CHARLOTTE -- Ever since they secured the second seed in the NFC playoffs, the Carolina Panthers have talked about the physical benefits of having this weekend off.
It'll be good from a mental standpoint as well.
After a month of what coach John Fox jokingly referred to as "biggest-game-evers," the Panthers get a chance to step away from the tension a bit. Granted, they know it is going to ratchet up to levels even higher next week, but the ability to relax the mind this time of year -- without your season being over -- is rare.
"You look all the way back to the Packers game in November, and all the way through December, they've all been close games -- something that carried emotional burdens with them, too," tackle Jordan Gross said. "Divisional games and everything. It's nice for us to be able to calm down and refocus."
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There was no better evidence of it than Wednesday's "practice."
It lasted about an hour, from the first stretches to the final snaps. To call it leisurely might be generous. Players were cracking jokes with reporters walking in, establishing the tone that this was no ordinary day at the office.
The more seriously injured guys weren't even out there, and the ones closer to a return rode bikes and worked with strength coach Jerry Simmons on the side.
The Panthers are not required to file an injury report with the league this week (and Fox is still funny about information), but suffice it to say, the time off should put them in better health when they have to disclose things next week.
They are still doing some stuff. There's a bit of film work going on, some casual homework. Players were in around 7 a.m. Wednesday, having some positional meetings before going outside.
Afterward, they lifted weights, with the injured players in the training room getting treatment. They didn't have their normal afternoon meetings, during which they review the practice film. Not much to be gained from that, anyway.
After the practice, there was a brief players-only huddle on the field. As this was happening, Fox even bypassed a circle of reporters, looking for any excuse not to talk.
But for all the looseness of the day, the captains still want to maintain a professional atmosphere.
"I don't think it's quite that time yet," receiver Muhsin Muhammad said when asked to reflect on the 12-4 regular season. "Actually, this bye week is a work week for us. We just won't be playing a football game, but we will be out here getting better. In the weight room, in the classroom, we want to take advantage of this time, and not just relax.
"We want to work toward the ultimate goal. Getting to the playoffs is not the goal that we set out this season. It's to win a championship, so until we get to that point, we won't be reflecting, we'll be pressing forward."
Still, the reality of the week is that most players are pleased to have dodged the "what-could-have-been" bullet. If they had lost to New Orleans, they would be boarding a plane this afternoon for Phoenix. And they would be doing so without some of the injured guys they need. They started last week's game without starting defensive tackles Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis, and by the end of the game were without the right side of their offensive line, guard Geoff Hangartner and tackle Jeff Otah.
"Bye week's huge," Gross said. "We're more banged up than we've been all year right now. We need to get our horses back, and get everybody healthy and a little pep in our step. Fox is being smart with the schedule, giving everybody a rest that needs it, and hopefully next week, we come out stronger than ever."
Delhomme said he had a bit of disbelief Tuesday, realizing he could actually enjoy an off-day for a change without fretting over what was on the backside.
"I know a day like yesterday for me, it was extremely nice," he said. "We were off. I was at home and I didn't have to watch film. That was extremely nice, just to have a little break. But in the back of your mind, you're still thinking about it. You're still thinking about getting ready. But it's a good thing to think about at this time of year.
"Right after the game (at New Orleans), you're thinking, 'thank goodness.' We'd be flying out tomorrow to Arizona. I'm glad we're not. I'm glad we were able to win and enjoy this a little bit."
Of course, the breather doesn't last long.
They'll go through today and Friday on the abbreviated schedule, watch this weekend's games and be right back on duty. By the time they report back on Tuesday, they'll know the whos and start working on the hows for their Jan. 10 divisional-round game against either Minnesota or the Atlanta-Arizona winner.
"The way I look at the playoffs, it's one week," Delhomme said. "If you can't put every ounce of energy you have into that one week, then you're cheating yourself. Yes, we do have a break physically. But getting into the weight room, getting your body right, watching some film of the three teams. At least catch a game or two, just to refresh yourself of what they do so you can have a head start for next week.
"You can (self-scout a bit). It would be smart if you did to see what you've done. But you need to look back at the last five or six games and say, 'OK, we've done some decent things. Let's see where we've done it and let's see if we can improve on it.'"