Carolina Panthers

No comparison

Panthers linebacker Na'il Diggs and defensive end Tyler Brayton make the tackle on New Orleans tight end Buck Ortega.
Panthers linebacker Na'il Diggs and defensive end Tyler Brayton make the tackle on New Orleans tight end Buck Ortega.

CHARLOTTE -- It's a different personality this time, but those who have been through Carolina Panthers playoff runs in the past can't help but see some similarities.

"You guys dubbed us the Cardiac Cats a few years ago, right?" kicker John Kasay said after Sunday's last-second 33-31 win in New Orleans. "I think you could pull out the hats and T-shirts and get ready for the ride."

Whether it follows a similar course remains to be seen.

They'll next play Jan. 10 against either Minnesota or the winner of the Atlanta-Arizona game. The Panthers have made the NFC Championship game each time they qualified for the postseason, and they'd only need one win to do that this year, thanks to the No. 2 seed and bye week they earned with Sunday's win.

But even comparing results is tricky, because so much is new.

Coach John Fox hesitated to draw comparisons on Monday, largely "because we're not done yet."

Likewise, wide receiver Steve Smith wanted no part of any dots connected between this team and the 2003 Super Bowl club, which lost to New England.

"We don't want to compare -- they lost," Smith said. "You talking about 2003? We were losers. I don't want to compare to losers. We lost.

"You can compare yourself to a loser, but I don't compare myself to a loser."

Either way, this team's so utterly different than previous ones that the elders on this team find it hard to put it into context yet -- though they know they like it.

Quarterback Jake Delhomme said this team has a younger vibe than the 2003 team (noting all the experience they had on offense). And it's clear he thinks this team is better than the 2005 version, which he dubbed "overachievers."

"We're younger, with the right attitude, and we've learned how to win," Delhomme said. "It's something we can build on."

It's no accident that the Panthers' roster is full of new faces. After last year's quarterback-impaired 7-9 squad never came together, Fox and general manager Marty Hurney began a reclamation project.

"It's just the landscape of our league now," Fox said. "There is much more turnover. Sometimes turnover is good."

Of the 53 players on the roster, 17 are new. That's provided a spark to the Panthers, though Fox said the holdovers were steadied by the fact they were able to squeeze seven wins out of four different quarterbacks, and stay on the fringes of contention in December despite it all.

"Most people look at a 7-9 season and say it was all bad," Fox said. "There was a lot of good that happened in that season. There's a certain toughness it takes to play in the conditions we played in.

"At the end of the day, it makes you stronger and tougher. So that season was what it was. There's a lot of guys in there that hung together, which was a tribute to them, also."

Fox said the combination of those factors -- all the fresh faces and the desire to put a miserable 2007 behind them -- led to a new focus during the offseason which he could see early on.

"I like the way these guys went about their business, starting way back in the offseason," he said. "By no means did I say we were going to be great, but I just liked the way they went about their business. They continued it. It was a good blend of youth and veteran leadership, and guys, they went after it. I liked them early on.

"Our talent level picked up some -- as well as some guys that knew how to work and do the things necessary to win in this league."

Kasay laughed when asked to connect the eras Sunday night. After all, he had just hit a game-winning field goal, then made everyone hold their breath by giving the Saints decent field position with an out-of-bounds kickoff.

That's not to mention the elation of having qualified for the postseason for just the fourth time in his 18-year NFL career.

All he knows for sure is he's glad this team doesn't have to follow similar paths. With both lines strained to the limit because of injuries, being able to ease into the playoffs with a weekend off is huge. The 2003 team had to play three games to get to the Super Bowl, all but the first on the road. Likewise, the 2005 club won two road games before falling to Seattle in the conference title game.

"Each one has been different, and really this one hasn't even sank in yet for context," he said. "We've got a number of injuries, it's a really good thing we've got next week off. I like our situation better this year than in '03. If this team was in '03, next week would be a real tough situation.

"But with that extra week, guys will be able to get fresh, we'll have a home game where we've played well all year."

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