They're fragile, they're banged up, they're winning—nobody knows how, with all the people they keep losing. But here it is late November and the Carolina Panthers are 7-4, one game out of first place in the NFC West after Sunday's 20-10 victory at St. Louis and just one game behind the 49ers, whom they beat back in September.
Things looked bad on Sunday. The Panthers had a 1-4 road record, and they were facing a Rams team that was coming off a 59-point outburst. Quarterback Kerry Collins was out with a bruised shoulder, go-to wideout Muhsin Muhammad down with a pulled hamstring and top runner Tim Biakabutuka lost for the season with a torn ligament in his left knee.
In the first half their wideouts were dropping the ball, Steve Beuerlein was misfiring on his passes, his bailout receiver, tight end Wesley Walls, couldn't shake the coverage, and the line was getting disrupted by the Rams' rush schemes. Put that all together, and you've got 78 yards of offense and the short end of a 10-3 score. Then, bingo! "We've been a second-half team all season," nickelback Toi Cook says, "and you know what that means. It means character."
Four of the seven Panthers wins have come when they trailed at the intermission. They've been outscored in the second half only once this season. In St. Louis they drew a deep breath and fixed the parts that were broken. Walls and the wideouts made the tough catches in coverage, Beuerlein started zeroing in, the line adjusted, and the defense held the Rams to 70 yards and zero points in the second half. And at the end the Panthers, protecting a 17-10 lead, burned 7:03 off the clock with a long, grinding field goal drive.
So who are these guys who have no business challenging anyone for anything but simply won't go away?
THE JOURNEYMAN: Running back Anthony Johnson, fourth NFL team since leaving Notre Dame in 1990, cut by the Bears in November '95 and picked up by Carolina. He rushed for 123 yards on Sunday, his fourth game over a C-note. "Yeah, I saw the end in sight, and it scared me," says Johnson, who took over when Biakabutuka got hurt in late September. "After my first 100-yard game I was kind of in shock. The last one I had was in high school. Then I got another, then another. I started feeling tired, beat up. Tim and I used to laugh about how banged up he'd be after games. All of a sudden it wasn't so funny anymore."
THE FIELD MOUSE: Sam Mills, the amazing 5'9" inside linebacker who anchored all those terrific New Orleans defenses for so many years. So small, so old—how does he do it? "Great football brain," says coach Dom Capers. "Great conditioning. Great dedication." That's a lot of greats, but Mills has Hall of Fame written all over him.
It is Friday night before the Rams game, and Mills and his wife, Melanie, are late for their dinner appointment. "Sorry," he says, "but I had to take the Jeep Cherokee. Sam III took the BMW to go to the Bulls-Hornets game." Sam III is 18. Daddy is 37—and on Sunday he led all tacklers with 12.
"Maybe I've lost a step, but I can still run faster than any inside linebacker," he says. "Someday, maybe in about 10 years, I won't."
"Then they'll put on a real Senior Bowl, and you can play in it," Melanie says.