The Carolina Panthers are running out of chances to live up to all of that preseason Super Bowl hype. Their season is down to one desperate game, a near must-win scenario against the Atlanta Falcons tomorrow at the Georgia Dome to clinch a playoff berth.
A victory and the Panthers are in. A loss would force the Panthers to wait out the final day and hope a playoff contender such as Dallas or Washington drops out.
The Panthers have forced this tense ending. Although 10-5, they have lost two of their last three games to keep from winning the National Football Conference South division title and easing into the postseason with home-field advantage. Now they have created their own worst-case scenario.
Win at the Georgia Dome? The Dome is the site of some of the most painful and embarrassing losses in Carolina history. The Panthers are 1-9 at the Dome, with their victory coming in 1997 with Kerry Collins at quarterback.
"I think that was my rookie year," Panthers safety Mike Minter said after practice Wednesday. "We won by a field goal. Yeah, I remember that game a lot."
Minter is one of the few Panthers remaining from that era. Kicker John Kasay, who is still with Carolina, had the winning field goal that day in a 9-6 victory over Atlanta. Since then, the Panthers have lost close games and blowouts there, from a 41-0 defeat in 2002 to overtime losses in 2003 and 2004.
"It's going to be tough," Minter said. "Those guys are going to be fired up. They're going to be trying to put us out."
Although the Panthers can make the playoffs even if they lose, they have arguably the toughest opponent among the playoff contenders shuffling atop the NFC. Washington and Dallas are both 9-6. But the Redskins play a fading Philadelphia team that is 6-9, and Dallas plays host to St. Louis, which is 5-10. Even Tampa Bay, which still needs to win or hope for a Panthers loss to clinch the NFC South division title, has an easier game. The Bucs play New Orleans, which is 3-12.
The Panthers are the only contender facing an opponent with a winning record. Atlanta is 8-7 and seeking to erase its own history of futility. Although the Falcons were eliminated from the playoff picture last weekend, a victory against the Panthers would mean Atlanta would finish with a winning record two years in a row for the first time in franchise history.
It did not have to be this way for Carolina.
"We had control of that, and we messed it up," defensive end Mike Rucker said. "It was there; we didn't seize the moment. So we're in this situation, and we've got to fight our way out of it."
Indeed, after a convincing 24-6 victory against Atlanta and their personal nemesis, Michael Vick, on Dec. 4 at Bank of America Stadium, the Panthers were 9-4 with every hope of winning the NFC South for the second time in three years. But that was before losses to Tampa Bay on Dec. 11 and Dallas last Saturday muddled the division and conference races.
Despite their history at the Georgia Dome, there is still hope among the Panthers. Asked if the Panthers had finally solved Vick, Carolina Coach John Fox was typically noncommittal. "We did that day," he allowed.
If they can do it again and solve the Georgia Dome jinx, the Panthers will find themselves in the playoffs.
The Chicago Bears own the NFL's stingiest defense, having allowed just 168 points this season. And with the return of Rex Grossman as their starting quarterback, the Bears believe they have increased their chances of reaching the Super Bowl.
Making his first start since breaking his ankle during the preseason, Grossman completed 11 of 23 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown during Chicago's 24-17 victory over Green Bay on Christmas Day.
Having already secured a first-round bye and home-field advantage for their first playoff game, the Bears (11-4) face a meaningless game tomorrow at Minnesota. But instead of sitting out, Grossman hopes to play a lot and work off any remaining rust.
"I just want to play well, stay in rhythm and get some more exposure to actually playing," Grossman said Wednesday. "Anytime you get reps in anything, you're going to get better. I'm going to let the coaches weigh the risk-and-reward there."
Grossman has started only seven games in his injury-plagued three-year career. He sustained a season-ending knee injury last year at Minnesota, but Grossman said he had no trepidation about returning.
"It's going to be fun to go back and play there," he said. "Obviously, I'm going to remember what happened, but I'm glad I get a chance to go back."
THAT SUFFERING SEASON
Philadelphia (6-9) can ruin Washington's season by defeating the Redskins tomorrow. But even a victory would be of little consolation to Eagles safety Brian Dawkins, who never imagined Philadelphia having such a poor season after reaching the Super Bowl.
The suspension and eventual banishment of Terrell Owens and the season-ending injury to Donovan McNabb were the lowlights in Philadelphia's demise. The Eagles missed the playoffs for the first time since 1999 and will not play in the NFC championship game for the first time since 2000.
"There were so many things that happened this year, it's been ridiculous," Dawkins said on Wednesday. "This is nowhere close to the season that we wanted to have.
"Some guys are going to be here; some guys are not going to be here," he said. "But the guys who are going to be here, we need them to come back next year with a chip on their shoulder, of what this year was and about how embarrassing it was. It was a horrible year in every aspect of the word `horrible.' I am not going to settle, and hopefully guys won't settle either."