To Be Elite, Panthers Must Learn to Handle Prosperity

Matt PrivettContributor IOctober 20, 2008

What good is handling adversity well if you cannot bear success?

After ten games in 2003 the Carolina Panthers were 8-2 and had their collective foot on the throat of the NFC's South Division.  They responded by losing three straight games and fans had to sweat out a close win at Arizona in Week 15 to secure the division title.

Entering Week 14 in 2005 the Carolina Panthers were 9-3 with a one game lead over Tampa Bay, who they hosted that Sunday.  The Panthers lost 20-10 in uninspiring fashion, then dropped a Christmas Eve home game to Dallas and ended up on the wild card end of a division tiebreaker to the Buccaneers.

This Sunday the Panthers (5-2) will host the Arizona Cardinals (4-2) at Bank of America Stadium, where they are 4-0 for the first time since 1996.  The Cardinals have the offensive weaponry to be dangerous but the perception amongst fans nationally is that they are a paper tiger and merely the best team in an awful division.  Tied atop the division with (guess who?) Tampa Bay, and a half-game over Atlanta, it is imperative that the Panthers win the games they are supposed to win if they are to be champions of a very competitive division.

Atlanta has been a pleasant surprise this season (at least to Falcons fans).  Coach Mike Smith deserves credit for what he has done with that squad.  They do not, however, seem a likely candidate to be fighting for the division in the end.

Tampa Bay, on the other hand, is going to give the Panthers a run for their money.  While fans look at Carolina's next four games and are tempted to chalk them up as victories, the same could be said for the Buccaneers who, if they get by what will be a desperate Dallas team in Irving this Sunday, will be at Kansas City, home against Minnesota, and at Detroit before playing the division again.  The Panthers might well be 9-2 heading into Thanksgiving, but the Bucs might well be, too.

To be an elite team you have to win the games you are supposed to win, especially when there are other hungry teams waiting to pounce. 

Carolina opened the season 2-0 and everyone was thinking happy thoughts, then they completely broke down in Minnesota.

Carolina was 4-1 after blowouts of Atlanta and Kansas City, then the wheels completely came off in Tampa Bay.

Now the Panthers are 5-2 with a real shot at separating themselves from the pack.  Will they build on their conquest of New Orleans or fail again and just be another above average team?

Coach John Fox deserves credit for being the best coach in the history of this franchise, and credit for escaping the "hot seat" by leading one of the best teams in the league this year so far.  But to really gain the respect of the league and be considered one of the best over the course of the season, the Carolina Panthers are going to have to play the way they did yesterday every single week.  No more complete collapses like those in Minnesota and Tampa Bay.

That means they need to squash the Arizona Cardinals this Sunday, a team coming off a huge, emotional win last week and now a bye week.  They, like the Panthers, will be wanting to prove they are for real.  On paper, though, the Panthers are just better.  They have to prove it. 

I think they will.