Julius Peppers has played in 228 regular-season games over his 16 seasons.
Sunday was just another one.
Yes, the Carolina Panthers beat the defending Super Bowl champions on their own (soft) turf, and did so in dramatic fashion.
But the team’s longest-tenured player has been around long to know that the NFL isn’t like NASCAR. There are no stage wins, and no one gets a playoff berth based on their record at the quarter mark.
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“It’s early. This is only the fourth game. We’ve got a lot of football left to play,” Peppers said after Sunday’s 33-30 victory over the Patriots.
“It’s a nice road win more than anything. We like to travel and win on the road. So it was big for us.”
Peppers’ wasn’t the only low-key response to what Panthers coach Ron Rivera called a watermark game.
By the time reporters were allowed in the visiting locker room at Gillette Stadium after the game, the mood was fairly subdued – perhaps owing to the fact that most of the key players were around for the Super Bowl season of 2015.
Peppers is the only one left from the Panthers’ 2003 Super Bowl team.
But Peppers wasn’t interested in talking about ’03, ’15 – or even last season, when the Patriots rallied from a 28-3 hole to beat the Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
“This is the 2017 Carolina Panthers team. That was the 2016 Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots. It’s two different teams,” Peppers said.
“There’s a lot of carryover, but it’s not the same team. It’s a new year. We have a chance to establish our own identity and I thought today was a big step toward that.”
Tight end Ed Dickson, the former Raven and the only Panthers player with a Super Bowl ring, agreed that Sunday’s victory, while nice, wasn’t worth getting too worked up about.
“It’s a long season and it only counts as one. It’s not the playoffs. This is not a big playoff win,” Dickson said. “We take this as motivation and know what type of team we can become, and just build off this. ... If we play like this, we can win most of our games and maybe all of our games.”
The real question is how could a team that looked so bad a week earlier in a 21-point loss to New Orleans look like playoff team against Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and a Patriots franchise that has won 14 division titles and five Super Bowls over the past 16 seasons.
For starters, these are not your older brother’s Patriots, especially on defense.
New England was ranked last in the NFL in defense entering the game. And based on the dumb penalties by defensive backs, the lack of a pass rush and the number of Panthers receivers streaking wide open through the middle of the secondary, the Patriots look like they’ll hold that title a while longer.
But New Orleans was No. 32 in total defense when the Panthers faced them at home in Week 3, and the Saints stymied quarterback Cam Newton at every turn.
It certainly helped that Mike Shula opened up the offense and Newton was more active at practice that he’d been the week of the Saints game. Whether it was Newton’s presence or a team that didn’t like getting embarrassed by the Saints, Rivera thought the work on the practice fields during a hot week in Charlotte was “exceptional.”
Peppers also noticed a different feel to last week’s drills.
“I thought the sense of urgency was a little bit heightened. Not because we lost, just because we didn’t play like we wanted to last week,” Peppers said. “We felt like we could be better.”
Peppers led the attack against Brady from his defensive end spot, with one future Hall of Famer sacking another future Hall of Famer twice on a day Brady was knocked down seven times.
But while Peppers was enthusiastic discussing the play of Newton and the front four, the 37-year-old also sought to keep things in perspective.
“We want to continue stacking success,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily matter who we beat or where we beat ‘em. If it’s anything it’s for the young guys’ confidence and know that wherever we go to, we expect to win.”