Carolina Panthers

Dream season could become nightmare soon

CHARLOTTE -- If they could freeze it, they should. Because there's no better time to be a Carolina Panthers player, coach or fan -- provided you don't stare too closely at the facts, and miss the magic that might be unfolding.

At this moment, things are exactly as they should be. They've got all the pieces in place that make for a great story, even if not great football.

They've got the happy old guy (Vinny Testaverde) and the angry young man (Steve Smith). They're got some bright, fiery kids who are making precocious contributions (Jon Beason) and the icy cold kicker you need in the final seconds (John Kasay).

They've got a coach who's at his best when the team's backed into the corner -- and make no mistake, that's where they were last month -- and a team that responds in such cases.

The only thing they lack is a real chance, unless they've distilled something more powerful than we're capable of seeing.

Sitting 4-2 going into the bye week is roughly where they thought they'd be, even though the journey there was improbable, to say the least. They planned on being good, then realized almost too late they weren't, and now they're just hanging on. Having as many wins as quarterbacks used is rare, especially for first-place teams.

Their problem is the season's going to move on. One of John Fox's favorite credos is the "24-hour rule," which allows players to pout or celebrate, moan or gloat, for exactly one day. He should extend the window this week, because things might not get better anytime soon, if at all.

Before we get accused of being the wet blanket, know this -- the real splash of cold water's going to come Oct. 28, when the season resumes with what by all empirical measures should be a sound beating at the hands of Indianapolis. That will drop them to 0-3 at home, losers of five straight at Bank of America Stadium going back to last season.

As neat as the Testaverde story has been, he's not going to be able to match Peyton Manning, and neither would David Carr or Matt Moore or for that matter, Jake Delhomme.

Then they're going to Tennessee, and barring another road stand against a team they shouldn't beat (and the Titans are the best of the teams they've visited so far), they could quickly be back to .500 entering the back half of the schedule, which looks tougher than the front.

The story's suddenly a little different, huh?

Unless, of course, it doesn't go by mathematical formula, and a greater power takes over.

They talk all the time about how hard it is to win a single game in the NFL, and they're right. The bad news is that it's only getting harder. The good news is that nothing that's happened so far made sense either.

As perfect as the tale has been, many of the things that are working look like short-term fixes.

Testaverde will get more comfortable and better able to run the offense, but to expect him to ever match last week's shine would be unfair. Carr will come back, and chances are he's OK but not a savior.

And at some point, Dan Morgan will return, and they'll almost certainly stick him back at middle linebacker where he's best, and Beason's incredible progress (and the life he brings to the defense) might not resurface when he's at his original weakside spot.

Then on some other day, the realization that the secondary receivers are Keary Colbert and Drew Carter will become manifest, they'll drop a third-down pass or not get open at all and the offense will sputter.

Against another team who's not playing their nametag-wearing quarterback, they'll get picked apart a little at a time because there's not much pressure coming from the defensive front, even if Julius Peppers returns to his old form as he generally does after long droughts.

When those things happen, the reality might become painful to watch, as if it's not already.

The Panthers are deep in enough spots to remain competitive, but threadbare at too many more to thrive. They'll take their chances with what they have, but ultimately, based on facts and reason and logic, it's hard to suggest this is anything but a temporary condition.

That's where this one gets tricky, and as tempting as it is to dismiss them, it would also be foolish.

Fox has proven more comfortable coaching a team that has to scrap than one that is supposed to contend. The last six years and first six weeks of this season prove that theory.

But now that they're scrapping, you wonder when it will stop.

That's why we'll watch.

Because right now there's no way to know, and there's a magic in that, and sometimes magic is enough.

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