The phrase was used so many times this week that when you looked at the schedule you expected to see: Sunday, 1 p.m., Carolina Panthers at Tennessee Titans, Trap Game.
Tennessee was considered a trap because it offered neither the prestige nor the allure of Carolina’s previous four opponents. The Panthers were underdogs Oct. 18 when they beat Seattle in Seattle. They played in prime time Oct. 25 against Philadelphia and Nov. 2 against Indianapolis. They were underdogs at Bank of America Stadium last week against Green Bay.
The Tennessee game was not played in prime time and the Panthers were not underdogs. The Titans came into Nissan Stadium with a record of 2-6. The trap was that the Panthers would underestimate them.
I talk to a Carolina coach 3 1/2 hours before kickoff and ask if he realizes the Titans pose a trap.
“We have coaches who are paid to know that,” the coach says with something like a smile. “Ron (head coach Rivera) stressed it all week.”
The coach could have added: The Panthers have seven more games on their regular season schedule and they’re all trap games. The days when Carolina was an unheralded, unappreciated underdog have ceased. After eluding the Tennessee trap and beating the Titans 27-10 Sunday, Carolina is a brilliant 9-0.
Let’s talk about 9-0.
The Panthers have had five seasons in which they won 11 or more games, and their best start in any of them was 7-2.
Since the advent of the Super Bowl in 1967, 19 teams have started 9-0. All nineteen made the playoffs, 11 made the Super Bowl and seven won the Super Bowl.
The Panthers made the Super Bowl once, in 2003, and they have never won it.
“So let’s try to keep this going,” says Carolina cornerback Josh Norman. “We can be special. We can be mighty, mighty special. We have to understand that we have a chance to make history.”
How do you make history?
You don’t lose until next season. Since the NFL began in 1920 only one team has finished the regular season and playoffs without a loss, and that’s the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
Rivera doesn’t want to hear a player talk about making history. Rivera doesn’t want to hear a player talk about being 9-0. Rivera emphasizes focusing on the next opponent, and uses the phrase ‘one game at a time’ one news conference at a time.
But if a thing is good, don’t you think about it being better? If you can take it this far don’t you think about taking it that far? Brilliant possibilities loom, and how do you deny them?
“Well, we take it one game at a time,” Rivera says. “But it’s the elephant in the room. We can’t deny that. But, again, it’s really about the next game. It really, honestly is. All the record tells you is that you’re in position for the next thing, and that would be the playoffs.”
The next game is in Charlotte Sunday against Washington. The Panthers will be favored. They will be favored in at least six of their remaining games. The exception will be (or at least could be) on the road Dec. 20 against the New York Giants.
The trap is that somebody else will beat the Panthers first, even a slumping team such as Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving.
“They are not going to come out and roll over,” Rivera says about every team the Panthers will play. “They are going to make us earn it. Heck, you may lose a football game.”
The odds are overwhelming that the Panthers will lose a football game. A bad day from them or a good day from an opponent could do to Carolina what it has done to every NFL team but Miami the last 95 years.
Look. There are elite teams, and the Panthers have never been one of them. They come from a midsized market and historically have not been recruited for prime time games. They have always been one of the many.
At least for the moment, the moment being a season that’s closer to the end than the beginning, they’re one of the few.
After quarterback Cam Newton scrambled for a first down on Carolina’s final drive Sunday, Panthers fans at Nissan Stadium began to chant, “MVP!”
The Panthers have never had a player contend for a Most Valuable Player award. But as long as they continue to win, Newton will remain a candidate.
When the offense huddled after Newton’s first down, did anybody say anything to him?
“No,” says fullback Mike Tolbert.
Nobody said anything?
“Cam did,” says Tolbert. “He said, ‘Hey, I’m tired. Let’s finish this.’”
For the ninth time this season, the Panthers did.