For the past couple of weeks the Panthers thrived on an us-against-the-world mentality.
But what happens when the world joins the home team?
While the Panthers rolled to a 4-0 start, a number of NFL analysts and other observers labeled them the league’s worst undefeated team.
Carolina hadn’t played anybody. The Panthers hadn’t faced a top-tier quarterback. Drew Brees was hurt when the Saints came to Charlotte. And the Panthers offense was the Cam Newton Show.
Or so the arguments went.
But after taking down the reigning NFC champs Sunday in Seattle, the Panthers are getting some love.
Peter King led his weekly MMQB column with the Panthers’ victory. NFL Network will feature Carolina’s 27-23 win as its NFL Replay game this week (airing at 9 p.m. Tuesday).
Sunday’s victory in Seattle moved noted Carolina critic Rodney Harrison to apologize to Carolina during NBC’s Football Night in America on Sunday.
“Every year I doubt this team,” Harrison said. “Great win, great team win.”
This is new ground for Panthers coach Ron Rivera, whose first several seasons were marked by slow starts. Even the 2013 that won 12 games had to overcome a sluggish, 1-3 start.
It’s not going to go away. I’m not going to let it. That’s the truth.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, on team’s us-against-the-world mentality
The Panthers are 5-0 for only the second time in their history, joining the 2003 team that made it to the Super Bowl. No Panthers team has started 6-0.
So what happens when the underdog role no longer applies?
Rivera insists his team won’t get fat and sassy.
“It’s not going to go away. I’m not going to let it. That’s the truth,” Rivera said Monday. “We have to have something to play for, something to shoot for. I think part of it is our guys’ mentality. We do have a lot to prove and we’ve got to continue to go there.”
For the second day in a row Rivera referenced the Patriots, who you might have heard are good at football and subterfuge. The Panthers aren’t scheduled to play New England again until 2017, at least not in the regular season.
Rivera is setting the bar high.
“They are the gold standard. They’re the defending Super Bowl champs. Last year it was Seattle and I talked about Seattle,” Rivera said. “All I’m talking about is who the target is, who you want to measure yourself against. Right now they’re on top of the heap.”
If the Panthers continue to win, they might need to go up in size with their bandwagon.
NBC’s Sunday Night Football bus will arrive in Charlotte this week, carrying with it ample opportunity for distraction as the Panthers prepare for a nationally televised matchup with Philadelphia.
We can’t focus on the noise. We’ve got to focus on the game.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera, on Philadelphia’s visit Sunday night
Rivera refers to the increased media attention as “noise,” which must be quieted the way tight end Greg Olsen silenced 69,000 Seattleites with his game-winning touchdown catch.
“I know there’s going to be a lot of noise now because of who we are and what’s been happening and the positivity that’s going on,” Rivera said. “We can’t focus on the noise. We’ve got to focus on the game.”
But these are high-class headaches. Ask Chuck Pagano, who would love to be dealing with noise that doesn’t involve his terrible fake punt call and his uncertain future as the Colts’ coach.
There’s no such talk in Charlotte these days. Even the “worst undefeated team” chatter was complimentary in a way, like telling someone they drive a clunky Lexus or date an ugly supermodel.
But it planted a chip on some of the Panthers’ shoulders, including the broad ones of veteran linebacker Thomas Davis.
They’ll continue to find a way to doubt us and we’ll continue to find a way to stay together as a team.
Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, on the team’s doubters
Davis, the team’s longest-tenured player, isn’t convinced the doubters are gone. In Davis’ mind, they’ve gone into hiding, waiting for Carolina to trip over Chip Kelly, Andrew Luck or Aaron Rodgers before hopping out of the bushes to ambush the Panthers and steal their Halloween candy.
“Let’s watch this week. We’ll see,” Davis said in Seattle. “They’ll continue to find a way to doubt us and we’ll continue to find a way to stay together as a team, keep working and try to keep winning football games.”
The three-game home stretch against Philly, Indianapolis and Green Bay will tell us more about these Panthers, who – Davis can feel free to add this to the bulletin board – still haven’t beaten a team with a winning record.
And while Seattle leads the league in blown fourth-quarter leads, they’re still the Seahawks, who before Sunday had always found a way to vanquish the Panthers.
“We’re rolling. This is a good feeling. We’ve just got to keep it going,” Olsen said in the visitors locker room at CenturyLink Field. “We still have a daunting schedule. We all know who we play these next couple weeks, starting Sunday with a prime-time game against Philly.”
Bring the noise.