The Carolina Panthers are getting healthier at quarterback, but that may not necessarily translate to more wins.
At 4-5, the Panthers are coming off a game they had to win last week -- losing 20-13 to the Atlanta Falcons at home. Although that leaves the Panthers still only one game back of Tampa Bay in the NFC South, the Panthers face a tough schedule down the road beginning with Sunday's game at Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Packers.
Green Bay is just one of three division leaders the Panthers will face in the final seven weeks and one of five teams with a winning record.
After the Packers (8-1), the Panthers face New Orleans (4-5), San Francisco (2-7), Jacksonville (6-3), Seattle (5-4), Dallas (8-1) and Tampa Bay (5-4).
The fans in Carolina are extremely frustrated, in part because the Panthers have lost six straight games at home dating back to last season and have been outscored 169-64 during that span. Carolina is 0-4 at home this year.
"First of all, I think it starts with our team," coach John Fox said. "I do obviously care about the fans and I think our team has hope. I think that was evident (Sunday). We had an opportunity to win the game. I'm disappointed in our home (record) thus far this year, even in the last two games a year ago.
"I'd remind all our fans that in only of those six games did our starting quarterback play. I think that's not an excuse, it's reality. We deal in reality. Of those six games, your starting quarterback is only in one of them. Sometimes that's not ideal. That's the cards we have and we'll continue to push. I'm happy our team fought. They played very hard and it gave us a chance to win. I think everybody is disappointed with the way it turned out. Not just us but the fans. We'll just continue plugging until we can find out a way to win one."
As Fox pointed out, the Panthers have been in worse situations and responded.
After reaching the Super Bowl in 2003, the team was beset with injuries the following season and got off to a 1-7 start. They bounced back to make a run at the playoffs before losing out on a playoff spot with a loss in Week 17. They finished 7-9.
"We've sat here at 1-7 in my tenure here and we were able to regroup and that will be the same attempt this year. And we're not nearly as poor record-wise right now," Fox said.
Added offensive tackle Jordan Gross: "Well, you know, the crazy thing is we're one game out of the division lead and it's anybody's game who wants to get their act together."
That's the thing about the NFC South -- you never know.
New Orleans looked good up until getting blown out at home by winless St. Louis. Tampa Bay has been up and down and there's nobody willing to concede the division title to them.
So the Panthers are still in the thick of things, even though they've had to play four quarterbacks this season.
As for the quarterback situation, the Panthers had Vinny Testaverde, David Carr and Matt Moore on the practice field Wednesday for the first time in a month. Carr has been cleared to play after missing last week with a concussion.
However, the road ahead is extremely tough -- and it only got tougher after last week's division loss to the Falcons.
10th meeting. Packers lead series 6-3. The Packers are 2-1 against the Panthers at Lambeau Field. Purely by coincidence, these teams played every year but one from 1996-2005 and there have been some very memorable games. The last two have come on Monday night football, both at Bank of America Stadium. In the last encounter on Oct. 3, 2005, Carolina ended a three-game losing streak to the Packers with a 32-29 win, doing so only after holding off a furious fourth-quarter rally by Brett Favre. Jake Delhomme threw for 204 yards and two scores, while Stephen Davis ran for two more touchdowns in the victory.
--A familiar problem resurfaced for the Panthers offense on Sunday -- the inability to convert third-down opportunities. The Panthers faced 16 third downs, but converted only three into first downs against the Atlanta Falcons. That resulted in nine punts, two field goals and a turnover in a 20-13 loss at Bank of America Stadium.
That's not a road the Panthers want to head down again this year, especially after finishing last in the NFC in that category last season (31.5 percent). Carolina had shown a marked improvement this year, converting 44 percent heading into this past Sunday's game.
The frustrating thing for the Panthers was that several of the failed third-down opportunities came in short-yardage situations.
Seven times the Panthers had third-and-five or less. They converted none.
--Coach John Fox admitted to knowing that quarterback David Carr suffered a concussion, as well as a back injury, against New Orleans in Week 4, although it was never revealed to the media until this week. That means Carr has suffered two concussions this year -- the other coming a week ago Sunday at Tennessee -- which helps explain why the team is being so cautious with him.
"We knew about it," Fox said. "The reason he was held out of that (Arizona) game was his back (injury). He didn't practice or play. But that was a combination of both of those on that hit (he took) in New Orleans."
Both concussions are considered minor, not severe.
--Even Fox had to admit that his decision to go for it on Sunday on fourth-and-one from the Atlanta 20 was a bit out of character.
"I'd say going on almost six seasons you can probably count them on one hand," Fox said of his fourth-down tries. "It was very short and they played something that opened up the situation that we did and we took a shot. It didn't work out."
Actually, the Panthers did convert the first down as Steve Smith caught the ball for an 18-yard gain. The problem came when cornerback DeAngelo Hall stripped Smith of the ball and it rolled into the end zone for a touchback.
--Fox defended the team's decision to run draw plays on third-and-18 late in the game.
"It's very common place in this league," Fox said. "I think some people think that's only with the Carolina Panthers. But, backed up, that's a very common play in the National Football League, not just in Charlotte."
QUOTE TO NOTE
"We've lost four games and we've scored seven or fewer points in those four losses. Four of the five losses have been with different quarterbacks. Some of them have had multiple starts, but when I say multiple, no more than two. So we're doing anything we can to create offense and we'll continue doing that." -- Panthers coach John Fox.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Panthers have cut quarterback Drew Olson, a sign the team is getting healthier at quarterback and that they will have their choice of Vinny Testaverde, David Carr and Matt Moore at quarterback this week against the Packers. Carr missed last week with a concussion and Testaverde has been bothered by an Achilles tendon.
The Panthers added fullback Billy Latsko to the practice squad.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--RB DeAngelo Williams is averaging 5.0 yards per carry this season, which is better than starter DeShaun Foster (4.2). However, Foster, who runs harder and picks up the tough yards, continues to get the bulk of carries for the Panthers.
--C Justin Hartwig played through a broken thumb last week, which means the team didn't have to turn to rookie Ryan Kalil. However, the offensive line struggled against the Falcons, a team they normally run well against.
--FS Deke Cooper was held out of practice on Wednesday with a shoulder injury.
--FS Quinton Teal, a rookie, is the likely starter at free safety if Cooper can't play.
--QB Vinny Testaverde and the Panthers rank second to last in the league in average yards per first down.
--DE Mike Rucker did a better job last week of applying pressure and recorded his first sack. He was also in on another sack, but didn't get credit for it. The Panthers need Rucker to have a big week at Green Bay.
All things considered, Carolina's defense has played well in the last month -- although those performances came against struggling offenses like New Orleans, Arizona, Tennessee and Atlanta. But on Sunday they face the league's top-ranked passing offense, which means the secondary will have its work cut out for them. After registering just four sacks in the first seven games, the Panthers have five in the past two. But that's not enough on Sunday. They will need a big game from Julius Peppers and company to keep Brett Favre out of his rhythm. The secondary is good, but Favre will pick them apart if he has enough time.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Packers RB Ryan Grant vs. Panthers front four. The Packers played to their strengths earlier in the season, throwing the ball much more than they ran it. But now they seemed to have settled on a running back they like in Grant. Since taking over a couple of weeks ago, he's looked very good and even ran for 100 yards last week against Minnesota, the NFL's top-ranked rushing defense.
The Panthers could be without starting free safety Deke Cooper, who injured his shoulder in Sunday's loss to Atlanta. If he can't go, look for Quinton Teal to get the start.
Cooper, however, said he should be ready to go Sunday.
Among those who did not practice on Wednesday include wide receiver Steve Smith (leg), DeShaun Foster (toe) and defensive tackle Damione Lewis (shoulder). All are likely to play this week.