Three weeks into this season, the Carolina Panthers found themselves in the same place as 2004, off to a 1-2 start and under pressure.
But the Panthers have proven resilient in 2005 and enter their game with the New York Jets hoping to extend their winning streak to six games.
“As I’ve said a lot of times, we’ve got some high-character guys in that lockerroom,” said Panthers coach John Fox, whose team stumbled to a 1-7 start last season before finishing 7-9. “We’ve gone out of our way to have good guys here. Now, we just need to maintain our focus, just like any other team.”
Carolina (6-2), tied with Atlanta for the NFC South lead, has found success with a resurgent defense. The Panthers have 15 sacks in their last three games and 17 during their winning streak after totaling only three in the first three games.
Five of those sacks came in a 35-14 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday. Defensive ends Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers each recorded two, and Rucker added a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Cornerback Chris Gamble picked off two passes and ran one back for a 61-yard touchdown.
The Panthers’ top-ranked rushing defense limited the Buccaneers to 44 yards and is holding opponents to 74 yards per game.
A revitalized Panthers defense is not what Jets quarterback Brooks Bollinger wants to face. The third-year player will be making his second NFL start in place of Vinny Testaverde, who tweaked his strained right Achilles tendon in last Sunday’s 31-26 loss to San Diego.
“We felt that if Vinny was going to struggle with his Achilles or his calf, we had energy coming off the bench with Brooks,” said Jets coach Herm Edwards, who will face Fox, his former San Diego State teammate, for the first time. “Vinny’s not good coming off the bench; Brooks is. And it worked out that way.”
Bollinger replaced Testaverde late in the third quarter against the Chargers and completed 11 of 20 passes for 106 yards with two touchdowns to lead a comeback that fell just short. New York has lost three straight games and six in a row on the road.
Testaverde is one of many Jets sidelined this season by injuries. Wide receiver Wayne Chrebet was placed on injured reserve after suffering his ninth career concussion, ending his season and possibly his career. Tight end Chris Baker (broken ankle) was also placed on injured reserve, bringing New York’s total number of players on IR to nine.
The Jets offense is ranked 30th in the NFL at 246 yards per game. Running back Curtis Martin has led the way with 66.6 yards per game and five touchdowns on the season.
The Panthers’ offense, meanwhile, has been potent from all positions. Quarterback Jake Delhomme has a 94.5 passer rating, good for second in the NFC, and his favorite target, wide receiver Steve Smith, leads the NFL with 55 receptions, 903 yards and nine touchdowns.
Smith and running back Stephen Davis, who had 4- and 1-yard touchdown runs in the first half of Sunday’s win, have combined for 20 touchdowns in the first eight games. They have 15 red-zone TDs between them, helping the Panthers become the top red-zone offense with 20 touchdowns and four field goals in 26 opportunities inside the opponents’ 20.
“Those four points between a field goal and a touchdown are so, so big,” said Delhomme, who was 11-for-18 for 216 yards with one touchdown. “You have to be precise in what you do (in the red zone). I think our coaches do a good job of getting us ready to make plays down there.”
The Panthers won their first-ever game in 1995 against the Jets but have lost the last two between the teams.