Carolina Panthers

Panthers trying to keep focus on Giants, not playoffs

CHARLOTTE -- If you ever want to shorten a conversation with a member of the Carolina Panthers leadership, ask them about playoff scenarios.

While the Panthers are on the cusp of games with huge potential payoffs, coach John Fox is working hard to maintain his "one game at a time" attitude.

"I know next week's our new 'biggest game ever' -- like the last three," Fox said Monday of the pending trip to play the New York Giants on Sunday night.

It's more true this week than ever. The Panthers and Giants, tied at 11-3, can clinch home field advantage through the NFC playoffs with a win.

But the Panthers are in the unusual spot of not being guaranteed anything.

They could still miss the playoffs, though it would take losing their two remaining games and Dallas, Atlanta and Tampa Bay winning out. The Panthers would fall out of the mix with their NFC South compatriots in that scenario on the fourth tiebreaker (conference record). To make a very long story short, the Panthers' loss to Minnesota hurts much worse than Tampa and Atlanta's losses to Denver, when it gets to this time of year.

Despite all that, the focus is on what comes with a win -- the right to host all their playoff games.

"I have (been in that situation) before, but not here," Fox said. "The key is that you keep it in perspective, much like two weeks ago against Tampa (Bay), last week against Denver -- when you get to this point in the year, in December, they're all big games, and our new 'biggest game' is against New York. Like all of them, whether it's in the playoffs or trying to get into the playoffs, they're all very, very important.

"Well, you don't control anything, really, except for that game -- (if) you're home-field throughout (the playoffs), when you lose that first game, it doesn't do you any good. So all that's great, and we're going to play to win all the time, but there's no guarantees. Last year, the team that won the world championship didn't win the division.

"We've got a very, very tough challenge ahead of us going to their place, to the defending world champions' house. Right now, that's about all we need to focus on."

Aside from whether Fox forgot his team's 2003 NFC South title or not, he's hoping his team maintains its edge. Asked if he thought his team had peaked, he shook his head.

"I hope not," he replied. "I'd rather be peaking later."

INJURY UPDATE: Fox offered no update on the conditions of nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu (right ankle) and right guard Keydrick Vincent (groin), who both suffered injuries against Denver.

Vincent was previously the only Panthers blocker not to have missed a snap this year. Jeremy Bridges filled in for him Sunday, though Carolina could also use Geoff Hangartner. Shuffling linemen is nothing new, since the Panthers went through the first half of the year without getting a complete game from their projected starting five.

"Jeremy Bridges stepped in and played maybe 12-13 plays, and did a superb job," Fox said. "He's started for us in the past. That's an option. I can't honestly tell you from square one how we'll go with the O-line, but that is how we finished yesterday."

Kemoeatu would be the more difficult one to replace. He was wearing a walking boot and was on crutches as he left the stadium Monday, though there's a general sense of optimism about his condition. They need him well, since there's not another run-defender of his stature on this roster, making his absence one which would create a problem game-planning against the Giants' run-first style.

GETTING BETTER: Rookie safety Charles Godfrey played one of his better games of the year Sunday, forcing a fumble and dropping a potential interception. Fox was impressed, considering Godfrey missed a day of practice last week to attend to a family illness.

"He had some things he had to take care of earlier in the week; so it's a real tribute to him and his preparation that he was able to get back here and get caught up and refocus. He did an outstanding job," Fox said.

SAME AS EVER: While Muhsin Muhammad had his best receiving day in weeks (four catches for 70 yards), Fox was equally impressed with his blocking in the run game and on Steve Smith's touchdown.

"Moose, if you really look at (him), he's a pretty fierce blocker," Fox said. "If there's a better one out there, I haven't seen him. He does that every week."

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