By: Bob George/
January 23, 2004

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Bill Belichick pays tribute to the late Gil Santos
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Patriots notebook: Season starts with Houston at Foxboro

Southern hospitality. It's real, folks.

Maybe it's because there is next to no history between the Pats and the Cats. What's there to be mad at? Each team has beaten the other once. Patriots let an expansion team win, Panthers gave the Patriots a division title and promptly got on the bus. Both teams play in sensational palaces. There is really nothing about one team for the other to dislike.

When you think North Carolina, you think Andy Griffith, Mike Krzyzewski, Dean Smith and some family named Vanderbilt. Mention South Carolina around these parts and you think Jim Rice and Tom Yawkey, and those racing fans who head to Loudon, New Hampshire might think of a town named Darlington. Of Tobacco Road and Hilton Head, Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond, Cape Hatteras and Parris Island.

Panther Nation has invaded our space. And it's been nice. All nice. Real nice.

There aren't any immature fans who dress like gang lunatics and still complain that Walt Coleman stole a Super Bowl from them. There aren't any delusional wack jobs who insist that " sometimes, the best team doesn't win" just like some of their reject quarterbacks are given to say. There aren't any ignorant and disgruntled fans out there who cannot believe or accept that their team lost to the Patriots, and resort to insulting instead of commending.

Who are these Carolina fans? Friendly. Inquisitive. Respectful. Polite. Sure, they think their team will win and want badly for that to happen. How could they feel otherwise? They convey these thoughts in a way which makes you the Patriot fan want to reach out, greet them, and then debate them in a civil manner.

Here is a sampling of a typical Panther fan message:

"Hello! I'm a Panther fan from Anywhere, N.C. First of all, congratulations to the Patriots for winning the AFC. You guys have an awesome team. The Super Bowl is gonna be a great game. I think the Panthers will win. I have a question for all of you: How do you see your offense matching up with our great down linemen? Are you going to attack with (Antowain) Smith with runs up the middle? Or are you going to try and throw lots of screens? Also, we don't know much about this Eugene Wilson, your rookie free safety, how do you think he will do against the Panther WRs? Thanks, good luck and let's have a great game!"

Ask yourself if a Raider fan, Jet fan or Bronco fan is capable of such candor.

How refreshing this post is. The gist of each post is similar. Props for getting here. Gonna be a great game. Here's what I think. What do you think? I want to learn this about the Patriots. Can you inform me?

We won't kid ourselves. Patriot fans want their team to win. Most believe the Patriots will indeed bring home another Vince. But this may turn out to be another 1986 ALCS, in that you were glad the Red Sox won, yet you hated seeing Genes Mauch and Autry and their Angels go down in defeat.

The rest of this article is dedicated to all Panther fans, even if all of them are concentrated exclusively in all states named for King Charles II. And this is not meant as a slight; the Panthers are still only nine years old and cannot be expected to have a huge national following as of yet.

I have two words for all Panther fans: Go crazy. The late Jack Buck watched Ozzie Smith hit a home run to win Game 5 of the 1985 NLCS and told all of St. Louis to "go crazy!" This is your first taste of this stuff. Dig down deep and eat hearty. You never know when you will return to this table again. Enjoy this week and next week to its fullest. Savor every moment, record every event, buy every souvenir, cherish every mental image. Leave nothing to chance, and ignore no detail nor anything trivial. Just go crazy.

Know that your team fully deserves to be on this stage. Don't listen to whiny Philly fans or disbelieving Ram fans or arrogant Cowboy fans tell you that you are flukes. Don't pay attention to media types who curse that you're not from a big metropolitan center or that you have no dynamic story lines to write about. Know simply that your team is the best in the NFC, period. Know that your defense is going to carry the day for your team, just like it will be for your opponent.

Know also that your opponent and its fan base respects you a great deal. Bill Belichick is going to be a major problem for your team to deal with, because he is going to prepare his team so well that the Patriot players will know your team better than your players will know themselves. Belichick will do this because he will have studied hours and hours of game film and tape, and will see how awesome that defensive line is and how well your team runs the ball. Belichick will do this because he doesn't want Jake Delhomme to become the next Tom Brady. Belichick will do this because, in studying your team, he will know greatness when he sees it.

You Panther fans do not need to come at us with harsh comments and any remarks about disrespect, not that you have thus far. It's bad enough that washed up linemen from Tampa find it amusing to trash out a 16-2 team. Thank goodness that you will not be the recipient of such lunacy. No Patriot fan claiming sanity will tell you that "we got this game easy". We are as much confident in victory as you are. But we're not going to sit here and trash you out with visions of a Patriot blowout dancing in our heads.

We invite you Panther fans to come by and visit often. Sit a spell and talk football with us. We'd like, for a change, to have opposing fans actually talk intelligently with us. We expect you to defend your team, promote your team, and explain to us why you think the Panthers will win. We'll tell you our point of view. But we look forward to intelligent and respectful football chat, not a "smack-off" that we always get when familiar foes come calling.

This is an exciting time for both our teams. It can only be made better with lively discussion from the other side of the fence. Leave the smack to the underbelly of the sports world we have to deal with every year. Our teams meet so rarely, let's make this time something we can enjoy and be proud of.

Next Sunday, you will be in for the time of your lives. Naturally, we hope that your joy doesn't extend into postgame. But it will be a huge day for the Carolinas, win or lose.

So, welcome to our domain, welcome to this theater. Sit long, talk much.

And continue to show class, something we don't often get but so greatly appreciate.