Is Jake a fake and did he lay an egg in loss?/Teammates stand by their man

CHARLOTTE — Leadership is not simply about pointing a group in the right direction. It also involves setting such a resplendent example that others will try and pick you up when you stumble.

That was the case for Jake Delhomme on Saturday night.

With five interceptions and a fumble, his performance in the 33-13 divisional-playoff loss to Arizona was forgettable – but will nevertheless likely be a performance that he won’t ever forget, for all the wrong reasons. He admitted that it was the most frustrating night of his career, and that he was at a loss for words – a weighty self-assessment, given the quarterback’s proclivity for banter and detailed explanations that are as thorough as they are honest.

He was crestfallen and heartbroken – but his teammates had his back.

“I feel bad for Jake,” said wide receiver Steve Smith, who was on the receiving end of Delhomme’s only touchdown pass. “You come so close, and you look at the opportunities we could have had and the what if’s.”

But this opportunity might not have happened at all without Delhomme’s successful recovery from elbow surgery, a story that helped define a campaign that saw the Panthers post their best regular-season win total in a dozen years.

“Jake’s won a lot of games for us this year,” wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. “Of course, today didn’t go the way he wanted it to. It didn’t go the way a lot of us wanted it to.

“I think that he’s a winner. He’s a leader and he’s one of us.”

His head coach concurred.

“Jake had a great year for us,” John Fox said. “I told those guys to walk out of here with your head held high, just like I will. It’s not where we wanted to end up, but it’s reality.

“I think Jake is a hell of a quarterback who had a rough night.”

DELHOMME’S MOST FREQUENT TARGET Saturday was Muhammad, who finished the night with five catches for 55 yards, wrapping up a season that saw him post his best numbers since before he left for the Chicago Bears in 2005.

Muhammad, who has now completed 13 seasons in the NFL, didn’t want to discuss what his future plans entailed.

“I’m still trying to walk out of this locker room after this game,” he said. “We’ll have to evaluate that when it comes up.”

WITH A 10-POINT DEFICIT in the second quarter and a 20-point chasm by the third, Carolina was forced to turn away from the ground game that was so successful in the last 10 games of the season – of which the Panthers won eight.

“When you have to catch up, you become one-dimensional,” Fox said.

As a result, Carolina ran only 15 times. While the average was solid – 5.0 yards per carry – the Panthers’ attempts to crank up the ground game in the second and third quarters, when the Cardinals increased their lead from seven to 23 points, proved fruitless, as the Panthers ran for nine yards on four carries – with three of the runs going for losses.

That was a marked contrast from the first quarter, when the Panthers racked up 52 yards on only eight carries, averaging 6.5 yards a pop.

“I think we are a better team when we’re able to run the ball,” Fox said. “We had some success early, but we fell behind.”

*****from and Mark Mason*****