The Carolina Panthers returned with a fury Sunday to the form that took them to last season's NFC Championship Game, thrashing the San Diego Chargers 26-7 at Qualcomm Stadium.
Gone were the mistakes, frustrations and hesitancy of the preseason and first two weeks of the regular season.
Finally, the Panthers were dominating again on defense, tying a team record with seven sacks and forcing the Chargers into four fumbles.
The return of quarterback Kerry Collins brought some sparkle back to the offense. Collins threw two touchdown passes to tight end Wesley Walls, doubling the number of times the Panthers reached the end zone in their first two games.
``The difference Kerry brings is he's our leader,'' said Walls. ``He's our franchise guy. To have him back is a big boost.''
And one of the best things about the win was how efficiently Carolina played. The Panthers were penalized three times and their only turnover was a late interception on a tipped pass.
``We put it together today,'' said linebacker Sam Mills. ``We looked more like the team we should be looking like -- the team we sat out all off-season to look like. We finally did it once today. Now, we need to make a habit of it.''
That their coming-out party happened far, far away from home made winning even sweeter. It was the Panthers' second straight win on the road, following a 9-6 victory at Atlanta last week, and raised their record to 2-1 heading into next Sunday's game against Kansas City at Ericsson Stadium.
``Winning on the road is big in this league,'' said coach Dom Capers. ``This was more the way we want to play. I like the direction our team is heading.''
Carolina needed a dominating performance to convince themselves and their early-season doubters that they can develop into a power team again.
``It doesn't take long before people start throwing you in the category of the losers,'' said Mills. ``After this win today, maybe a lot of people will start throwing us into another category. But we need to understand as a team what category we belong in. If we go out and play good, solid football, we feel like we're one of the better teams.''
What better place for positive self-discovery than Qualcomm, which will be home to Super Bowl XXXII on Jan. 25? Before leaving their locker room, the Panthers recommitted themselves to returning for that occasion.
``Everybody get used to their locker,'' Gerald Williams said the players told each other, only half-jokingly. ``Look around. We might see this again.''
That the Panthers were discussing the possibility of reaching the Super Bowl is evidence their self-confidence is returning. It took a beating during an 0-4 preseason and a 24-10 loss to the Washington Redskins in the regular-season opener in Charlotte.
``That seems like a long time ago now,'' Mills said of the Washington game. ``It wasn't a very good start, but hopefully this team learned a lot from that game.''
The Panthers learned quickly how much Collins means to their offense. Even though he showed some signs of rust from the 36-day layoff caused by the broken jaw he suffered in an Aug. 9 exhibition loss to Denver, the offense looked crisper than it has all season.
Carolina totaled 141 yards rushing and 138 passing. Collins could have had a better day statistically if wide receiver Rocket Ismail hadn't dropped two perfectly thrown passes. He was closely guard on both, however.
The game didn't start out well for the Panthers. San Diego took a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter on a 6-yard run by Erric Pegram. The score was set up by a 59-yard pass from Humphries to Tony Martin, who beat cornerback Eric Davis deep.
But thanks to Michael Bates and the kickoff return unit, the Chargers' momentum didn't last long. Bates returned the ensuing kickoff 56 yards to the San Diego 44.
``Our special teams answered the call right there,'' said Capers.
The offense did, too. The first play after Bates' return was a 25-yard pass from Collins to Walls. Four plays later, Collins zipped an 8-yard touchdown pass to Walls and the score was tied 7-7 with 3:08 remaining in the first quarter.
``That was a major-league throw by Kerry,'' Walls said.
Hardly anything went right for the Chargers after that.
San Diego paid dearly on its next possession for having only 10 men on the field for a punt. There wasn't a man to block rookie Rae Carruth, who roared in from the right and blocked a punt by Darren Bennett.
That gave the Panthers possession on the Chargers 11 and set up a 25-yard field goal by John Kasay with 49 seconds left in the first quarter to give the Panthers a 10-7 lead.
Kasay added three more field goals, making him 8-of-9 this season.
Carolina's offense dominated after Kasay's first three-pointer, relentlessly attacking Humphries with an array of zone blitzes. Humphries had one of the worst games of his career, fumbling three times.
``I made too many mistakes,'' Humphries said. ``When you fumble the ball like I did today, then you are not going to win. I take full responsibility for the loss.''
Humphries' most embarrassing moment might have been when he dropped the ball just as Barrow was about to sack him. Barrow recovered the fumble and later said he didn't blame Humphries for not wanting to be hit.
``The way we were coming at them today, you couldn't get Jesus to stand back there for too long,'' said Barrow, who recorded his first two sacks of the season.
``The past two games have been very frustrating because I haven't gotten the productivity I wanted from the outside linebacker spot,'' Barrow said. ``When I was in Houston last year, I said, `Man, if I was in that defense I'd have about 25 sacks.'
``I really took it upon myself to be more vocal today. The first couple of games, I really didn't say anything. I wanted to see where I fit in and be a sponge. But today I said to heck with that. I told Andre (Royal) before the game, `I'm going back to Mike Barrow ball, talking trash out there and having fun.' ''
It was a fun day for all the Panthers. Finally, they had a blast together.