In My Opinion

Carolina Panthers challenge: Add swagger or stagger

tsorensen@charlotteobserver.comSeptember 14, 2013 

There’s at least one terrible team in the NFL, and that’s Jacksonville. There probably are a few outstanding teams, among them San Francisco.

But most teams are neither terrible nor outstanding. They make make up the bulk of the league, the middle. Their talent is comparable. Those that leave the middle class and advance to the playoffs usually are the teams that believe.

Some organizations reek of confidence and swagger. New England and Tom Brady looked mediocre against Buffalo, which the Panthers play at Ralph Wilson Stadium Sunday, and against the New York Jets. But the Patriots are 2-0.

How does a team acquire confidence? It wins.

Last season the Carolina Panthers staggered to what has been a typical start – they lost their first game, won their second and were obliterated in their third.

They regrouped and went to Atlanta. The Falcons were good, the Panthers were bad, and the teams were playing in the Georgia Dome. And the Panthers had them. And then they didn’t. A breakdown on a 59-yard pass led to the seemingly inevitable game-winning Matt Bryant field goal with five seconds remaining, and the Falcons won 30-28.

The Panthers would lose their next three games by a total of 10 points.

If the Panthers had beaten Atlanta, they wouldn’t have lost the next week to Seattle (by four), and then Dallas (by five) and then Chicago (by one). They wouldn’t have lost all three.

You go to Atlanta and win, you did something. Confidence isn’t about what players say in front of microcassette recorders or to each other.

It’s like any other business. Make a sale and you expect to make more. Buy a house, fix it and flip it for a nifty profit, and you expect to repeat your success. Pick your Lock of the Week correctly and – well, I wouldn’t know.

Panther apologists praise Carolina’s good work in the loss to favored Seattle last week at Bank of America Stadium. But on what grounds do the Panthers believe?

Hey, we didn’t lose badly to a team missing four defensive starters that had to travel cross-country.

The Panthers and Bills are similar. They are neither elite nor bottom-feeders and when the playoffs begin they rarely are in them. Carolina has a more experienced quarterback. It did last week, too.

Twelve of the 16 games last week were decided by seven or fewer points.

Eleven were decided by six or fewer points.

Seven were decided by five or fewer points.

Five were decided by three or fewer points.

The middle class is so vast that it’s rarely about overwhelming an opponent with an imposing collection of talent or a too-clever scheme. It’s about winning close games. For Seattle it was about forcing a fourth-quarter turnover and scoring a fourth-quarter touchdown and beating the Panthers 12-7.

Don’t you expect the score to be similarly close in Buffalo?

Maybe the Panthers win because Cam Newton makes the third-down pass Carolina has to have and Buffalo rookie EJ Manuel fails to.

Maybe the Panthers win because rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei makes the third-and-inches stop and Buffalo’s Marcell Dareus fails to.

Maybe the Panthers win because somebody unexpected such as Ted Ginn Jr. takes off sprinting and doesn’t stop until he’s in the end zone after returning a punt or grabbing a long Newton pass.

Make those plays and win this game and the perspective of the Panthers differs dramatically going into next week’s pre-bye home game against the New York Giants.

Fail to make them and lose this game and it will feel like 2011 and ‘12, like old times.

Old times weren’t good.

Sorensen: 704-358-5129; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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