Carolina Panthers

Expect worse and team will play better

CHARLOTTE -- Believe it or not, there is good news.

It might qualify as great news.

The Carolina Panthers are perfectly positioned to make their playoff run, because they've put themselves back where they're most comfortable.

It's been well established the Panthers are better, and John Fox is a better coach, when the team's not expected to do much.

Their best trick is proving people wrong, whether folks thought they were going to be good or bad.

So congratulations boys, you're back.

Four games into what they thought would be a playoff push, the Panthers are exactly where they were in 2002 and the second half of 2004 -- trying to rebuild a calamity.

Then, it was they weren't very talented, or they were too injured.

In the stead of warm bodies or healthy ones, they played with an edge, because they had to fill the gap between themselves and other teams with something.

Now, they've played themselves back to the level where little to nothing's expected of them, a fate which apparently suits them fine. Only one guy seems truly bothered by it, and the fact that a lot of his co-workers think he's nuts makes it unclear if it's going to matter.

Know what? Maybe they need to throw the inmate in charge of the asylum, because he's the only one casting a critical eye on things.

Fox talked Monday about the problems of execution rather than effort. He spoke of playing better in the second half than the first. Both those claims are, to borrow a phrase from Kris Jenkins, "garbage."

Playing as poorly as they did fresh out of the tunnel against Tampa Bay was inexcusable, which triggered Jenkins' initial outburst. And to gauge anything they did in the second half is drawing from the wrong sample.

They held Tampa Bay to three points after halftime because the Bucs weren't interested in doing much. Jon Gruden knew he was going to have to play these guys again in December, and there was no point rubbing it in when the game was decided in the first 15 minutes.

No element of their game has been consistent. And frankly, to expect that on offense until Jake Delhomme comes back is probably unfair.

They run like mad in the two wins, but they can't because they get in big holes too quickly in the losses.

The defense has been a mess, starting at the top and filtering all the way down.

They might prefer that defensive end Julius Peppers was sick, because him being well leaves only the options they'd rather not consider.

They swear it's not a contract-induced pout -- they can't imagine him being unhappy. If it's none of the above, then he's just playing poorly, because we've all seen him play better than this.

The linebackers are a mess without Dan Morgan. They're not going to be very good against the run as long as James Anderson's in the middle, and Jon Beason's not quite ready to take the defense over. He's close, but he's got four games of NFL experience, and he's not sure he should at this point.

And wonder of wonders, the middle of the secondary continues to be a problem. The reasons opponents run freely across the middle are many, but if you're looking for a generalization, you could do a lot worse than sloppy safety play.

What does it mean?

If they're honest with themselves, it means it's time to fight, to play the way they did when nobody believed they were any good.