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Panthers LB Thomas Davis may be O-L-D but he doesn't play like it

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers outside linebacker Thomas Davis has heard so many old man jokes that they're beginning to get, well, old.

He’s heard so many that he’ll sometimes call himself old before a teammate or reporter beats him to it.

Coach Ron Rivera began talking about the 33-year-old this week by saying he kids Davis “because he is O-L-D."

Rivera didn’t say "old." He spelled it out.

But Davis doesn’t play old. He defies age with the plays he makes, to the point it leaves opponents, teammates and coaches dumbfounded.

One such play came in Sunday’s 13-10 victory over the Los Angeles Rams. Leaping into the air like Michael Jordan going to the rim for a dunk, the 6-foot-1, 235-pound Davis picked off a Case Keenum pass at which he appeared to have no shot.

“It leaves me speechless at times and thanking God for having a guy like him around," Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said.

Cam Newton likes to play the role of “Superman," but Davis is the real “Man of Steel" for the Panthers (3-5). He’s making a mockery of Father Time, particularly when you consider he’s had ACL surgery on his right knee three times.

“Thomas Davis is a freak of nature," Carolina wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. said.

The average length of an NFL player’s career is 3.3 years, according to the NFL Players Association. The average career for a linebacker is three years.

Davis is in his 12th.

Since returning in 2012 from his third ACL surgery -- something no NFL player had successfully done before -- Davis has put up the best numbers of his career.

He’s had at least 100 tackles for four straight seasons and is on target for a fifth straight, with 67 heading into Sunday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs. There are only 33 other instances of a player 33 years or older having 100-plus tackles since 2001, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Davis’ interception against the Rams gave him nine since 2012. Only one other NFL linebacker, teammate Luke Kuechly (12), has had more during that span. Six of those have come in the past two seasons.

Fourteen of Davis’ 25 career sacks have come since 2013. Ten of his 18 career forced fumbles have come since 2012.

“He’s an old man and he still has it," Carolina outside linebacker Shaq Thompson said. “We tell him all the time he’s old, but he has a lot of energy out there. We love his passion and the way he does it."

Davis has come up big during Carolina’s two-game winning streak following a 1-5 start. He had a team-high 11 tackles, a sack, an interception and a forced fumble against the Rams.

The week before, against Arizona, he had six tackles and a fumble recovery returned 46 yards for his first NFL touchdown.

“For him to realize the Father of Time is not on his side, but yet he comes in with the mentality that he’s a warrior and one of the leaders of our team," Newton said. “With that approach, you can’t lose.

“For the young guys, as well as myself, seeing plays like that, you’ve got to tip your hat to a guy like that."

Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, 32, tipped his. “He’s playing great," Smith said. “He’s physical. The physicality at that age, that’s definitely something I can’t identify with."

Davis definitely is a player for whom Kansas City coach Andy Reid devises a game plan. “I wish that joker was breaking down. Holy Toledo," he said. “Man, he can play. Fifty-eight is all over the field, and he hasn’t slowed down a bit since he’s been in the league. He gives you an honest down every down."

Davis’ body isn’t breaking down because he trains harder than most players 10 years younger.

“If you don’t play attention to that guy, you’re a fool," Ginn said.

Carolina safety Michael Griffin, 31, said Davis plays like he’s 23 instead of 33. “There’s no telling how many good years he’s got left," Griffin said. “A lot of people get to Year 9, 10 and say they don’t know how much more they have left in the tank.

“It seems like he still has over half a tank left."