As a local television reporter astutely noted during coach John Fox's weekly news conference Monday, the Carolina Panthers are about as “under the radar” as an 8-2 NFL team can get.
Only the Tennessee Titans (10-0) and New York Giants (9-1) have a better record than Carolina (8-2), but the Panthers aren't receiving nearly as much national attention as those teams.
That's exactly the way Fox and general manager Marty Hurney like it.
The Panthers generally haven't been good front-runners in the Fox era, especially when they started a season forecast to be strong Super Bowl contenders (2004 and '06). They have a better record of excelling when they've been able to have a low profile ('03 and '05).
Fox, predictably, didn't have much of a response when he was asked about the Panthers being out of the national spotlight.
“I'm not really sure what ‘under the radar' is, other than flight training,” he said with a laugh. “It's hard to say what everybody else (is saying) because we don't have time to look at that and see it, for the most part.”
When Fox was told the Dallas Cowboys are getting more notoriety than Carolina despite struggling to a 6-4 record, Fox smiled and said: “Beautiful.”
He went on to say all the Panthers are guaranteed of so far is finishing 8-8.
While that's true, it's also significant.
Carolina already has clinched one of the six best seasons in the franchise's 14-year history. The Panthers' best regular-season record was 12-4 in 1996, followed by 11-5 in '03 and '0-5, and 8-8 records in '99 and '06.
The Titans and Giants should be, and are, the favorites to meet in the Super Bowl. But, for now, Carolina joins divisional rival Tampa Bay (7-3) as the teams most likely to keep New York from winning a second consecutive NFC title.
The Panthers have plenty of room for improvement, too.
Now that they've gotten their running game going, they need to get quarterback Jake Delhomme and the passing attack back in a groove, and also must get better defensively stopping the run.
Delhomme has thrown for fewer than 100 yards in each of the past two games, which had happened only once in his previous 78 starts for the Panthers.
Receiver Steve Smith was quiet the past two games. After having 70 or more receiving yards in each of his first six games, he was held to a combined 65 yards by Oakland and Detroit.
Carolina's defense gave up 147 yards rushing to the Raiders and 130 to the Lions, the most and third-most yards Carolina has surrendered on the ground this season.
Stopping the run will be a must against the Giants, whom the Panthers will play Dec.21 in their next-to-last regular-season game. New York leads the league in rushing offense with 172.7 yards per game, more than 19 yards more than any other team.
As Fox said, the Panthers are hardly a finished product.
But they're still more polished than most teams even if their shine isn't being widely noticed yet.
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