Walk through the Carolina Panthers’ locker room right now and it feels lighter, like a hot-air balloon filled and ready to be released from the ropes tethering it to the ground. Players are joking with each other. Smiling more.
A three-game winning streak will do that for you.
“Everybody is laughing,” Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell said. “Everybody is real easy to hang around with now. It’s fun. When we lose, it’s down around here. People don’t like coming in on off days. So we’ve got to keep winning to keep this vibe around here.”
The Panthers (4-3) host Atlanta (2-5) at 1 p.m. Sunday. It’s a dangerous game. While the Falcons have gone 1-4 over their past five, their core is mostly intact from the team that has taken turns with New Orleans in dominating the NFC South the past few years. Atlanta has beaten Carolina five of the past six times.
With that said, right now the Panthers are playing better than Atlanta. Carolina has a hot quarterback and a stifling defense.
The best teams deal well with both adversity and prosperity. The Panthers are entering November with a winning record for the first time since 2008. They have had plenty of experience dealing with the downside of NFL life, but not much in the other direction.
Said Panthers tight end Greg Olsen: “It’s a different challenge. For some guys it’s a new experience. It’s a nice, new experience. ... I think the big thing for us – and I think over the years we’ve done a good job – is try to just stay even-keeled. Not let the lows bring you down, and you can’t get too high at times like this.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he told the team in a meeting Monday: “Hey, enjoy it. This is how it feels. This is what it’s all about. But when we show up on Wednesday, it’s all about Atlanta. We want to continue to maintain the circumstances we’re in. We want to be relevant. And winning is the only way you can do that in this league.”
The Panthers know that if they lose Sunday, the good feelings will dissipate like morning fog. They would then be 4-4 and about to play two of the NFL’s toughest teams – San Francisco and New England – in consecutive weeks.
Author Rudyard Kipling once hypothesized in his poem “If” that a boy could grow to be a man in part by meeting “Triumph and Disaster” and treating “those two impostors just the same.”
Certainly, this is just football. A loss is not a true disaster.
Nevertheless, Kipling had a point. LaFell used a string of analogies to remake it.
“You never want to get up on that high horse, ride that wave too high, let your guard down coming home and playing a game you think you’re going to win and take an ‘L,’” LaFell said. “So you never take anything for granted.”
The Panthers are favored by eight points.
Win this one, and the balloon starts to take flight.
Lose it – and the air begins to hiss out once again.