Thats what this road game at Arizona is for Carolina a prove-it test of where the 2013 team will end up.
The Panthers and their fans have had two weeks to exult in the 38-0 win against the New York Giants.
But that game wasnt a coronation. It was ultimately a good win over a bad team, and nothing more. It did keep the Panthers from starting the season 0-3, but they are still 1-2 and in danger of being lapped by NFC South Division leader New Orleans (4-0).
Now the Panthers have traveled 2,100 miles to Glendale, Ariz., to see if the Giants game was a fluke or, as coach Ron Rivera said, a catalyst. The Panthers are a slight favorite to win, which is unusual for an NFL team on the road with a losing record.
But Arizona (2-2) is the sort of mediocre team that doesnt inspire much of anybody outside of Phoenix. The Cardinals have a few great players (wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, cornerback Patrick Peterson) and a lot of average ones.
The Cardinals quarterback, Carson Palmer, likes to camp out in the pocket just like the Giants Eli Manning did. And the Panthers pummeled Manning for seven sacks and got him to actually give up and go down on his own a couple of times on Sept. 22 when Carolina last played.
That was impressive. But can the Panthers do it again?
Thats what this Sunday is about. A good NFL team wins games like this and wins a lot more in October, too. The Panthers dont have a team on the schedule for the next five weeks that has a winning record Arizona will be followed by Minnesota (1-3), St. Louis (1-3), Tampa Bay (0-4) and Atlanta (1-3).
If the Panthers could somehow win four of those five, they would hit the halfway point at 5-3 with games looming against San Francisco, New England and eventually New Orleans (twice in December).
If they are 4-4 after rolling through this relatively soft spot in the schedule, the Panthers will be hard-pressed to make the playoffs. If they are 3-5 or worse halfway through, its not going to happen.
The Panthers would be all for winning every game by 38 points, but of course thats not going to happen, either. That Giants game proved something, but what it didnt show was whether Carolina can win a game deep in the fourth quarter.
The Achilles heel for Riveras Panthers teams, as we all know, is their predilection for close losses. They are 2-14 in games decided by seven points or fewer in his 35-game tenure.
The Panthers have also lost 10 fourth-quarter leads under Rivera. The first one of those was in Riveras very first game as Carolinas head coach, in Arizona in 2011. Carolina led 21-14 in the fourth before the defense gave up a 70-yard pass and the special teams an 89-yard punt return to Peterson.
Both those units have been substantially improved in the past two years. But is it enough?
The 2013 Panthers havent demonstrated yet they can win a close game. Maybe they wont have one Sunday, but one will be coming soon. And thats when these Panthers will have to prove it.
Fowler: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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