Roman Harper spent eight seasons in New Orleans, so the veteran safety knows all about the history of the NFC South, which has never produced a repeat champion.
Harper also knows this has not been a banner year for the division.
Despite a 3-3-1 record and a reeling defense, the Panthers sit alone atop the NFC South, where nine wins might be enough to win the division this season.
None of the other three teams has a winning record.
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“We’re the pretties of the ugly right now,” Harper said, “and we understand that.”
Panthers’ players also understand they can’t continue playing like they have been, particularly on defense, and expect to become the first team in franchise history to make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
The Panthers are in the midst of a five-game stretch against playoffs teams from 2013. After tying Cincinnati 37-all and getting blown out at Green Bay 38-17, the Panthers next face defending Super Bowl champion Seattle, which is dealing with its own issues.
The Seahawks are 3-3 after falling to Dallas and St. Louis the past two weeks, their first losing streak in two years.
While former N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson has been electric running and throwing, Seattle’s vaunted defense is giving up 23.5 points a game, about 10 more than during their championship season.
The matchup with Seattle, which has beaten Carolina the past two years in Charlotte, is the first of two games in a five-game day stretch for the Panthers, who host New Orleans in a Thursday night game Oct. 30.
“We’ve got two at home. We win these next two games and we’re right where we want to be,” said Harper, who signed a two-year, $4.5 million deal in March.
“As bad as we’ve played, as much as you (media members) have been on us about how bad we looked, we still have a chance to be right where we want to be at the end of the year,” Harper added. “We’ve got to seize this opportunity.”
Tampa Bay was a trendy pick to win the NFC South after the Buccaneers hired former Chicago coach Lovie Smith to replace Greg Schiano and signed Josh McCown, another ex-Bear, to start at quarterback.
McCown was mediocre in losses to Carolina and St. Louis to begin the season before injuring his thumb in Week 3. Mike Glennon has played okay since taking over for McCown, who returned to practice this week.
But the Bucs (1-5) have the same problem as the rest of their division rivals: They can’t play defense.
The NFC South has four of the five worst teams in the league in scoring defense, with Tampa Bay bringing up the rear at 34 points per game. Atlanta (2-5), New Orleans (2-4) and Carolina each has given up about 28 ppg.
The Panthers’ defensive drop-off has been significant. A year after finishing No. 2 behind the Seahawks in scoring defense and total defense, Carolina ranks near the bottom in nearly every major defensive category.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman made a move to shake up the defense Tuesday, releasing veteran defensive back Charles Godfrey, who struggled in coverage coming back from season-ending Achilles surgery in 2013.
Godfrey was part of a re-made secondary that has looked slow through the first seven games. The Panthers weren’t willing to match the free-agent offers received by free safety Mike Mitchell and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn received from Pittsburgh and Minnesota, respectively.
Instead, Gettleman signed three veteran free agents who were coming off disappointing seasons, including two who had spent their entire careers in the NFC South – Harper and free safety Thomas DeCoud.
Harper won a Super Bowl with the Saints in 2009, while DeCoud went to the playoffs in four of his first five seasons with Atlanta. Harper acknowledged the Panthers are fortunate no other team in the division has reeled off a long winning streak, but says they have to advantage of it.
Veteran linebacker Thomas Davis was more blunt.
“We are No. 1 in the division right now. But if we continue to play the way that we have, it won’t last long,” Davis said. “We have some really big games coming up. We have Seattle coming to town, and after Seattle we have New Orleans, which is another huge game.”
Cornerback Josh Norman, who has missed two games after sustaining a concussion against Chicago, believes the secondary – and the team – can get things turned around.
“We’ve got nine games left, so we’re not about to tank anything,” Norman said.
The Panthers have played only one division game, knocking off the Bucs 20-14 in Week 1. Last year they went 5-1 in the division, the lone blemish a 31-13 defeat at New Orleans.
The tie with Cincinnati could end up helping the Panthers if the Saints or someone else finishes 9-7.
Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was a Philadelphia assistant in 2008 when the Eagles earned a wild-card berth at 9-6-1 (their tie also was with the Bengals). The Eagles advanced to the NFC championship game before losing to Arizona.
“Crazy things happen,” McDermott said.
Crazy, ugly – whatever you want to call it, the Panthers are still in the thick of it.