The Carolina Panthers may be two games below .500 with just two to play, but they are in the NFC where mediocrity can still result in a playoff berth.
With their postseason destiny in their own hands, the Panthers travel to Tampa Bay for a crucial contest with the Buccaneers.
Carolina was the hottest team in the NFC heading into last Saturday’s game at Atlanta, winning five straight to bounce back from a brutal 1-7 start. However, the Panthers suffered their toughest loss since last season’s Super Bowl defeat to New England as Michael Vick’s heroics in the final minute of regulation and Jay Feely’s field goal in overtime lifted the Falcons to a 34-31 win.
The Panthers, who finish up next week at New Orleans appear to be taking the loss in stride, focusing instead on the Bucs.
“We have two games left and as crazy as it sounds, we still have a chance to get in,” Panthers linebacker Mark Fields said. “We could have easily given up, but this team’s has a lot of resolve. If people don’t see that, they’re missing the boat. So it’s nothing to be down about. We have to gear it up and be ready for Tampa Bay.”
Normally, a team with a record such as Carolina’s would be looking forward to the offseason, but as has been the case throughout, this has been anything but a normal season in the NFC.
Aside from division winners Philadelphia and Atlanta, nearly every other team in the conference has struggled at some point this season. Minnesota and Green Bay lead the NFC North at 8-6, and Seattle is atop the West at 7-7, one game ahead of St. Louis.
The Panthers expect to finish 8-8 and make the playoffs.
“We’re not going to quit,” safety Mike Minter said. “We’re a football team that when teams get done playing us, they know they’ve been in a football game. We’ve got two more games left. We’re going to go out and win these last two games. If we can do that, we’re going to look back on the season and be proud about what we did.”
The Panthers, who are averaging 29.3 points over their last six games, will look to attack the Buccaneers through the air. Quarterback Jake Delhomme has a 100-plus rating in four of his last six starts and needs 135 yards to join Steve Beuerlein as the only players in team history to throw for 3,500 in a season.
Wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, named to his second Pro Bowl on Wednesday, has been the beneficiary of a lot of Delhomme’s hard work. Muhammad is averaging seven receptions and 113 yards per game over his last eight, and needs just 59 yards against Tampa Bay to break his single-season club record of 1,253, set in 1999.
Defensively, the Panthers have been outstanding over their last six games, recording 26 turnovers and 18 sacks.
The Buccaneers, on the other hand, will be the first team in league history to post back-to-back losing seasons after winning a Super Bowl.
A day after the Bucs squandered a 10-point lead in the final four minutes of a 21-17 loss to New Orleans on Sunday, defensive end Simeon Rice said that since winning the championship Tampa Bay has “survived on the ability to be undisciplined.”
Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden attempted to clarify Rice’s remarks on Wednesday.
“The standards are very high here. It’s championship football. We want to win a Super Bowl and that’s it, period,” Gruden said. “There’s a lot of frustration here right now, and I’m glad there is. I know I’m frustrated, but at the same time I’m confident we’ll get this thing turned around.”
The Bucs’ problems have surfaced in close game as they have lost seven by a touchdown or less this season.
Despite their record, the Bucs are still alive in the race for the last wild-card playoff berth in the weak NFC.
Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks said the frustration spreading through the locker room will not hinder the team from finishing strong.
“I think that is one of our strengths, staying together, period, no matter what is said about us,” Brooks said. “It is something really that we built this franchise on, to be honest with you.”