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Carolina Panthers need to make sure bye doesn’t turn into bye-bye

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

A break in the action.

That’s what the Carolina Panthers have been fighting for with such urgency, clawing their way to a 5-0 record in games decided by four points or less in November and December.

So now, with their 12-4 record and No. 2 NFC playoff seed, comes the well-earned rest – a bye in the first round of the NFL playoffs. The Panthers don’t rejoin the fray until they host a home playoff game on Sunday, Jan.  12, at 1:05 p.m. By kickoff time for that game, there will only be a half-dozen teams left alive in the race for a Super Bowl ring, and the Panthers will be one of those six.

All that sounds very good. But if you examine the Panthers’ recent history with bye weeks, you may wonder how good it really is.

“History says we don’t play well out of a bye,” Panther tight end Greg Olsen said. “So we’ve got to be really dialed in this week.”

Too often the Panthers have gone bye-bye after a bye – most notably five years ago in their last playoff appearance.

That year had a remarkable resemblance to this one. The Panthers also went 12-4 in 2008 and earned both a first-round bye and a home playoff game.

Then, favored by 9.5 points against Arizona – with Panthers fans whipped to the same fever pitch they find themselves in right now – the Panthers got drilled, 33-13.

Jake Delhomme had six turnovers in that game – five interceptions and a fumble. His career was never the same after that. The Panthers secondary still has not located Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Panthers coach John Fox afterward uttered the memorable phrase: “We picked a bad day to have a bad day.”

Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis was one of the few players in the current locker room who also played on that 2008 team.

“We understand that we haven’t played well in the past coming off a bye week, so we’re going to increase the intensity this week,” Davis said. “We have to make sure we can’t allow what happened in 2008 to happen again.”

Center Ryan Kalil was there for it, too. He said Sunday that it won’t happen again like that because “this is a better football team than ’08.”

How so?

“I just think all around, in all phases,” Kalil said. “We’re more consistent.”

I agree – especially on defense. But even this 2013 Panthers team played badly coming off its regular-season bye week. In the Ron Rivera era, the Panthers have gone 0-3 following a bye week and had something go very wrong each time.

A brief history lesson:

•  In 2011 after their bye, the Panthers got pummeled at home 30-3 by a mediocre Tennessee team.

•  In 2012 after their bye, the Panthers lost at home 19-14 to Dallas to drop to 1-5. General manager Marty Hurney was fired the next day.

•  In 2013 after their bye, the Panthers went on the road and played quite possibly their worst game of the season, getting whipped by Arizona 22-6.

What does all that mean? Probably not much. If the Panthers had lost Sunday to Atlanta, they would be preparing for a road trip to play No. 3 seed Philadelphia this week – without wide receiver Steve Smith and probably without several other injured players, too. That’s not a good scenario.

What is happening now is obviously better. To be able to skip a round in the playoffs – basically getting a first-round win for free as the NFL field is sliced from 12 to eight teams – is ideal.

But the fact also remains that the Panthers have had the bye-week blues for years. That’s one reason Rivera and the other coaches are ratcheting up the intensity and plan to practice the Panthers four times this week (from Wednesday through Saturday).

Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said bye-week preparation is an “inexact science.” But the urgency for a team that has gone 11-1 over its past 12 games should certainly be there.

During a regular-season bye week, NFL teams schedule fewer practices and more time off. Players often take a three- or four-day vacation during the regular-season bye weekend. This week’s Carolina practice schedule is structured so that will be practically impossible.

“There aren’t going to be any trips to Disney World this time around,” Olsen said. “We’ve just got to find a way. And we will.”

Fowler: 704-358-5140; Twitter: @scott_fowler 
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