has had the kind of ball-control offense since Stephen Davis carried that team. When Fox has been able to coach his style, it's been impressive. When Fox is in a big game, he's at his best. Remember when the former Giants defensive coordinator brought his 2005 team (which had run out of running backs and was riding on Steve Smith's back) into Giants Stadium for a playoff game and shut out New York? It was
the best game of Fox's career.

5. THE RICHARDSON FACTOR. News just came out a few days ago that the 72-year-old owner needs a heart transplant. In most circumstances, that would be an off-the-field story. With Richardson and the Panthers, it's a football story. Richardson, a former Baltimore Colts receiver, is the first former player to own a team since the legendary George Halas. Richardson never has forgotten his routes and he's an incredibly popular figure in Carolina's locker room. He's very close to almost all his players and coaches and they're well aware of his situation. When Richardson was granted the expansion team, he promised a Super Bowl victory within 10 years. That didn't quite happen. But Richardson still wants a Super Bowl win and, more than ever, his players, who rallied around the ill Sam Mills and Mark Fields in their previous Super Bowl run, would like to give him the best thing they can.