Panthers wideout Steve Smith stood in front of his locker room stall Wednesday in front of a large group of reporters – the same place he stood after a Week 1 loss to Seattle and predicted the Panthers would see the Seahawks again “deep in January” during the playoffs.
“And a lot of people joked (it) off?” Smith recalled Wednesday. “This old dude may know some things, huh?”
The Panthers (9-3) don’t have a rematch set up with Seattle (11-1) yet, but they’re a lot closer than they were in September – or even early October when a 22-6 loss at Arizona left Carolina with a 1-3 record and the prospects of another playoff-less season.
But a franchise-record, eight-game winning streak has pulled the Panthers even with New Orleans (9-3) for first place in the NFC South, with the division likely to be decided by a pair of games between the teams over a 15-day span beginning Sunday night at the Superdome.
The Panthers are on the verge of their first postseason berth since 2008, while the Seahawks have all but wrapped up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
And Smith is looking like one of the fortune tellers or card readers in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
“I’ve been playing this game just a little bit and I’ve been on some sorry teams. And I didn’t believe we were a sorry team,” Smith said. “And just because we lost (to Seattle), I wasn’t going to listen to people tell us how bad we were and we were the same old Panthers. Because I was on some same old Panthers teams in years past, and that wasn’t it.”
Smith, the team’s longest-tenured player in his 13th season, said the way the Panthers fought in the 12-7 loss to the Seahawks – a popular preseason pick to go to the Super Bowl – convinced him good things were coming.
Although quarterback Cam Newton was held to a career-low 125 passing yards by Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” secondary, the Panthers were driving for the potential go-ahead score when running back DeAngelo Williams fumbled inside the Seattle 10 with 5 minutes, 25 seconds left.
“It wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, a tough day for them, they just had an off day,’” Smith said. “It was the things we were doing and how close we were to actually winning that game.”
But before Smith’s prediction can play out, the Panthers first have the two dates with the Saints, as well as games against the Jets and Atlanta.
Smith said the Sunday night game at the Superdome is big.
“It’s so big that they moved it,” he said. “They moved it to 8 o’clock.”
The prime-time broadcast on NBC gives Saints’ fans a few more hours to get primed for the game. But Smith said the crowd will only be raucous if the Saints are ahead.
“I think every stadium’s like that. If you’re winning, it’s going to stay loud,” he said. “If you’re not, it’s going to be like a sermon in church. Quiet.”
The vocal Smith has never been too quiet.
In discussing the Panthers’ offense Wednesday – specifically, the lack of any Carolina offensive players among the league’s statistical leaders – he took a jab at former offensive coordinator and current Browns coach Rob Chudzinski.
“If the team goals are greater than the individual goals, then that’s the whole point,” Smith said. “I look at our old coordinator, (Browns receiver) Josh Gordon has my whole stats in two games. He caught 200-some yards last week (261 in a 32-28 loss to Jacksonville). How many points did they score, three?
“A lot of years I had great stats sitting at home in January watching other people play.”
Barring a collapse over the final four games, Smith won’t be watching in January this season – and he may yet end up facing the Seahawks in Seattle.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera happily recalled Smith’s Week 1 comments Wednesday.
“This is a veteran guy who’s seen a lot. And you guys know Steve. Steve doesn’t say anything he doesn’t mean,” Rivera said. “I was pretty excited to see that. I was pretty excited to see it was reprinted. ... There’s some meaning to it and we’ll see how things play out. As the saying (goes), we’ve got New Orleans this week.”
As the Panthers keep winning, more people are noticing. On Wednesday reporters representing ESPN, The Sporting News and Sports on Earth joined local media members during the open locker room period and at the Rivera and Newton news conferences.
But Smith’s not concerned about what outsiders think about the Panthers.
“As long as we believe in ourselves,” he said, “the rest of y’all can go kick rocks.”
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