Carolina Panthers

Maybe Panthers are just good enough in NFC

CHARLOTTE -- Maybe they're not any good.

But maybe it doesn't matter.

The Carolina Panthers are certainly flawed, and looking at them under the microscope, there are plenty of blemishes to consider.

But it's interesting that the farther you stand back, the more you can look at the Panthers, shrug and figure they're not much worse off than the rest of the NFC.

And for them, that's all that really matters.

They aren't comparable to New England, they aren't close to Indianapolis. Who is?

Trying to stack them against the AFC's heavies -- or even the next four teams in the junior conference's pecking order -- is a flawed premise. As to the Panthers' goal of winning their division and making the playoffs, it doesn't really matter how much worse they are than the Patriots and Colts.

Peyton Manning's going to steamroll the NFC South, and if anyone plays him to single-digits, it's time to celebrate.

The talent difference, such as it matters, is that vast.

But that's just it -- it doesn't matter what's happening on the other side.

In the small pond of the NFC, the Panthers might not have any more warts than the rest of the toads hopping around.

After seven weeks, either Dallas or Green Bay has the early edge for home field advantage -- provided nothing goofy happens in either of those two precincts.

Beyond those two -- and really, including those two -- is there a single team in the conference you look at and dismiss the Panthers' chances out of hand?

The Giants can rush the passer, but you can't trust their offense when things tighten up in December and January. If Tampa Bay can lose to Detroit, then the Bucs are capable of anything.

The West is a mess, with neither Seattle nor Arizona showing much to be scared of. Minnesota would have a chance with a quarterback.

New Orleans might show some life, but the Saints started in too deep a hole and lack enough balance to be consistently good against good teams. Washington's a sleeper playing old-school Joe Gibbs football, and Chicago still has a chance now that they've rid themselves of Rex Grossman.

So it's interesting that when longtime Sports Illustrated scribe Peter King stacks the top 15 teams in the league, the Panthers come in at number 10, behind only the Cowboys, Packers and Giants in the NFC.

Such a ranking's locally laughable, after watching all six games. A top 10 team doesn't give up 34 unanswered points to Houston, or get blown out of its own building by Tampa Bay. A top 10 team doesn't scramble to beat the then-winless Saints and Falcons, and work so hard to beat four teams with a combined record of 6-21.

But you could pile up such numbers with most of the alleged contenders in the NFC, and just as easily.

So why not the Panthers?

They might not have their starting quarterback anymore, and that's often enough to doom a season.

But maybe between David Carr and Vinny Testaverde (and the once-per-game appearance of Matt Moore), maybe they can cobble together enough of a passing game to get by.

To do so, they have to keep running (pssst, they're eighth in the league), and keep playing defense the way they have lately. The cliché holds that turnovers come in bunches, and they were in the midst of a bunch when they took their bye week.

They've still got many problems to fix, many deficiencies that there might not be answers for over the next 10 weeks. They can't give away any of the ones they should win, and they might need to steal one of the ones they shouldn't.

But as long as they are where they are, they've got a chance.

Winning the NFC South might make you the king of the midgets, but as long as it comes with a crown and a playoff berth, they wouldn't mind at all being the shortest guy in the tournament.

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