As his teammates described key plays and series from their 35-10 win Sunday at Minnesota, Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy stood in front of his locker at the Metrodome and said his focus already had shifted to St. Louis.
Players and coaches in every sport love to spout the cliché about the most important game on the schedule being the next one.
But the Panthers’ game against the Rams (3-3) takes on added importance this weekend because it will be at Bank of America Stadium, where the Panthers haven’t had much of a home-field advantage during recent years.
Carolina is 7-11 at home in two-plus seasons under Ron Rivera. But if the Panthers (2-3) want to have any hope of making the playoffs this season, players and coaches said it’s time to start holding serve at home.
The Panthers are 1-1 in Charlotte this year, dropping the opener to Seattle 12-7 and shutting out the Giants 38-0 in Week 3.
“Unfortunately, we gave up the first one. That’s all you can really afford to lose at home is one game,” linebacker Chase Blackburn said, “because then you’re going to steal a few on the road and that’ll put you in the playoffs. You end up with a 10-win, 11-win season. That’s the way you’ve got to do it. That’s the recipe for it.”
In two of the Panthers’ four playoff seasons, they went 8-0 at home – in 1996 and 2008. The Panthers had a 6-2 home record during their Super Bowl season of 2003, and were 5-3 at home in 2005 before making the playoffs and advancing to the NFC Championship Game against Seattle.
Blackburn, who joined the Panthers during the offseason after eight seasons in New York, also was with the Giants in 2007 when they won the Super Bowl despite going 3-5 at the Meadowlands during the regular season.
“When you can win at home, that gives you a chance to get into the playoffs,” Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “Just being around the players, I know there’s a sense of pride in playing out here in front of our fans.”
The game against the Rams will be the Panthers’ first at home in four weeks, dating to the shutout of the Giants. They failed to build any momentum following that win, dropping a mistake-filled, 22-6 decision at Arizona after the bye week.
While the Panthers have played well late in Rivera’s first two seasons, slow starts essentially have taken them out of playoff contention before Thanksgiving.
After facing St. Louis, the Panthers will play their first division games, against Tampa Bay and Atlanta, who are a combined 1-9. This would seem to be an opportune time to string some wins together.
“Guys that have been around the league understand that you can’t win one, lose one. That’s how you get to .500 and miss the playoffs by a game or two,” Blackburn said. “You’ve got to hit that roll at some point, hit that stride, and hopefully we got the ball going (against the Vikings). Hopefully, we can keep that thing rolling and we can pile up some wins.”
Only six teams in the NFC have winning records, although four others are 3-3 – a half-game ahead of the Panthers.
Rivera agreed his team is in the midst of a pivotal stretch, but he cautioned against looking too far ahead.
“I don’t want to get ahead of us and look at it and say, ‘OK, if we don’t win these next two we’re out of it,’ which we wouldn’t be,” Rivera said. “Right now there’s a lot of parity, a lot of people winning and losing, and all of a sudden the records are starting to get bunched up. So as we go through it, we want to make sure we understand every game’s important, it doesn’t matter what part of the year.”
That’s why a normally talkative Hardy was interested in discussing only St. Louis just minutes after the Panthers dispatched the Vikings. He was more expansive Monday.
“It’s win or go home (in the NFL). And it’s win every week or go home. This week is St. Louis,” Hardy said. “As soon as that (Vikings) game was over, it was about St. Louis because they started planning for us as soon as their game was over. Their coach started thinking about us and how they’re going to beat us down.
“So we’ve got to come out and work equally as hard as them. We’re all NFL players. And like I say all the time, we all get paid. It’s hard to win.”
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