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2 games could separate very relevant, very borderline for Panthers

Former Carolina Panthers coach John Fox had a lot of sayings, many of which he would lob like beach balls toward a group while he was walking away.

One of his favorites: Every NFL team, no matter how good, is just two games from disaster.

Of course, it’s a fake disaster. We all could name the real ones, and losing a football game never compares. Don’t think I am equating the two.

But by Fox’s sports-centric definition, the Panthers would be on DEFCON 1 by about 7 p.m. Sunday if they lose to the New York Jets to drop their second straight game. And there is an element of truth to that.

A second loss could make the Panthers’ lead for one of the NFC’s six playoff spots largely disappear. It could send the fan base into depression on the eve of the holidays. It suddenly could open the door to the possibility of a late-season collapse of the type that once befell the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who in 2008 sped to a 9-3 record, then lost four straight games, missed the playoffs and fired coach Jon Gruden.

“I don’t really think losing two games is a disaster in my opinion,” Panthers safety Mike Mitchell said. “But it would not be good for us.”

No, it would not. Arguably, this is the easiest of the Panthers’ final three games. The home game against New Orleans on Dec.22 obviously is the toughest, and playing in Atlanta (the Dec.29 season-ender) has never been easy for Carolina no matter how bad the Falcons are.

The Panthers still are 8-1 over their past nine games, of course. And the Jets (6-7) start an erratic rookie quarterback in Geno Smith, who dubiously is tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with 20.

But then there’s the nasty matter of that 18-point loss at New Orleans just a few days ago.

“Everyone wants to tell you how great you are and the good things you’re doing when you’re winning,” Mitchell said. “You lose one game, and all of a sudden you’re the worst team or you’ve been exposed or this crazy stuff. We can’t worry about any of that. We know who we are. We know what we’ve done all year. One bad game doesn’t change anything.”

But would two?

Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn played for Fox – now the coach in Denver. Munnerlyn remembers the “two games from disaster” mantra almost as well as “it is what it is.”

“That’s something Coach Fox believed in,” Munnerlyn said. “I wouldn’t think it was the end of the world if we go out and lose Sunday. I feel like we’d still have a shot to get to the playoffs. But we’re ready to get this bad taste out of our mouths.”

Jets receiver Santonio Holmes told New York reporters Thursday about Carolina’s secondary: “Not to call these guys out, but their secondary is probably the weakest link on their defense.”

I’m not sure what Holmes’ definition of “calling out” someone is, but that quote certainly fits mine. It also has some truth, however. The Panthers allowed Drew Brees to throw for 313 yards and four touchdowns Sunday, and a lot of that blame goes to the defensive backs, who were outmanned and outplayed.

Then again, on offense against New Orleans, the Panthers scored only one touchdown. By then, they trailed 31-6. That can’t happen again, either.

“As an offense, we can’t blink,” Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said.

“There’s a lot on the line,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of Sunday. “It’s important in terms of the seeding.”

I like the way Rivera is thinking there. He has so much faith the Panthers will make the playoffs that he’s thinking about the seeding.

First things first, though. The Panthers must do what they are supposed to do Sunday. Then they will be 10-4 and they can worry less about the rest of it.

But if they lose?

Buckle up.

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