Carolina Panthers

Are Panthers on the brink of collapse?

CHARLOTTE -- All season long, the Carolina Panthers have been catching teams at exactly the wrong times.

That makes this week perfect, because if they can't find the appropriate motivation to turn it around after the spot they left laying on the Georgia Dome floor, you wonder whether they're legitimate contenders.

"Can't catch a break," said one of them quietly, shaking his head after peering at the schedule and the previous week's result for the opponent.

By and large, the guy's got a point.

The bounce is a real thing in the NFL, with a team that's shamed the week before generally playing better, or more in line with expectations. You never want to play a guy who just got his nose bloodied, because he's swinging free making sure it doesn't happen again.

The only real gifts the Panthers got in terms of the schedule were a bad Kansas City team which just beat Denver, and New Orleans' visit, which came the same day as their transatlantic flight to England. The Chiefs came quickly back to earth, with Larry Johnson going from 198 yards against the Broncos to two here. Likewise, the Saints were looking for their passports in the first quarter, having already lost the game and their luggage.

Though they loved the rest, the Panthers took their bye at precisely the wrong time, after their best win of the season and before they got the two homecoming games in a row.

The Panthers caught Minnesota the week the Vikings got a lift from changing quarterbacks, and Gus Frerotte's first start of the year was enough to beat them. Then they had Tampa Bay in the same situation, and Jeff Garcia did to them what he usually does.

Even in wins, they caught a too-inspired effort from an Oakland defense that allowed a foot-off-the-gas 24-0 loss to Atlanta the week before, and from a Detroit offense that finally found a quarterback the prior week in Daunte Culpepper. That change was significant enough that some around the Panthers were referring to them as the "0-1 Lions" the week before.

Likewise, the Falcons had suffered their first home loss in embarrassing ball-dropping fashion the week prior to Carolina's visit. Oh, by the way, Green Bay gave up 51 Monday night, so the Packers will certainly be lathered up for Sunday's home game, for which the forecast calls for snow and a high of 32 degrees.

This week, however, absolutely none of that should matter.

If the Panthers need external motivation after last week's disaster in Atlanta, there's genuinely something wrong.

The defense, which walked around with its collective chest out after climbing to second in the league in points allowed, gave up 45 to the Falcons.

The offense, which finally got its line back and was coming off a string of solid running games and finally found Steve Smith again ... well, they were down 17-0 before gaining a yard, much less a first down.

In short, they were bad -- bad enough to make you wonder whether they were really any good. There was spirit in the scramble to catch up, but when you so aggressively pursue losing early, the late stuff often doesn't matter.

That's why the lessons from last week have to linger, maybe longer than the 24-hour rule dictates.

You want people to think you're good, when you finally get a game in something other than the anonymous 1 p.m. time slot? Play better.

You want people to think that defense should be feared? Stop somebody.

You want people to wonder if the offense can do anything at all? Try getting a first down.

Though every season takes on its own personality, this moment has many similarities to 2003, when a three-game losing streak threatened to unravel all the good of an 8-2 start.

That team was looking around wondering what happened, and it took nearly a month to fire back.

This team's different, more stable than that young expectation-less bunch. There was a sense, built on the backs of some hard wins earlier this season, that the current Panthers had something special.

Based on what we just saw in Atlanta, that's again in doubt.

They've gone quickly from a team which perhaps should have been feared to a suspected phony.

They've got this week to fix it, or else they'll be right in the crosshairs of John Fox's famous "two weeks from disaster."

If that's not motivation enough, I'm not sure what they need.