Panthers Present Stiff Challenge

Despite being the hottest team in the NFC, Carolina believes there is room for improvement over the second half of the season.

The Panthers are winning the John Fox way -- with defense.

Carolina forced six turnovers on Sunday, recorded three sacks and limited the Jets to 77 total yards passing to win 30-3 and move into sole possession of the first place in the NFC South. The Panthers are tied with Seattle for the best record in the conference.

Still Fox seemed concerned that the Jets ran for 137 yards.

In particular, the Panthers struggled to stop the Jets on one second-quarter drive in which Curtis Martin ran six times for 30 yards and backup Cedric Houston carried twice for 13 yards, tearing through gaping holes in the middle of the line.

The defense eventually held, forcing a field goal.

"We've still got some areas we can improve at," Fox said. "We're playing a very good run offense this week in Chicago. We had some areas in the run game that we can improve in. But I've been pleased with our progress in our pass defense, both from a rush standpoint and a coverage standpoint."

When asked if he was going out of his way to point out weaknesses in an effort to keep his team focused, Fox said no.

"They are hard to fool," Fox said. "They turn on the tape and look at it, too. There are good movies and bad movies, and if it's a bad movie, they know it. If it's a good movie, you aren't going to convince them it's bad. The big eye in the sky doesn't lie."

Nonetheless, the Panthers still rank second in the league in run defense, giving up an average of 81 yards per game.

Big plays on defense have been the key of late.

In Week 9 against Tampa Bay, it was a 61-yard interception return for a score by Chris Gamble. Last week, Gamble had a pick, Ken Lucas had two and Will Witherspoon added a 35-yarder for a score.

Carolina's defense forced turnovers on five straight New York possessions in the second half, leading to 23 points.

"A lot of people probably wrote us off at the beginning of the season because we started off slow, but we never gave up hope," Lucas said.

Lucas said he feels like the Panthers are one of the best teams in the NFL right now, but there's still room for improvement.

"That's what is scary about it because we are playing pretty good right now, but we can still get better," Lucas said. "We still have not reached our peak yet."

The Jets made a point to take away Steve Smith, the league's leading receiver, by doubling him up all day and limiting him to three receptions for 34 yards and no touchdowns. With that in mind, the Panthers focused on their running game, which was effective but certainly not overwhelming.

The Panthers ran for 101 as a team, but averaged a meager 2.8 yards per carry.

"We ran it efficiently enough," Fox said. "You never feel like you've arrived, and there is always room for improvement. We still have work to do."

Carolina's offense faces another challenge this week when it travels to Chicago for a cold-weather game. The Bears are ranked tops in the league in total defense and have given up an NFL low 107 points.

"Our defense is playing extremely well," Delhomme said. "I'm glad they're on our side. So far this month is not so easy on us as an offense having to face Tampa Bay and now the Jets. I haven't looked at Chicago on tape yet, but I can imagine how good they are on defense. But we are playing good football as a team right now, and certainly the defense played well."

Chicago head coach Lovie Smith feels that the Panthers are one of the teams to beat in the NFC.

"You would have to say they are one of them leading their division," smith said. "But as far as the team to beat right now, there are a lot of teams to beat. We're going to say the Chicago Bears are one of the teams to beat right now."

The Bears will have a much better idea where they stand after Sunday. The combined record of their opponents during a five-game winning streak is 14-31 with none of the teams have a winning record. The Bears have lost their only two games (Washington and Cincinnati) against teams above .500.

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