Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Panthers Playing the Big Stack

I’ve was in the Charlotte airport a couple of times near the end of November. It’s my home airport, and one of my favorites thanks to a variety of reasons. Of course even if it didn’t have all the amenities and weren’t as easy in which to get around, I’d probably like it on some level simply because it’s home.

When you go home, there’s a kind of comfort that comes with the familiar. Many will be reminded of just this feeling over the next few days while reuniting with family and friends for the holidays. I’ll admit after traveling abroad I like hearing English again, and hearing it spoken by some in that Southern accent I’ve been listening to for the majority of my life to this point.

One thing I noticed when hearing those voices these last couple of times through CTL was a lot of talk about the Carolina Panthers. They were 10-0 on my way out, thumped Dallas on Thanksgiving, and so were 11-0 on my return. Now they’re 14-0 -- only the fourth team in NFL history ever to go so deep into a season without a loss. And the Panther talk is getting even louder.

Now people are starting to talk about the team outside of western North Carolina, too, not least because of that crazy New York Giants game last Sunday. Between the Giants huge comeback, the fantastic finish in which Carolina snatched away the win, and the Odell Beckham-Josh Norman sideshow it was quite a spectacle on its own, never mind the context of the Panthers trying to stay undefeated adding an extra layer of drama.

Besides the prospect of going 16-0, there’s still something on the line this Sunday when the Panthers go to Atlanta, as they haven’t quite locked up home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Some of the talk, though, has already turned toward the question of whether or not the team should rest starters heading into the playoffs.

While obviously an injury to a key player at this point would be a gut-punch, I’m hopeful Carolina will be playing to win not just against Atlanta but when they travel back home to play Tampa Bay in the regular season finale.

I remember being disappointed back in ’09 when Indianapolis got to 14-0 then rested starters during the season’s final two games, losing both. Not that I was a Colts fan (although I did live in Indiana for several years and rooted for them then), but it just seemed a bummer of a way to punctuate what was otherwise a very special season. (The Colts made the Super Bowl that year where they lost to New Orleans.)

“Our approach these last 14 games is going to be the approach that we’re going to have these next two,” says tight end Greg Olsen in a soundbite ESPN is running. He’s echoing what everyone else is saying, too, although it remains to be seen how exactly the Panthers proceed.

I’m reminded a little of that situation in poker of accumulating a big stack -- whether in a tournament or a cash game -- then having the urge to tighten up or even leave the game (if it’s cash) in order to preserve what you’ve got. I addressed this phenomenon, something I confess to be a leak of sorts in my own play, in a strategy article for PokerNews a couple of weeks back titled “Leaving to Lock Up a Win? Don’t Get Up from a Good Game.”

In football we often see a manifestation of the same principle within an individual game -- the so-called “prevent defense” designed to take away long passes, but give up short ones so as to force a trailing team to use clock while trying to catch up. “It prevents teams from winning,” goes the clichéd joke regarding the prevent defense. So, too, does the suddenly tight-playing big stack sometimes find it difficult to avoid losing chips after gearing down.

The Panthers will be big favorites in these last two regular season games versus losing teams. The playoffs will be different, though, with a number of opponents within Carolina’s conference at least the Panthers’ equal if not better, even if they’ve dropped some games along the way this year.

It’s a nice problem to have, being the big stack (so to speak) and having all the options available from which to choose. Hoping the Panthers play it well and don’t start feeling too comfortable, kind of like we feel after coming home.

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