cam-newtonMaybe all the Carolina Panthers needed was to see the Arizona Cardinals again. The same Cardinals team that Carolina blew out in last season’s NFC title game en-route to the Super Bowl.

The Panthers scored the game’s first 24 points and cruised to a 30-20 home victory over Arizona. The victory raised Carolina’s record to 2-5. The Cardinals dropped to 3-4-1.

Carolina returned to its tried and true formula of playing excellent defense. The Panthers sacked Palmer eight times and limited star running back David Johnson to 24 yards on 10 carries. The defense actually opened the scoring when Thomas Davis Jr. returned a fumble for a touchdown on Arizona’s first possession.

Carolina also continued to welcome Jonathan Stewart back on offense. The veteran running back came back from injury and ran for two touchdowns. His second touchdown gave the Panthers a 21-0 lead. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton had an average day, completing 14 of 27 passes for 212 yards. More importantly, he did not turn the ball over.

The performance by Carolina reminded fans of how the Panthers won 15 regular season games in 2015.

NCAA Football Rankings

collagefootballThe first College Football Playoff rankings of the 2016 season came out this week and, as expected, there were some obvious choices and some surprises.

Here are a few of my initial thoughts.

The top four, in order, are Alabama, Clemson, Michigan, and Texas A&M.

First of all, there is nothing shocking about Alabama being ranked number one. The Crimson Tide clearly have been the nation’s best team in 2016 and there’s really not a close second. In fact, many believe Alabama will win out en-route to yet another National Title. Coming off of a bye, Alabama now readies themselves for an important SEC battle with LSU, but it’s the Iron Bowl against the Auburn Tigers later this month that looms largest. Auburn is on fire in recent weeks and could be the only remaining school capable of derailing the Tide.

Speaking of Auburn, they cracked the top 10 after a slow start. The Tigers had a great October with key victories over LSU, Mississippi State, Arkansas and Ole Miss. Auburn currently ranks ninth.  With winnable games against Vanderbilt, Georgia and Alabama A&M over the next three weeks, should Auburn avoid an upset, they’ll close out their regular season in a Tuscaloosa Iron Bowl against their hated rivals, Alabama. As is usually the case, it could be another classic.

Of course, all eyes focus in on the top four of the poll as these are the schools that will advance to the four-team playoff. The committee surprised us here by taking one-loss Texas A&M. Rather than undefeated Washington, who is coming off of their best win of the season, a 31-24 victory over Utah, the committee went with one-loss Texas A&M to round out the top four.

The Aggies have had several impressive wins in 2016, and given the Crimson Tide’s utter dominance, that sole loss didn’t do quite as much damage as it had in the AP Top 25, where Texas A&M currently ranks No. 7. The Huskies now find themselves on the outside looking in. But with a relatively favorably schedule the rest of the way, they could battle their way into the top four assuming one of the other team’s ahead of them is upset. And all but Clemson face that very real potential as the season winds down.

Loosen Up NFLearlthomas

Critics of the NFL have regularly complained just how uptight the league is in a number of areas. One such area is touchdown celebrations. It does not take much to receive a unsportsmanlike penalty after finding the end zone. It is like the league does not want the players to show any emotion or have fun. Usually it is dancing or using a prop that leads to a penalty. Not on Sunday with Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas.

Thomas was clearly overcome with emotion on Sunday after he recovered a New Orleans Saints fumble and returned it for a touchdown. He could have embraced any number of teammates, but instead decided to show some unsolicited affection to a referee.

Of course, the NFL’s strict rules for touchdown celebrations are pretty well documented. And a person doesn’t typically become a referee to win over any player’s heart. Needless to say, the love was not reciprocated. As the video shows, the action by Thomas was in good nature. But the official penalized Thomas for unsportsmanlike conduct, without hesitation.

This would not have been a problem in the NBA or NHL. But in the NFL, also known as the “No Fun League,” it is a 15-yard problem.

Johnson Shooting For Another NASCAR Championship

Much to the chagrin of old-time NASCAR fans, Jimmie Johnson is one race from winning a record-tying seventh Cup championship. Everyone thought Johnson would have number seven by now, but he has not captured a title since 2013.

Fans of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt are thrilled with Johnson’s title slump. But like it or not, his detractors need to get used to the fact that Johnson is the most successful driver of the Chase era.

Johnson proved that fact again last week at Martinsville. He won for the ninth time at the track and did it by overcoming penalties and even running out of gas. With his Martinsville win, Johnson qualifies for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship race on Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami.

Photos: Jimmie Johnson; Happy Cam in Arizona; and Earl Thomas’ ‘illegal’ hug