The Washington Redskins are on top of the NFC East, and they have plenty of motivation entering Sunday's game against the visiting Carolina Panthers.
Never mind the fact that the Panthers (3-1) have won two straight and own a better record than the Redskins (2-2). Washington is seeking to erase the stench of a nationally televised mauling on Monday night -- a 43-19 drubbing by Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.
"That was an absolute embarrassment," Redskins head coach Jay Gruden told reporters after watching his team fall into an early 20-point deficit coming off its bye week. "Our whole team played poorly. That's a reflection of myself.
"Everybody in that locker room, hopefully, will say that they have to play better. I absolutely understand that the coaches on this staff have to coach better. That is one way we can look at it. Looking forward, we have Carolina coming in. We are 2-2. There is a bright outlook. We are still right there and will continue to be."
Quarterback Alex Smith had a rough game Monday, his worst since joining Washington. He is missing wide receiver Josh Doctson (heel), Paul Richardson (shoulder) is playing through immense pain and Jamison Crowder (ankle) has dealt with various nagging injuries since training camp and would not have participated had Wednesday's walk-through been a real practice.
Acquired in a trade with Kansas City to replace Kirk Cousins, Smith failed to throw a touchdown pass for the second time in four games, but refused to point to the injuries as an excuse.
"Regardless of where you are at, I guess it doesn't totally matter," Smith said. "I mean we've got to get ready to play. Yeah, are there reps where maybe more time would have helped? Maybe, but at this point that doesn't do us any good. I think we've got to go."
The Redskins have been among the league's most inconsistent teams, with each of their games decided by double digits. They lost to one-win Indianapolis (21-9) at home and rolled to easy victories over Arizona (24-6) and Green Bay (31-17) before Monday night's debacle.
Up next are the Panthers, who are coming off an improbable victory when Graham Gano kicked a last-second 63-yard field goal to beat the New York Giants 33-31 last weekend.
Like the Redskins, Carolina had a bye in Week 4 and is in the midst of a three-game stretch against NFC East opponents, with a road game at reigning Super Bowl champion Philadelphia looming on Oct. 21.
The Panthers, who have won five straight games in the series, could have reinforcements in the lineup Sunday. Pro Bowl linebacker Thomas Davis is set to return from a four-game suspension while tight end Greg Olsen, sidelined with a broken bone in his foot, reported that he felt fine after a full workout in Wednesday's practice.
Former Carolina cornerback Josh Norman, who spent his first four seasons with the Panthers before signing with Washington as a free agent, was benched by Gruden in the second half of last week's loss after he was burned for a 62-yard touchdown pass. The Redskins also gave up a 64-yard scoring pass versus the Packers in Week 3.
"That's something that we have to get corrected," Gruden said. "That can't happen in pro football. You don't see that happen in pro football. We're together too long. We run the same coverage for too many times. We've got to coach that better. We've got to make sure that never happens again."
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who last week surpassed former Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham for the most rushing yards by a QB with a single franchise (4,485), told reporters he knows what Norman brings to the table.
"Fearless. He's not a person who hesitates to take chances, and that's his gift and his curse," said Newton. "And from watching the little film that I did see Monday night, that's him. That doesn't negate him being a great player. I still go into each and every game pointing out who the impact players are on that defense, and he's definitely one of those players."
The Panthers feature the league's top-ranked ground game, averaging 154.0 yards. Second-year running back Christian McCaffrey is no one-trick pony with 329 rushing yards, but he is dangerous in space with 192 receiving yards and a touchdown on 32 targets.
"It's hard for a lot of people to label him," Newton said. "He's obviously not just a receiving back, he's a total running back. He shows signs that this is not a fluke."