Carolina Panthers

Panthers get a chance to reach another quarterly goal

CHARLOTTE -- Despite Sunday night's emotional loss in New York, Carolina Panthers coach John Fox said he didn't think his team would have any problem rebounding.

They close the regular season in New Orleans with a playoff berth secure, playing against a Saints team already eliminated.

The Panthers have a clear-cut scenario this weekend. With a win at New Orleans, they'll clinch the NFC's second seed, a bye week, and a home game in the divisional round. If they lose and Atlanta beats 2-13 St. Louis, the Falcons would win the division and enjoy the perks. That would send the Panthers on the road, opening at Arizona.

"Again, we control our own destiny," Fox said Monday. "The good thing that happened over the weekend -- not necessarily last night -- was that we did clinch a spot in the playoffs. Right now, with the win in New Orleans, we can clinch a No. 2 seed; we can get a first-round bye and we'll be division winners. So I think this will be the next biggest game (in franchise history)."

Fox has been making that joke three weeks running, but the reality is, the Panthers' brutal late schedule has steeled them for whatever they might see after the Saints game.

"At the start of the season, we put goals up for each quarter -- to go 3-1 in each of them -- and over the first three quarters, we were able to do that," Fox said. "Right now we have that ability, if we close out properly, to reach that in the fourth quarter.

"I think if you'd told me that in July or February or any time before the season started, we'd have taken that and run."

As they've built their 11-4 record, the Panthers haven't suffered back-to-back losses this season. Fox has always harped on dealing with success as well as adversity, but his teams generally respond well.

"I don't think we would have clinched a place in the playoffs or be sitting with the record we have right now without that type of character in that locker room," Fox said. "We're going to play a good team. Road teams have not been real successful in our division this year. It will be a huge challenge, and, hopefully, we'll be up for it."

SMITH SHUT OUT: Fox said the elements had as much to do as anything with wide receiver Steve Smith's down night.

Smith had three catches for 47 yards at halftime, but nothing else the rest of the evening.

Fox said Monday high winds in Giants Stadium contributed to his lack of action late in the game. Winds were sustained around 20 mph, and Fox said QB Jake Delhomme wasn't comfortable flinging it around downfield.

Carolina still ran well, for 158 yards and four touchdowns, but there was a clear design to pull back a bit offensively in the second half.

READY FOR A REMATCH: The epic nature of Sunday's overtime game had the Panthers wanting more.

Largely because of the way their defense collapsed in overtime, several defenders were clear in their wishes for the future. Even though the game would be back at Giants Stadium, they want a shot at some redemption.

"I hope we do. I really hope we do," safety Chris Harris said, eyes narrowing into a scowl. "It would have been better to see them at our place, but it doesn't matter.

"Hopefully we go out and win next week and get a home game in the playoffs. Then I really want to see them again."

Much of that's a pride thing for the defense, since they were the side taken advantage of last. Defensive end Julius Peppers pointed the blame at the line for the 301-yard rushing outburst by the Giants, but there was more to spread around.

"Oh man, where do I start?" Harris said. "We had them where we wanted to be. If you had told me our offense scored 28 and we lost, I'd have laughed at you."

NO EXCUSES: Kicker John Kasay said the wind shouldn't have been the reason he missed the 50-yard potential game-winner with four seconds left. He had to reset himself before the snap, but Kasay said that wasn't an issue either.

"I didn't start the ball as wide as I wanted to," he said. "When it was flying I knew it was going to be close. It didn't hold its line long enough. You try and judge it the best you can. I felt pretty good about it."

RATINGS BONANZA: The Panthers-Giants game was the top-rated primetime program last week, according to NBC figures.

The game registered a 12.9 rating and a 21 share nationally, up 30 percent from the Week 16 game last season.

In the Charlotte market, the game posted a 38.9 rating and a 55 share, meaning more than half the televisions on in Charlotte on Sunday night were tuned into the game.

EXTRA POINTS: Fox said it was his intention to rotate Geoff Hangartner and Jeremy Bridges at right guard. Hangartner started, but Bridges came in during the second half.

"I think we feel good about both guys, and I thought they both did well," Fox said. "I think offensively we moved the ball a little bit more consistently in the first half than in the second half, but it was well enough to where we had the opportunity to win." ...

Fox didn't offer any updates on injuries. Damione Lewis wasn't able to finish because of a shoulder injury. Fox referred to Ken Lucas and Jonathan Stewart as having "dings," but nothing serious. Both were able to finish.