Dec. 16, 2012; Glendale, AZ, USA: Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh holds an oxygen mask on the sidelines against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Lions 38-10. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers Dominate in First Half, Lead Oakland Raiders 14-3 at Intermission

The first play of the game was a 76-yard TD run called back as Steve Smith mugged a defender on the play to help spring him. That hurt two ways, since I had to start D-Will on my fantasy team! ARGH! All fantasy owners know of similar feelings. They ended their initial possession with a punt.

The Panther defense looked spry early and flowed well to the ball on running plays, which is great to see given the troubles they’ve had against the run again this season. After Oakland punted back, Newton drove the team down the field, overcoming a couple of additional penalties, culminating with Cam’s 11th TD pass of the season and perhaps the most spectacular throw I’ve seen him make all year. He rolled right and threw an off-balance pass to Steve Smith, streaking down the right sideline, who made a nice catch in the end zone.

Newton’s awkward position didn’t deter him from making a perfectly-placed pass to the Mighty Mite. It really was a thing to see and a pass that few quarterbacks can make even at the NFL level. This team looks like it is finally starting to play up to its potential this past month and the coaching staff appears to have gotten things more on an even keel. Early penalties are again a concern and one that needs addressing, but overall the team is playing several notches above the level they were before about mid-season.

Then came the controversial play. Oakland QB Carson Palmer rolled right, dodged a defender, and just stood there waiting for a receiver to get open. He began to throw and was hit from behind by Greg Hardy in what appeared to be a clean hard hit. He lowered his head and shoulder, hitting Palmer in the back with his shoulder, causing an errant throw and incomplete pass. Upon replay, it was more obvious that Hardy led with his head and hit him in the back with his helmet. It wasn’t a mean-spirited thing and would’ve been completely legal a few years ago.

At any rate, the Raiders weren’t able to do anything with Matt Leinhart in the game as Palmer walked it off on the sidelines.

About mid-way through the second quarter, rookie MLB Luke Kuechly showed the world why he was the Panthers’ top pick. In the red zone, he made 4 consecutive tackles and three of them were “impact” plays. First, he stuffed RB Darren McFadden for no gain on a dominating tackle. Then, with Terrelle Pryor at QB and Leinhart split out wide, the Raiders tried a fake left and QB keeper right.

Mistake.

Kuechly wasn’t fooled and drove Pryor into the turf on a bone-jarring tackle after a short gain. Then, on a complete pass just short of the first down marker (which was around the 1 yard line), Rod Streeter was driven back by a couple of defenders but kept his balance long enough to get dominated to the ground by Kuechly.

This kid is going to multiple Pro Bowls and should go this season. He’s the only player in the NFL to have 3 games with 16 or more tackles and is second in tackles overall. He also makes his presence known by his physical plays and sure tackling. The Raiders settled for the 3 points as a result.

Speaking of controversial plays, after a sack on Cam Newton, several Raiders players began “celebrating” and Cam kicked at Tommy Kelly but the officials missed that one and flagged the Raiders for a personal foul. Carolina was a beneficiary of the classic “flag on the retaliation, not the initial foul.” Frankly, Cam should’ve been the one flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and I’m certain he’ll get a talking-to about it.

With Cam’s now well-known Pro Bowl antics and now a kick, he now is in danger of being labeled as a dirty player by defenses around the league very much like Ndamukong Suh has been by offenses. BTW Suh has only been flagged for one personal foul and two other minor penalties the entire season. He quickly got a bad reputation as a rookie and Cam is very close to being lumped in with him now as well. This situation is something to keep your eyes and ears open for because other players will dig down deep in their bag for that last 5% effort when facing him because of it, and the NFL is a tough place to make a living as it is without defenders playing at their highest level each week simply because of their ideas about what type of person or player Cam Newton is.

After a missed 48-yard FG by Graham Gano, the Raiders got the ball back with 1:40 in the half and great starting field position. However, on third and long, Kuechly once AGAIN showed why he should be the Defensive Rookie of the Year. He’s as good in pass coverage as he is against the run and is already a true “three down” linebacker. He elevated nicely after stepping in front of a Leinhart pass and made a beautiful interception, giving the Panthers the ball inside Oakland territory.

On the ensuing play, DeAngelo Williams nearly had yet ANOTHER long TD catch and run after a short reception, but was tackled inside the 10 after a 22-yard gain. On third and goal from the 3, Cam looked to pass, saw open field to his left, and ran it right on in. The Raiders were flagged for holding, which was declined of course.

Halftime score: Carolina 14, Oakland 3

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