Panthers, Pats try to reverse disappointing season
By Howard Ulman
By December 11, 2009
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -- The New England Patriots won the Super Bowl after the 2003 season. The Carolina Panthers haven't played in one since losing that game.
From those peaks, they've descended to a season when both may miss the playoffs.
The Patriots are 7-5 with just a one-game lead in the AFC East after losing three of their last four. The Panthers go into Sunday's game at New England at 5-7 after winning the NFC South with a 12-4 record last year.
"I don't care what the records are," Carolina coach John Fox said. "As coaches, you're looking at tape. Records mean squat."
For players, they mean something -- a sign that there are plenty of problems if the record is worse than expected.
"When you're 7-5, you're obviously not doing everything right," New England quarterback Tom Brady said. "So what you are doing, if you continue to do it, you're going to get a lot of the same, which is pretty average."
The Patriots have been much better than average this decade. They won championship in the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons, but lost the Super Bowl following the 2007 season. The Panthers lost the NFC championship game the year after their Super Bowl loss and haven't gone that far since.
But they might have added motivation on Sunday.
"There has been some history there, definitely," said wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, one of seven current Panthers who played in the Super Bowl. "Does it affect they way you prepare? Sure, it does. It's the team that knocked you out of the Super Bowl. I think you kind of hold that close to your heart. Every time you play them you know it's going to be a physical game and a real competitive game."
The Patriots won the title game 32-29 when Brady went 3 for 3 for 34 yards in the final minute to set up Adam Vinatieri's winning field goal with 4 seconds left.
This season, they're 6-0 at home and nearly two-touchdown favorites Sunday. Coach Bill Belichick is taking the last four games very seriously, even sending home four players who arrived late for an 8 a.m. team meeting Wednesday when snow caused traffic tie-ups.
There's little chance of precipitation during the game when temperatures in the 30s are expected.
Panthers quarterback Matt Moore is likely to start his second straight game while Jake Delhomme, who faced Brady in the Super Bowl, nurses a broken finger. Carolina should have DeAngelo Williams, who missed one game with an ankle injury but is still sixth in the NFL in rushing.
The Patriots have allowed more than 325 yards passing in three of their last four games. Chad Henne, the quarterback for the run-oriented Miami Dolphins, threw 52 passes for 335 yards in last Sunday's 22-21 win over New England.
That weakness could give Moore a chance to put up bigger numbers than his 14 for 20 for 161 yards in last Sunday's 16-6 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"If the opportunities are there, we're going to try and hit them when we can," he said. "I don't think we're going to get away from the run game. We've got a great run game and the offensive line and the running backs, everybody involved, do a nice job with that. But, definitely, we've got to hit the shots downfield when they're there."
Henne repeatedly threw at rookie cornerback Darius Butler with great success.
"I'm a young guy and, obviously, I've got some things to work on," Butler said. "So until I make some plays, I'm probably going to keep getting attacked."
Carolina has a stingier pass defense that picked off five passes against Tampa Bay. Like most teams, the Panthers probably will double-team Wes Welker, who leads the NFL with 95 catches, or Randy Moss, the league leader in yards receiving, or both.
That should open up opportunities for the tight ends, although they've combined for just 22 catches in the last 10 games.
"I think it's really a focus here in the last four weeks when it's obvious teams are really focusing hard on Randy and Wes, to really find some alternatives," Brady said.
New England has a fairly easy schedule with games against Buffalo, Jacksonville and Houston after Carolina. The Panthers have a much tougher challenge after playing the Patriots: Minnesota, the New York Giants and New Orleans.
But Carolina did beat NFC West leader Arizona, while New England is 0-3 against teams who currently have winning records.
"We haven't played as well as we've liked," Panthers tight end Jeff King said, "but, you look, we beat the Arizona Cardinals in Arizona. They looked pretty good (beating Minnesota on Sunday night). So we're capable of beating some good teams on the road."
The Patriots are 0-5 at opponents' stadiums and, after the loss at Miami, Brady said there were times the team didn't fight hard enough. Coming from a team leader, that could be a wakeup call to teammates.
"When you lose games, everything gets looked at," running back Kevin Faulk said. "Everybody tries to point at every little thing you do, the way you tie your shoes, the way you blink your eyes. That's just human nature.
"It's not like we're in one of the worst situations in the National Football League. We've just got to win."
Copyright @ 2009 Associated Press