The Carolina Panthers know a 3-0 record doesn’t mean much. Then again, they can’t help but feel a little optimistic.
The Panthers will try to win their first four games for the first time in team history when they face the New Orleans Saints at Ericsson Stadium.
Coming off a 23-3 win over Atlanta Falcons last Sunday, the first-place Panthers are 3-0 for the second time in as many seasons.
However, last year the Panthers followed up their perfect start with eight straight losses, including fourth-quarter meltdowns against Green Bay, Arizona and Dallas.
“The thing you have to do is make guys understand that you are two games away from disaster,” coach John Fox said. “It is not where you start the race, it is where you finish it.”
However, there are some encouraging differences between this season and last.
The win over Atlanta, along with a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sept. 14, gave the Panthers twice as many division wins as they had all of last season.
The offensive line is far from the pushover it has been in recent years, as new running back Stephen Davis, who was signed away from the Washington Redskins in the offseason, has run for an NFC-leading 406 yards.
Davis, who had 153 yards on 21 carries against Atlanta, became the first back in Carolina history to open the season with three straight 100-yard performances. He had a shot at the team single-game record of 168 yards on Sunday, but sat out most of the fourth quarter.
“Just having him helps this team so much,” safety Deon Grant said. “He gives the offense confidence that it can move the ball and score points, and that keeps the defense off the field. He’s been a big, big addition to our team.”
Jake Delhomme, who has been the Panthers’ quarterback since midway through their come-from-behind win over Jacksonville in Week 1, was 17-of-27 for 168 yards and one touchdown against Atlanta.
The Carolina defense, which has allowed just 35 points this season, held Atlanta to just 267 yards of total offense.
“I think our three wins this year mean a little more in my mind because two of them have come against division teams, and we didn’t win a division game until the last game of the season a year ago,” Fox said. “I think we are a little more grounded, a little more experienced, and everyone knows a little bit more of what to expect.”
The Panthers had to deal with some turmoil during the week, as receiver Steve Smith had a breife tirade on Thursday.
Smith believed the Panthers called him a “marginal receiver” in explaining why signing him to a long-term extension would have to wait until after a deal with defensive tackle Kris Jenkins was completed. He called the comment “a spit in my face.”
Derrick Fox, his agent, later said the Panthers actually called him “unproven.”
Smith just wanted to drop the whole thing on Friday.
“I shouldn’t have said anything,” Smith said as he left the practice field. “I shouldn’t have made it personal. This game isn’t personal. I should have just kept my mouth closed.”
Smith, who leads the team in catches (12) and yards receiving (118) this season, is due to become a restricted free agent at the end of the year.
The Saints are coming off Sunday’s humiliating 55-21 loss to the Indianapolis Colts—the second-worst defeat of coach Jim Haslett’s four-year tenure in New Orleans.
“It’s embarrassing to all of us as players,” said quarterback Aaron Brooks, who threw for just 166 yards, fumbled twice and was sacked twice. “It’s embarrassing to everyone involved in the Saints organization. It’s embarrassing to the fans.”
A slew of New Orleans players were injured in the game, including return specialist Michael Lewis, who is expected to miss three-to-four weeks with an injured groin. Safety Tebucky Jones (groin) is expected to miss at least two weeks, defensive tackle Kenny Smith (knee) is expected to miss two-to-four weeks and left tackle Wayne Gandy (hamstring) will miss one-to-two weeks.
Cornerback Dale Carter (eye), defensive end Darren Howard (knee), defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan (knee) and linebackers Sedrick Hodge (knee) and Cie Grant (knee) have already been scratched from Sunday’s roster.