The 2008 Panthers share some obvious similarities with the 2003 Carolina team that went to the Super Bowl. They have the same quarterback, the same top two receivers, the same star defensive end, the same coach and the same ageless kicker.
There's at least one difference, though, according to a veteran who starred for both squads.
“I would actually say that our defense is playing a little bit better than they did in 2003,” Muhsin Muhammad said after Sunday's 34-0 win against Kansas City.
Whoa! I guess it's time to make a second reservation for Tampa, huh? The Panthers already will visit Tampa this weekend to play the Bucs on Sunday. The Super Bowl will return to the same stadium in 117 days.
But it's not easy to mimic magic. Just because Carolina finally has a running game and a superb defense again doesn't mean the Panthers can walk the same postseason tightrope they did in 2003.
It is true, however, that this team more closely resembles what Carolina had in 2003 than any year since. Just take a look at some stats.
In 2003, the Panthers ranked 16th in total offense, 15th in scoring and eighth in total defense. They began the season 5-0, helped by a last-second Jake Delhomme touchdown pass in Week 1.
In 2008, through five games, the Panthers rank 14th in offense, tied for 15th in scoring and fourth in total defense.
They have begun the season 4-1, helped by a last-second Delhomme touchdown pass in Week 1.
Only seven of 24 starters (including the kicker and punter) remain in 2008 from that 2003 team – Delhomme, Muhammad, receiver Steve Smith, fullback Brad Hoover, tackle Jordan Gross, kicker John Kasay and defensive end Julius Peppers.
And I would agree with Muhammad that this John Fox defense might actually be better than the one in 2003, which gave up 32 points in the Super Bowl to New England.
The 2008 unit doesn't yet have as good a pass rush – Mike Rucker was a Pro Bowler in 2003, and Peppers nearly was – but I think it is a little faster and more athletic in the back seven.
The Panthers have been trying to rekindle the fire of 2003 for five years. Injuries have undone some seasons. Uneven drafting, timid coaching, boneheaded play and plain bad luck have hamstrung others.
They almost got the magic back in 2005, riding another extremely good defense and the best season any Panther has ever had from Smith.
That run ended in Seattle at the NFC championship game, and the past two seasons have been about as exciting as a fair catch.
Delhomme said the closest parallel to '03 and '08 was the team's success at ball control.
“We are running the football,” he said. “And we were really able to run it in '03.”
In 2003, Stephen Davis set a team record with 1,444 rushing yards. Neither DeAngelo Williams nor Jonathan Stewart will approach that this season. But together, if they can become what Davis was, that will be enough.
This 2008 team actually has enough talent to have a chance to win it all – I'm convinced of that by now.
But can it get hot at exactly the right time like the 2003 Panthers did? Will it be lucky with injuries? And can it do something both tough and spectacular, like beating the New York Giants on the road in the NFC title game?
The season is only a month old. The answers won't get here fast enough. But you can say one thing for sure about the 2008 Panthers: Like that Super Bowl team from five years ago, in the sports world they matter once again.
Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140.