Across the NFL, the overall talent level is pretty comparable.
Sure, some teams load up on defense, some on offense. Some seem to have a few superstars and a supporting cast while others just have a solid group of talented players.
But the talent level doesn't change a lot from the bottom to the top.
This is borne out on many Sunday afternoons. Every week it seems like there's a big upset and several games that are closer than they should have been. That's why it's said that on any given Sunday a team like the Lions can beat a team like the Steelers.
But in the end, good teams win more than they lose, and that's why character matters. It's what provides the final separation.
But the Panthers found a way to win their close games, and the Saints didn't. Blame it on injuries, or bad luck if you wish. The final record doesn't care why.
In 2008, Carolina was involved in five contests decided by four points or less. They won all of them.
In contrast, New Orleans went 2-6 in the same kinds of games. One team had what it took to win the close games, the other didn't.
Since head coach John Fox's arrival in Charlotte, the Panthers have a record of 23-17 in close games, while Sean Payton's teams have gone 6-15 in his tenure in New Orleans.
That disparity has a lot to do with why the Panthers have won more games than any team in the NFC South since 2002, and are among the league leaders in wins over that span.
In short, some teams have an "it" factor when the games are close. Character matters.
I don't know how it works, but it starts with the organization, moves through the coaching staff, and on to the field. You see it in the attitude, the execution, and the results.
This year, the Carolina schedule looks particularly difficult. The Panthers play only one team that had a losing record in 2008, and seven against 2008 playoff teams. At first glance it looks like a tall order.
But in 2008 the Panthers were facing a schedule that included five games against 2007 playoff teams, and they won three of them. Among their 2008 opponents that finished 2007 with a .500 or better record, they went .500. Against teams outside the division that had finished with losing records in 2007, they were a perfect 5-0.
The Panthers were the NFL's only team that finished undefeated at home.
If they can build on those trends, ten or eleven wins is not out of the question. A 4-2 finish in division games and a 6-2 or better record at home will almost assure the Panthers another playoff spot.
In the 2009 slate of games, the level of competition won't let anyone sleep. The Carolina offense will be there, but you can count on a lot of close games.
And if history is any indicator, that should give Panthers fans a nice jolt of confidence.
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