Panthers not waiting for second half this year

TAMPA, Fla. -- Long before he could be seen, Panthers strong safety Marlon McCree was definitely heard following Sunday's thrashing of the Bucs. His words echoed loudly off the long, grey concrete corridor that winds to the visitor's locker room underneath Raymond James Stadium.

"Here come the Panthers, baby!" exhorted McCree after a 34-14 victory, the latest much-ballyhooed NFL showdown that turned into a lopsided beat-down. "Look out, here we come, man."

Under any circumstance, McCree's bombast might serve as a cautionary reminder for the rest of the league. But this season, with the Panthers uncharacteristically successful in the first half of the schedule, and with coach John Fox's typically strong-finishing outfit amassing momentum for the playoff stretch run, the NFL might want to seriously heed the warning that McCree issued Sunday.

In administering a thorough beating, and dominating the stunningly overmatched Bucs from the outset, Carolina won for the fifth straight time. More important, the Panthers climbed to 6-2 to keep pace with the Atlanta Falcons in an NFC South chase likely to be a dogfight until the end of the season. Carolina's record also ties for the best first half of a season in its history. In their previous 10 seasons, the Panthers were 30-50 over the first half.

Oh, yeah, the other time Carolina was 6-2 in the first half of a season? That would be 2003, when the Panthers advanced to Super Bowl XXXVIII. If Sunday was any indication, don't bet against the Panthers reaching Super Bowl XL.

Beset by a mind-boggling spate of injuries last season, the Panthers started 1-7 before rallying to win six of eight in the second half, staying in playoff contention until the final weekend. Combining the second half of 2004 with the first half of this year, Carolina is 12-4 in its last 16. Only three teams have better records in that stretch.

For one of the few times in the 11-year history of the franchise, the Panthers are among the pursued at the midway point of a season, and not lumped with the pursuers.

"It's nice to be in the driver's seat for a change," said Steve Smith, the splendid wideout who had five catches for 102 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown grab in the fourth quarter, "and not stuck in the back seat."

Actually, the Panthers aren't quite in control, since Atlanta is still clutching half of the steering wheel. But the Panthers are riding no worse than shotgun in the division, and that's not too bad a position in which to be, particularly compared to some past years.

The way the Panthers have performed recently, playing consistently well on both sides of the ball, suggests they appear to be a legitimate contender to motor all the way to Detroit.

Especially if they simply play to second-half form the rest of the way.

In Fox's three previous seasons as coach, the Panthers are an aggregate 15-9 in the second half of the year and have never finished below .500 in the final eight games. Carolina still has four division games left, including two against Atlanta, a nemesis franchise that has defeated the Panthers in nine of their last 10 matchups and 14 of 20 all-time between the two. The teams meet in the Georgia Dome on Dec. 4 and then at Carolina on New Year's Day in the season finale.

Should the Panthers just equal their second-half average under Fox, five victories, that would give them 11 wins and an almost-certain playoff spot.

A chic pick by many pundits in the preseason to claim another conference championship, the Panthers dropped their emotional opener to New Orleans and were upset in Miami. Those three-point losses seemed to galvanize a franchise that is nothing if not resilient, a club that collectively personifies Fox's no-frills approach. The Panthers don't just play week to week, they play snap to snap, trying to win games a play at a time.

It is a style that serves the Panthers very well, indeed.

No one in Carolina's locker room, not surprisingly, was about to peek beyond next week's home game with the sputtering New York Jets. But a quick retrospective of the crushing win over the Bucs, who were 5-2 coming in, revealed a Panthers bunch playing at near-peak efficiency.

"It's certainly a big step for us," said cornerback Chris Gamble, who authored a pair of interceptions, including one that he returned 61 yards for a touchdown early in the third quarter, to boost the Panthers into a commanding 24-7 lead. "A lot of games, you need one side to pick the other side up, you know? It's hard to get every [facet] of the team playing so well at the same time. But we're clicking pretty good right now. You name the way to do it and we're getting it done."

The interception return was the first touchdown of the season by the usually resourceful Carolina defense, but the fourth game in a row against the Bucs in which the Panthers have scored on an interception runback.

On offense, the Panthers are so fundamentally sound and so maddeningly committed to playing every game at their pace, that they appear mundane at times. In truth, Carolina did not run the ball very well Sunday, netting just 77 yards on 32 attempts, and with Stephen Davis being limited to a mere 48 yards. But the Panthers still outgained Tampa Bay (287-270), committed no turnovers, and got ample big plays from quarterback Jake Delhomme in the passing game.

As usual, Smith was the focal point, and no other Carolina player had more than two catches. But the venerable Ricky Proehl slipped behind Shelton Quarles -- yes, the Bucs still count on their middle linebacker to hang deep with wideouts in their trademark Cover 2 zone -- for a 62-yard catch to set up one of Davis' two short scoring runs. And while the Panthers had only 11 completions, they averaged a heady 19.6 yards per catch, with nine of their catches resulting in first downs, five coming on third-down situations.

Notable was the performance of second-year veteran Travelle Wharton, who in his first year as the starter at offensive left tackle pitched a shutout against Tampa Bay star defensive end Simeon Rice, according to the official stat sheet. The Bucs star had as many tackles (none) as he posted last week, when he was suspended by Bucs coach Jon Gruden and sent home from San Francisco after being late to a team meeting.

"See, it's guys like that, players getting very little recognition but playing really well, who are helping to drive this team," said defensive end Mike Rucker, who had two of the Panthers' five sacks of Chris Simms. "We're getting contributions from a lot of places right now. That's how you win in this league."

You win consistently, too, by playing exemplary defense. The Panthers have begun to bring lots of heat on opposing quarterbacks. Rucker acknowledged part of the game plan against Simms, making only his third career start in three years, was to "mess with" the head of the young quarterback, who is replacing the injured Brian Griese. Until the interception return for a touchdown by Gamble, on the first series of the second half, Simms played well enough.

But the youngster's confidence seemed to evaporate after that -- Simms was 12-for-15 for 145 yards until the ill-timed pass attempt for Michael Clayton was pilfered -- and his pass protection melted down as well. Right tackle Kenyatta Walker, flagged for three false-start penalties in a four-snap span, had problems keeping Panthers end Julius Peppers out of the backfield. Peppers, who entered the game with only one sack, posted two, beating Walker once and moving inside on a stunt to notch a second takedown of Simms.

Criticized early in the season, when it registered just five sacks in the first give games, Carolina's defense now has 15 sacks in the last three games. That performance clearly is fueling solid play in the backside of the defense as well. Linebacker Dan Morgan and Will Witherspoon were all over the field Sunday, combining for 16 tackles, and the secondary enjoyed a terrific collective outing with nine passes defensed to go along with Gamble's two interceptions.

For a team whose mindset is to progress in incremental spasms and lurches, the Panthers took a giant step and, even if no one was in the mood to declare it, seemed to understand that this is a team that is playoff-bound.

"The whole idea is to just keep getting better every time out," said free safety Mike Minter, the elder statesman of the Panthers and clearly the conscience of the team. "You do that and, come late December, you'll be right where you want to be. You won't have to sneak up on anybody, warn them that you're coming, because they'll know."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.