Since 1995 the Carolina Panthers have been in the same league as Green Bay and New England.
But they’ve rarely been in New England’s or Green Bay’s league.
The NFL has royalty, and unless you’re elite the elite won’t let you in. To get there, you have to walk the red carpet. For the Panthers, walking the red carpet is as difficult as scoring a red zone touchdown. Or, OK, maybe not as difficult.
After four games, there are six undefeated teams and, like the Packers and Patriots, the Panthers are among them.
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New England’s opponents, however (the Patriots have played three games), have a record of 5-7.
The opponents of Green Bay, Atlanta and Cincinnati are 6-10.
Denver’s opponents, going into the Monday night game (the Broncos beat winless Detroit, which played at Seattle Monday) were 4-11.
Carolina’s are 4-12.
Rodney Harrison, who four times was an all-pro safety, mentioned the 4-0 Panthers Sunday on “Football Night in America.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” he said, “but they have an easy schedule.”
Some Panthers fans have taken offense at Harrison’s harmless and accurate remark. Just as athletes sometimes use insults real and contrived to pump them up for a game, perhaps some fans do the same.
Greg Olsen, do you care if some commentators consider the Panthers the least of the undefeated teams?
“I saw a stat that blew my mind,” Olsen says in front of his locker Monday.
It’s this. If the Panthers had lost to the four teams they’ve beaten, each would be 2-2.
“It’s just ridiculous,” Olsen says. “You poll all 32 head coaches (and) ask them how hard it is to win in this league. They’ll tell you. It’s hard to win in this league no matter who you’re playing.”
Other writers and broadcasters undoubtedly have criticized the Panthers more harshly than Harrison. But I’m not going to go looking to see if they did. I can’t care.
“You can’t please everybody,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera says Monday. “But if at the end of the day our record says we’re 4-0, we’re 4-0.”
The Panthers are about to move into the adult portion of the schedule. After the road game at Seattle, they get Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Green Bay, all at home.
It starts with defending NFC champion Seattle. Rivera channels wrestler Ric Flair and says: “If you want to be the champs, you’ve got to beat the champs.”
The Panthers have won because they’re as good as they’ve had to be. They’ve adjusted to the absence of their best receiver (Kelvin Benjamin) and their best defender (Luke Kuechly). They’re deep and they’re fast, and the Seattle game is compelling.
I ask Rivera, who has in his fifth year as head coach, if this is his best team.
“I think it is,” he says. He catches himself.
“This, I think, can be our best team,” Rivera says. “I don’t know if it is yet. I think this is a better answer: It can be.”
We’ll know soon enough.