Carolina Panthers

Where do they go from here?

Fans of the Panthers, as well as the Panthers themselves, are hoping for a long playoff run.
Fans of the Panthers, as well as the Panthers themselves, are hoping for a long playoff run.

CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers have been in similar situations before.

Yet this team is so different than previous incarnations, it's still so hard to tell how they'll respond.

The 2008 Panthers are in the playoffs, and just finishing up today in New Orleans for seeding purposes. With a win, they get a bye week and a home game. With a loss (coupled with the likely Atlanta win over St. Louis), they're striking out on the road again.

That would have been fine with their past playoff teams, who posted a 5-2 postseason record with just one home game in that total.

But this team behaves differently, largely because it's built differently.

It's hard to call the Panthers young because enough of the old hands are still on the team. There are nine players on the roster from the 2003 run, and 16 from the 2005 playoff team.

But the current incarnation has a different vibe. Those old teams were sure of themselves week to week, but this team has been more confident than their resumé would indicate all year.

There's more of an institutional soundness, built on the fact they finally have an offensive line and a pair of running backs who can control games. They can set tempo with their offense, rather than relying on their defense to do the same.

It doesn't take a long look at the numbers to see the differences.

The 2003 team went to the Super Bowl with a top-10 defense and a get-by offense which got hot in the playoffs.

In 2005, the defense was even better, and the offense was one-sided but still scoring points.

This team is currently eighth in the league in both scoring and scoring defense, though the arrows are moving in opposite directions. In Week 10, they were 22nd in scoring offense and second in scoring defense, more in line with their traditions.

But the offense and defense have taken turns carrying the team, with both showing at different points they could carry the team far.

Perhaps that has built the confidence that sounds so out of place at times.

Cornerback Ken Lucas, who helped key the 2005 run but has been victimized late this year, was asked last week how the defense can catch up to the high standard set by the offense lately (180 points the last six games).

"We just got to go back to doing the things, the technical things, that we did at the beginning of the season that you sometimes take for granted," he replied. "If we get back to doing that, then I think that will be good enough.

"We have so many guys who feel like they're playmakers out there trying to do too much. If we just do our jobs, then that should be good enough."

Previous teams didn't have the kind of talent that allowed those speed bumps.

In 2003, the Panthers were wide-eyed and full of wonder.

They were in their second year under coach John Fox, and had flung together a new quarterback (Jake Delhomme) and running back (Stephen Davis) into the mix that had begun the long march back from 1-15.

It was a much better team than collection of talent, as there were starters on that club who would generously be called ordinary.

"I think you always hope," general manager Marty Hurney said in 2003. "Where we were, we just knew we had to change the way we did things. And we really just wanted to improve. And we did know that the landscape in the NFL enables you to change quicker than maybe you could have 10 or 15 years ago. But I think when you're at that point, where we were, you really don't look at things like how quickly you can get the wins. You're really focused on looking at what you did wrong to get where you were, and what you have to change and do right to get you better.

"I wouldn't say surprised, because I think we all expected to succeed."

But they were so young and so new at the winning thing, that they didn't care where they had to go to do it.

The 2005 club was arguably more talented, but had to win the last week of the regular season to clinch its playoff berth. The Panthers were going into Atlanta, where they hadn't won since 1997. They were also coming off an embarrassing loss to Dallas the week before. Cowboys running back Julius Jones hadn't rushed for more than 93 yards in a game all season and he got 194 against the Panthers on Christmas Eve.

"We've done got ourselves in a bind, and now we've got to get ourselves out of it," Lucas said in 2005. "We've got to just go and play Carolina Panthers football that we've been playing for the majority of the year, not like last week, but in the weeks past. ...

"Maybe it's our destiny to be in this situation. If we win this game here, get to the playoffs and go all the way then, what are you all going to say then? It will make it even more exciting. I guess we're just one of those teams that likes to make things exciting."

They hammered the Falcons, 44-11, ending it early and cruising to the largest margin of victory in franchise history. They also held the league's best rushing team to 26 yards on the ground, which can't be a good omen for Drew Brees this afternoon.

That team looked strong until running out of healthy bodies, specifically running backs, in Seattle.

But as they're all prone to say, every team is different.

The current club can't rely on past deeds.

The Panthers are writing their own story, and it begins today.

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