CHARLOTTE -- Last week, all the Carolina Panthers could talk about was how glad they were to have a break.
This week, they have to worry a little about what happened the last time they put their feet up.
Carolina's Oct. 26 win over Arizona, which will be reprised Saturday in the divisional playoffs, was among the Panthers' tightest performances of the year. Everything worked that day -- the offense clicked in the second half, the defense and special teams made plays as needed. Then, the Panthers enjoyed their bye week at 6-2, came back to work after a long weekend, and everything fell apart.
"I don't know what was the problem," safety Chris Harris said, shaking his head at the memory. "We just didn't play well."
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The good news is, everyone knows the stakes are much different now. Schooled on the history of low seeds making runs (the last three Super Bowl champs had to play on wild-card weekend to do so), the Panthers know the focus has to change, and quick.
"This is a different baby than a bye week during the season, in my opinion," quarterback Jake Delhomme said.
That message has spread quickly, as if it had to. But the shabby way the Panthers played after their last break makes it far from automatic that they can throw the switch and be the same team that was rolling in November and December.
The three-week stretch that followed their regular-season bye fell short of a disaster only because they were in a fortunate stage of the schedule.
They went 2-1, but the wins were on the road against an Oakland team that could have taken the field alone and not scored and at home against Detroit, which finished 0-16. Then came their trip to Atlanta, where they were pasted 45-28, and it wasn't really that close.
"I don't want to say we overlooked anybody, but we played Oakland and Detroit the next two weeks," Harris said. "We didn't play our best football those two weeks and we were able to come out with the win.
"The mood might have been more lax than it should have been."
That should not be a problem moving forward, as even last week's practices had a different tone. They were short, and in shorts, but the coaching staff put the first teams against each other just to maintain some semblance of professionalism.
"It was nice to have a week off, but it wasn't like during the season where I didn't throw a pass," Delhomme said. "We went up against our defense competitively every day. That was great. It kind of kept the juices flowing.
"Our work last week was extremely good going against our defense. They were competitive drills, and guys were into it, which was a good thing."
This team seems almost antsy to play, whereas in the regular season, there was an element of no-win dread to a trip to the West Coast and a game against a winless team.
The main concern then was the offense in general, the passing game in particular.
After being embarrassed by Atlanta the week before at home, the Raiders threw everything but the Black Hole at the Panthers. Delhomme responded with a four-interception, 72-yard, 12.3 rating day -- effectively his worst game ever.
He didn't have to throw the following week against the Lions (the good news), since the Panthers ran for 264 yards. But that day, the defense couldn't hold against a Detroit team which welcomed allegedly capable quarterback Daunte Culpepper the week before.
Then came the Atlanta beatdown, a statement game for a young team that challenged the Panthers for the division crown until the final week of the season -- all after going 4-12 the year before.
Those long-ago problems give them a bit of pause this week, despite what they felt was a necessary break. If they had to go to Arizona last Saturday, they'd have likely done so without the middle of their defensive line (Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis) and the right side of their offensive line (Jeff Otah and Geoff Hangartner). They're expecting at least part of that group back.
Still, after being slow to wake from their midseason nap, the Panthers managed to fix their problems, matching their pre-bye 6-2 record to finish 12-4. Their ability to stumble and not fall against the Raiders and Lions speaks to the strides made.
But aside from the particulars, the general theme was a common one.
The Panthers have seemingly always fared better as an underdog than a favorite, always handled adversity better than prosperity. So while this is in general a younger team, there are enough old heads spreading the word.
"You know it's one and done," fullback Brad Hoover said. "It's the tournament. Not that you wanted to play bad then, but you know if you do now, you're finished."
That's why Tuesday's practice had a much brisker pace, and the players immediately noticed the difference.
"It wasn't hard at all to get back into it today," Harris said. "This might have been one of our best practices today that we've had all season. Guys are focused, and they realize what's at stake.
"We've got enough older guys who know they might not ever get this opportunity again."
More art than science
The dip the Panthers endured after beating Arizona and taking the next week off is hard to quantify. Their passing game dipped (artificially inflated by getting in a shootout with Atlanta), but their rush game picked up. Conversely, their run defense went away, and the opponent passing numbers fell because they didn't need to throw. Here's a look at the before and after.
Category....After Week 8....Next 3 weeks