Five wins and seven losses never felt so good.
The morale in the Carolina Panthers locker room was upbeat this week, a stark contrast to a week ago when it appeared the bottom had fallen out and the season was over following a 31-6 loss to the New Orleans Saints -- their fifth straight overall and seventh straight at home.
However, by virtue of their 31-14 win over San Francisco and a few losses by some other middle-of-the-road NFC teams over the weekend, the Panthers find themselves just one game out of the second wild-card spot heading into Sunday's game at Jacksonville.
"It does (give you hope)," said running back DeAngelo Williams. "It really does. Last week we were down and out. People were kicking us and poking us with a stick to see if we were alive."
And this week?
"We got our life back and we're revitalized and ready to go," Williams said.
Players were cracking jokes, teasing each other and generally more jovial than in recent weeks during the team's open locker-room session.
"When you win a game, that's what happens," said quarterback Vinny Testaverde. "Pressure gets taken off a little bit. You have to put it behind you and move forward and get to the next one, but it feels good to win."
While some players are sticking to the one-game-at-a-time company line, others like Testaverde and Williams admitted they've been peaking at the standings. The Panthers are one of eight teams in the NFC competing for that No. 2 wild-card spot. Three teams are 6-6, while five others are 5-7.
Of those eight, the Panthers own the best conference record (5-4), which could be a key tiebreaker if Carolina can get things turned around and win a few games down the stretch.
"It's an extra motivation," Testaverde said of being alive in the playoff hunt as opposed to the alternative. "You shouldn't need that, but we're all here to play this game that we love playing and to make the playoffs.
"I've been on some teams who looked like they were out of it and wound up winning their division. You just have to keep plugging away and believing that you'll have an opportunity at the end. If we can just take care of our business, that's all we can control."
In a perfect world, the Panthers would beat Jacksonville and Minnesota, Arizona and Detroit would lose. If that were to happen, the Panthers would control their own destiny in the race for a wild card entering the final three weeks of the season.
Of course, the Panthers face an uphill road to the playoffs.
Their next four opponents have a combined record of 35-13.
"We all want to be in the playoffs, and that's what every team is playing for. Hopefully we can still do that," Testaverde said.
4th meeting. Jaguars lead series, 2-1. The Panthers won the last meeting in 2003 24-23, when little-known Jake Delhomme came off the bench to lead the Panthers back from a 20-0 deficit in the third quarter. Delhomme, in his first game as a Panther, threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl with 16 seconds left to lift Carolina to the win.
--In one of the lighter moments of the locker-room session Wednesday, wide receiver Steve Smith was asked about QB Vinny Testaverde's comments after Sunday's game that he was "wide open" when he split out wide and Smith lined up at quarterback in the shotgun.
"We're all open in our minds, we're all legends in our own minds," Smith said. "I don't know if he'd have caught one of my heaters."
When told of Smith's comments, Testaverde smiled and said, "Have you seen Steve throw? I'm not even going to compare it to my left arm."
--Smith, who wasn't thrilled a few years back when former offensive coordinator Dan Henning lined him up at running back, seemed to have no problem taking direct snaps from center.
"It's risky out there in general," Smith said. "Whether it's (returning kicks), playing linebacker, injuries happen on every area of the field. Some guys get hurt without being touched. To put a focus on, 'If I line up here I'm at a risk of injury,' that's just circumstance."
--The Panthers run defense will be tested on Sunday.
"They are big up front and they are doing a good job blocking," coach John Fox said. "I think it all starts there. Their quarterback (David Garrard) is playing well, so they've been able to throw the ball effectively enough to keep people off of them and from loading up the box too much. I'd say they are very similar in style.
"One guy (Jones-Drew) is a little bit lower to the ground and built a little bit blockier. But the other guy (Taylor), he can stick his foot in the dirt and change direction as good as anybody."
--With one more touchdown, Smith will become the team's all-time leader in that category. Smith has 44 total touchdowns, which is tied with ex-Panthers Muhsin Muhammad and Wesley Walls.
BY THE NUMBERS
15-8 -- Head coach John Fox's career record in the month of December. By the way, Fox is 7-4 on the road in December. The Panthers play at Jacksonville this week.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"He's got tremendous heart. He wants to get to the ball on every play, and most of the time he does get there. It's that that separates guys. I thought the week before, albeit a loss, he was all over the field against New Orleans, too. I think the thing that sticks out big about last week was obviously his interception return for a touchdown. Of course, it was a win too, so it stands out a little bit more." -- Coach John Fox, on nickel back Richard Marshall, who continues to play exceptional football for the Panthers.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Despite being the team's leading rusher last week, it's expected DeAngelo Williams will remain behind DeShaun Foster on the team's depth chart.
Williams rushed 17 times for 82 yards against San Francisco, one of his better efforts as a pro.
"I'm just trying to do what it takes for the team to win," said Williams. "I'm just trying to be productive and consistent, because consistency matters in this league. Whether you're the starter or the backup, it takes a total team effort to win a football game, not just one player."
Williams was asked if he is one of those backs who needs at least that many carries to be effective.
"It does take some running backs more carries to get in a rhythm and to get in the flow of the offense, but this is the NFL," he said. "Everybody is good at this level. Everybody is exceptional. And the one thing that separates guys who make plays from guys who don't could be that extra work in the film room or that extra work before or after practice. Bottom line is you just have to be productive when you're in there."
Williams anticipates a tough challenge this week against the Jaguars.
"Very, very physical," he said. "They fly around to the ball very well. They reinstated a Pro Bowl defensive tackle in Marcus Stroud, so it doesn't get any easier for us. We know that they're going to be hungry coming off a loss last week (to the Indianapolis Colts). We're coming off a win. So it's going to be a battle, because we're still in the playoff hunt and so are they. It's going to be a pretty intense game. We have to come out and be effective and be consistent and play Panther football."
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--LB Na'il Diggs missed practice Wednesday with a calf injury. It doesn't appear to be anything serious.
--RB DeShaun Foster did not practice because of a head injury. Coach John Fox said it is not a concussion, so it's still up in the air whether or not Foster will play Sunday at Jacksonville.
--SS Chris Harris rested a shoulder injury on Wednesday.
--WR Dwayne Jarrett continues to be held out of practice with a knee injury. Jarrett did not play last week.
--WR Steve Smith has only one 100-yard game in the last 10 weeks. However, he faces the 29th-ranked pass defense this week in Jacksonville.
--QB Vinny Testaverde made it through Sunday's game with no problems. He is expected to start against the Jaguars this week barring any setbacks.
Carolina's run defense ranks 17th in the league in terms of total yards allowed, but it is fourth in the NFL in terms of yards allowed per carry (3.6). Carolina will need to be stout against the run on Sunday. The Jaguars come into the game averaging 141 yards per game on the ground behind Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. So the Panthers will need to get physical up front on defense. That is where this game will be won or lost. Jacksonville is 27th in the league in pass defense, so you have to figure Testaverde will be throwing the ball around the yard a good bit. It's vital that the Panthers protect him.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Jaguars RBs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew vs. Panthers defensive front seven. Taylor and Jones-Drew will be the toughest tandem the Panthers will face all season. They both come in averaging 4.7 yards per carry for the NFL's second-best rushing attack. That puts a lot of pressure on Panthers DTs Maake Kemoeatu and Kris Jenkins to step up, stop the run and force David Garrard to beat them.
Running back DeShaun Foster (head), linebacker Na'il Diggs (calf), wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett (knee) and safety Chris Harris (shoulder) were held out of Wednesday's practice.
Foster said he doesn't have a concussion and will return to practice on Thursday.