The cascade of frigid water comes suddenly, drenching its victim at the most inopportune time. Whenever a Carolina Panthers player enters a bathroom stall at the team's Bank of America Stadium headquarters, he faces the jolting prospect of a 35-gallon bucket, filled with water drawn from the training-room cold tub, being emptied on him from over the side of the stall. "When that happens," veteran wideout Ricky Proehl says, "someone very wet and very angry usually comes charging out of the stall looking for Jake or Smitty." � It seems that quarterback Jake Delhomme and wideout Steve Smith are among the NFL's most dangerous duos on and off the field. The Pro Bowl pair was typically potent last Sunday, hooking up 10 times for 84 yards and a touchdown in Carolina's 23-0 thrashing of the New York Giants in an NFC wild-card playoff game. In dismantling the NFC East champs in front of 79,378 silenced spectators at Giants Stadium, the Panthers served notice that they're a bona fide Super Bowl contender. "We're not going to razzle-and-dazzle you," said Smith, who caught a 22-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter and ran for a 12-yard score in the third, "but we are for real." � Yet the last time Carolina was regarded this highly, two months ago, the Chicago Bears--their divisonal round opponent this Sunday--put the Carolina offense in deep freeze at Soldier Field and soused the Super Bowl buzz with a 13-3 win. The Bears sacked Delhomme eight times in that game and held Carolina to 55 rushing yards, ending the Panthers' six-game winning streak and making it clear how much they still had to improve. As Proehl said after Sunday's game, "A victory like this gives us a lot of confidence going [back] to Chicago. We're playing better than we were in November, and we'll need to."
Carolina's ground game, in particular, has come on strong. Against the Giants, shifty DeShaun Foster carried 27 times for 151 yards as the Panthers controlled the ball a staggering 42:45. Meanwhile, coach John Fox's basic but effective defensive scheme--he and coordinator Mike Trgovac instructed their linemen and linebackers to hold their gaps and wait for running plays to develop--limited Giants All-Pro back Tiki Barber to 41 yards. The Carolina defense also caused misery for second-year quarterback Eli Manning (four sacks, three interceptions and a lost fumble). "The most impressive thing for them is that they don't have to bring [extra] pressure to get to the quarterback," New York center Shaun O'Hara said. "Because of that they don't give up the big play."
Though Carolina may have to win three road games to reach the Super Bowl, a feat accomplished only once before (by the 1985 Patriots), the prospect doesn't faze the team. Two years ago the Panthers won at St. Louis and Philadelphia en route to the NFC title. Delhomme's unpretentious leadership during that run and his inspired effort in the Panthers' last-second Super Bowl loss to the Patriots captivated the nation. So the comedown last year, when the injury-plagued Panthers finished 7-9, was especially jarring. After a 17-6 home loss to the San Diego Chargers dropped Carolina to 1-5, Delhomme, while driving through Charlotte, blurted to his wife, Keri, "Babe, I'll be honest with you. They can start somebody else at quarterback because I'm not getting it done." He never voiced that self-doubt to teammates or coaches, however, and soon his happy-go-lucky outlook returned.
Indeed, Delhomme remains a central figure in Panthers pranks. Teammates recently filled his locker with rice, and at one practice he discovered mashed potatoes in his cleats. "Some of our guys can dish it out but can't take it," Proehl says. "Jake can handle being the butt of a joke." Literally. In Carolina's 44-11 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the regular-season finale, teammates howled in the huddle after Delhomme realized his pants had ripped and his backside was exposed. "People who play football are portrayed as larger than life, but we're just a bunch of slappies," Delhomme said after Sunday's game. "On this team you'd better not have thin skin."
Now the Panthers have to avoid getting iced again in Chicago. Their efforts at New York turned the Giants into believers. "They've a very aggressive team, and with guys like Jake and Foster and Steve Smith they hurt you in a lot of ways," said Michael Strahan, New York's All-Pro defensive end. "They have their legs under them now, and they'll be a very tough team to beat."