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Panthers in must-win spot already?

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If the Carolina Panthers don't make the postseason this year, it could bring a rebuild the franchise hasn't seen in quite some time.

And while playoff spots are still a ways away from being decided, there is a scary statistic hanging over Carolina this week: Since 1990, NFL teams that have started 0-2 have made the playoffs only 11.6 percent of the time.

After dropping their opener to Seattle, the Panthers are hoping to avoid having to play those small odds by bouncing back in Buffalo this Sunday.

When the 2013 schedule was announced, many looked at the first two games on Carolina's schedule and said, "A 1-1 start, at least." But this isn't a gimme game.

A heavy underdog in Week 1, the Bills led the Patriots the entire fourth quarter, until New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski booted the game-winning field goal with five seconds left.

Quarterback EJ Manuel didn't look like a rookie making his first NFL start, tossing two touchdowns and avoiding any major mistakes. And while Buffalo's fast-paced offense showed signs of potency, Carolina's attack managed just seven points against the Seahawks.

New offensive coordinator Mike Shula defended his game plan this week and said "we'll never be conservative," but he needs to find successful ways to get Cam Newton to throw the ball downfield like the quarterback did while racking up big yardage numbers during his first two seasons.

"This system is a system that does that a lot," Shula said. "But just because you have a system that does that doesn't mean you have to force the ball down the field. I really thought Cam did a nice job on a lot of decisions he made (against Seattle).

"There's some things we looked at that, yeah, we had some opportunities. We think we'll get better in that regard. But you don't want to just all of a sudden say, 'Hey, we've got to throw the ball down the field.'"

For his part, Newton said Wednesday that while he saw some instances on film where could have made deep throws, he was ok with making the safe completion. But Newton is at his best when using his extraordinary athletic ability, from running with the ball, to launching it downfield.

A Newton that makes smarter decisions is a good thing for the Panthers, but a Newton that plays it too safe could backfire if the offense scores as little as it did against Seattle.

So the quarterback worried about the possibility of an 0-2 start? He claims he's not.

"Our whole focus right now is worrying about the Buffalo Bills," Newton said. "As a whole, we got human on this thing looking for, Oyeah, we're trying to make it to the playoffs, make it to the playoffs, make it to the playoffs,' but you got to put a microscope to these things and focus on this particular day."

When Sunday comes, Newton and the Panthers desperately need to get out of Buffalo with a win, because no matter what any of them will admit, an 0-2 hole would bring on questions about a history that doesn't promise very good odds.
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