Panthers welcome week off

Published 6:54 pm Tuesday, December 30, 2008

By By MIKE CRANSTON, AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTE — Carolina Panthers coach John Fox spent last week insisting too much is made of having a bye in the playoffs, repeatedly mentioning how the New York Giants didn’t have a week off last year en route to winning the Super Bowl.
But a day after avoiding a monumental collapse in beating New Orleans 33-31 on John Kasay’s last-second field goal, Fox had a different message.
With four key linemen banged up and a tired defense, Fox warmly welcomed being the No. 2 seed in the NFC, getting a week off and having the Panthers’ first home playoff game in five years in the divisional round.
Instead of traveling to Arizona for a first-round game this weekend, the NFC South champion Panthers (12-4) will have three short, non-contact practices starting Wednesday before taking three days off. Fox hinted that several starters may not practice until next week.
The Panthers will face either Minnesota, Arizona or Atlanta on Jan. 10 in only the franchise’s third home playoff game.
The break will allow starting defensive tackles Maake Kemoeatu (ankle) and Damione Lewis (shoulder) time to heal after they sat out Sunday. Right tackle Jeff Otah (toe) and right guard Geoff Hangartner (ankle) also hope to return after being knocked out of Sunday’s game.
Kasay’s 42-yard field goal with 1 second left Sunday gave Carolina the week off after the Panthers squandered a 30-10 fourth-quarter lead by giving up three straight touchdowns to the pass-happy Saints.
The defense, though, appears to need the time off more.
After giving up 301 yards rushing in their overtime loss to the Giants, the Panthers allowed Drew Brees to throw for 386 yards and four touchdowns. The Panthers have given up 65 points the past two weeks.
But Carolina’s juggernaut offense won another shootout.
Consider DeAngelo Williams’ team-record 1,515 yards rushing is third in the league. Steve Smith, whose remarkable, leaping 39-yard grab in double-coverage set up the winning field goal, is third in the NFL with 1,421 yards receiving despite being suspended for the first two games.
The Panthers have scored at least 28 points in seven straight games.
The latest comeback completed a 4-1 record in their brutal five-game finish that included trips to Green Bay, the Giants and New Orleans and home games against Tampa Bay and Denver.
The Panthers will face the highest remaining seed in the division playoffs. If No. 3 Minnesota beats Philadelphia, the Vikings will visit Bank of America Stadium. If the Eagles win, Carolina will face the Atlanta at Arizona winner.
The Panthers have played all three teams this season. They lost to the Vikings 20-10 in Week 3, beat Arizona 27-23 in October and split two games against Atlanta, including an embarrassing 45-28 loss at the Georgia Dome last month.
So will the week off. After having to move Jordan Gross from left to right tackle and put in little-used Frank Omiyale at left tackle Sunday, the offensive line can get healthy.
Same thing on the defensive line, where Nick Hayden, who was on Carolina’s practice squad until just over a week ago, was forced to start against the Saints.
And a week after his 50-yard field goal that could have won the game was caught in the wind and sailed wide left in the loss to the Giants, Kasay got another chance to give his team a rest.