The Carolina Panthers have arrived at the softest part of their schedule, but they cannot afford to lose the edge that's gotten them into first place in the NFC South.
The Panthers will be huge favorites the next two weeks over Oakland (2-6) and Detroit (0-8). There's every reason to expect they'll emerge with an 8-2 record heading into a tough six-game stretch to close out the regular season.
But even though the games against the Raiders and Lions should be nothing more than speed bumps, they also carry the potential to be season-killers. Can you imagine how the atmosphere surrounding the Panthers would change if they somehow lost those games?
Carolina would go from looking like a legitimate Super Bowl contender to a team that suddenly appeared to be choking.
The Panthers simply can't afford to take anything for granted in an NFL season that's been plenty unpredictable. Jacksonville was heavily favored against winless Cincinnati two days ago and lost. Denver was unbeaten this season before losing to a Kansas City team that hadn't won previously. St. Louis started 0-4 before consecutive wins against Washington and Dallas.
But the Raiders showed nothing Sunday to suggest they're capable of an upset. They were humiliated by Atlanta 24-0. Oakland had minus-2 yards of offense during the first half and had possession of the ball for less than 25percent of the game.
It was the worst performance in an already-embarrassing season for the Raiders and much-maligned owner Al Davis.
Oakland's offense ranks last in the NFL in scoring and 29th in yards per game. They've scored more than 18 points only twice this season.
Carolina ranks eighth in total defense and third in scoring defense. The only teams giving up fewer points are Tennessee and Pittsburgh.
On paper, Carolina at Oakland looks like a blowout waiting to happen.
But Panthers coach John Fox doesn't want his team to be distracted by the Raiders' woes, or to be lulled into a state of inflated self-assurance.
“My focus is on our team and our state off mind,” he said.
Quarterback Jake Delhomme vowed the Panthers wouldn't look past the Raiders.
“I promise you when we come back here on Wednesday morning, there is going to be a sense of ‘Get to work and we need to get better,'” Delhomme said Monday. “You can kind of feel it around this team.”
Delhomme said backup quarterback Josh McCown, who started nine games for the Raiders last season, told him about Oakland's capabilities when playing well.
“Turn on the tape,” Delhomme said. “These guys, they've got talent all over the place – big, strong guys who can really run.”
Delhomme said the Raiders' game against Atlanta “was one that obviously didn't go their way,” but that he expects them to play much better this weekend.
“It's pride,” said Delhomme. “If you ask any player in the National Football League, you never want to throw in a clunker. But on the flipside, you want to work that much harder (after a bad loss) to get back out there and show you aren't like you showed the week before.”
However, the sad truth about the Raiders is that a once-proud organization (three Super Bowl championships in five appearances) has grown accustomed to dysfunction. Oakland has lost 16 of its past 20 games and is on pace for a sixth straight season with 11 or more defeats.
Detroit might be in an even deeper funk. Dating to last year, the Lions have lost 15 of their past 16 games.
Detroit's spiraling fortunes should serve as a warning against complacency for Carolina because the Lions' record at midseason last year (6-2) is the same that the Panthers have now.
Charles Chandler: 704-358-5123