It was about 45 minutes before game time on Sunday in Charlotte, in the east end zone of the stadium Billy Graham dedicated five months ago. As the wrath of the Carolinas rained on him from the stands, Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin lazily played catch with running back Emmitt Smith. Give the fans credit. Their language was clean, as you'd expect from folks in his churchgoing bastion. Still, they got their point across. One fellow in a CONVICTS VS. CAROLINA T-shirt celled to Irvin, "No class, Mike! Good versus evil, Mike! You're going down, Mike!"
He did. His team did. The Carolina Panthers not only beat the scandal-scarred Super Bowl champion Cowboys on offense, defense and special teams at Ericsson Stadium, but they also showed more poise. However, the most stunning thing about Carolina's 26-17 win in this NFC divisional playoff game was that it wasn't so stunning. Dallas's run for a fourth Super Bowl victory in five years ended in part because of drug suspensions and injuries but mostly because the Panthers were the setter team. Running back Anthony Johnson carried Carolina in crunch time when Smith couldn't carry Dallas. Panther Kerry Collins was a better quarterback than Troy Aikman, who threw interceptions to kill the Cowboys' last two drives. With a complex blitz package and a secondary that played tighter coverage than Dallas ever anticipated, the Carolina defense frustrated the Cowboys for the better part of 60 minutes.
Strange day, indeed, but these are strange times in the NFL, with two second-year teams in this Sunday's conference championship games. The Panthers visit the Green Bay Packers in the NFC, while the Jacksonville Jaguars are at the New England Patriots in the AFC. Could we be looking at an all-expansion Super Bowl? "I could see it," Carolina linebacker Kevin Greene said after Sunday's win. "There was one team that beat us this year—I mean really handled us. That was Jacksonville."
The Jaguars whipped the Panthers 24-14 on Sept. 29, which now seems light-years away for both of these teams. Of course, neither ever fit the profile of a traditional expansion team because of the megabucks they could—and did—spend in free agency. Carolina put together a roster that features 23 players with playoff experience. The Panthers have quick pass rushers, three veteran linebackers who will start in the Pro Bowl, clingy corners and an offense that is playing better than even Carolina's fastidious coach, Dom Capers, could have imagined. "Hey, open your eyes," the emotional Greene said. "Watch us play. We're solid in all parts of the game, and every week we've got a great game plan. Look how many of our guys have been to the playoffs, the Pro Bowl, the Super Bowl. These days in the NFL, every team's going to turn over 15, 20 players a year. The onus is on the coaches to coach all these new parts into a team."
What a job Capers and his two coordinators—Vic Fangio on defense and Joe Pendry on offense—did against Dallas. Carolina runs 15 to 20 blitzing schemes a game, and the Cowboys knocked themselves out last week preparing for the mad rush. But because the Panthers put in 10 blitzes they hadn't called since early in the season, confusion reigned along the Dallas line. Carolina was determined to be aggressive on offense, too. Despite having linemen known only to their mothers (Mathew Campbell, Matt Elliott, Frank Garcia, Greg Skrepenak and Norberto Garrido), the Panthers vowed to run the ball against a defense that ranked ninth in the league in stopping the rush in 1996.
Football is a funny game. All season Carolina won with defense and special teams, but in the most important game of their short existence, the Panthers stepped up big on offense. Campbell, a 270-pound converted tight end who's the lightest starting tackle in the NFL, and Garrido, a 313-pound rookie guard, led Carolina to a 127-yard rushing performance, and the line surrendered no sacks. The Panthers' offense started asserting itself early, with Johnson banging for 18 yards on the first series before Collins threw his lone interception, a pass that strong safety Darren Woodson picked off at the Dallas 47. The Cowboys capitalized with a Chris Boniol chip shot—but not before losing Irvin to a shoulder sprain on their second play from scrimmage, when Carolina linebacker Lamar Lathon drove Irvin into the turf on a jarring tackle.
Collins, cooler than any 24-year-old has a right to be when facing the world champions, came back with touchdown throws on the Panthers' next two possessions—a one-yarder to tight end Wesley Walls and a perfectly thrown 10-yard out to wide receiver Willie Green. "I love our defense, because it's won so many games for us," Collins would say after the game. "But after a while, as an offensive player here with all the attention the defense gets, you start to say, 'What are we, chopped liver?' "
The night before the game, Collins, a polite kid from Penn State, dined with his agent, Leigh Steinberg. He scoffed when Steinberg told him his life was about to change, that the playoffs and the Super Bowl are what define a quarterback's career. "Be serious," Collins said. "Don't be talking to me about the Super Bowl yet."
O.K., but you can talk to him about his biggest thrill of the 1996 season—being backstage in October with Pearl Jam, the band that he says got him through his youth, and exchanging shirts with lead singer Eddie Vedder. "A spiritual experience," Collins says. "I gave Eddie a Panthers jersey and signed it, 'To Eddie, my icon.' He gave me the shirt he wore on stage that night, wrote number 12 on the back and signed it. You think my friends are a little envious of that?" Knocking the Cowboys off their throne two years out of Paterno U. Bonding with Eddie Vedder. Best season of Collins's life, and it's not over.
The same can be said for Johnson, a seven-year veteran who is with his fourth NFL team. In training camp Johnson fell so far down the depth chart that he asked Capers for his release. Capers refused, and after rookie Tim Biakabutuka went down with a season-ending knee injury against Jacksonville, Johnson showed why Capers wanted to hold on to him. In 15 games this season, including 11 as a starter, he rushed for 1,120 yards and six touchdowns.