A Tale of Two Seasons

It is week 8 of the NFL season, and the Carolina Panthers hit the road for their next match-up with a record that has a 1 and a 5 … just like last season when they made it all the way to the Super Bowl. And just like last season, they play their seventh game of the season coming off a loss. <br><br> The difference, of course, lays in the placements of the above digits... the 1 and the 5.

Last year's loss was their first of the season, following a franchise best 5-0 start and they went on to win 6 of their last 10. Sunday's match-up against the Seattle Seahawks comes after a 4 game losing streak since they had a bye in week 3.

The Carolina Panthers started this season with many question marks surrounding its personnel. Losing many key players from their Super Bowl season, many didn't expect the Panthers to compete this year since they did not succeed in replacing their departed players: Deon Grant and Reggie Howard from a suspect Secondary and 3 starters from their Offensive Lines that set Franchise records in the most Rushing Yards gained, and the fewest Sacks allowed – retirement, free agency and release.

All of the sudden, the Panthers head into training camp with so many holes to fill (and so few options). The "Curse of the NFC champion" or the "Super Bowl Fluke" all came to mind when it was time to predict the outcome of the new NFL season. The Panthers "hushed" their critics with a 4-0 preseason and planned to silence them once and for all in their regular season opener, a Monday Night Football game at home against the Green Bay Packers. On paper, everything seemed perfect for the Panthers to win the game. But the Best front seven in the NFL were unable to stop the Packers' Ahman Green, (which Mark Fields described him as being "slippery"), from running through them. The Offensive Line had problems opening Holes for their star running back, Stephen Davis, who carried the ball only 9 times and was not able to run it for more that 26 yards, which left the team leader and the League's nicest QB, Jake Delhomme, to carry the load on his shoulders and he tried his best and put up good numbers. But when you have your FB fumble the ball at the start of the second half where you have entered with a great momentum and right after that, you march the team all the way down the field and see your star Wide Receiver unable to hold on to the ball is something beyond your control.

That was not it. Things went down hill from there.

Steve Smith broke his leg and is out for the season (was placed on IR this week). Stephen Davis had a minor surgery and has been out for a while. The 3rd RB and KR Rod Smart hyperextended his knee and is out for a while. Your star DT, and one of the league's best is out for the season. Then your back up (and only healthy) RB is out for a while (was placed on IR this week). All of the sudden you have no options.

What a difference a year can make? Going from 5-1 to 1-5 is enough to shatter your dreams of returning to the Super Bowl. Here is a look at the difference between last year and this one:

• Opponents are scoring 5 more points per game than they did last year while the Panthers are scoring 6 points fewer.

• Opponents are converting 10% more of their 3rd downs than last year.

• The Best front seven in the league have registered 6 fewer sacks than they did last year (and they had at least one sack in each game of this season, while they had sacks in 4 of 6 games last year)

• Jake Delhomme is throwing the ball more (34 attempts per game) and had thrown for 200+ yards in 3 of 6 games this year (compared to 1 last year).

• Jake threw 7 TD passes this year (as well as last year). But threw twice as many INTs this year than he did last year.

Where is the bright spot in a team with high hopes and aspirations that are being lost game after game? The Offensive Line has allowed sacks in 5 of 6 games but have 3 fewer than last year. The Line did open up a hole that was big enough for DeShaun Foster to carry the ball for a franchise record -71 yard run. The line was good enough to allow a Full back Brad Hover to run for 99 yards against the chargers.

For many, this season might be lost … but for the Carolina Panthers organization (owner, management, coaches and players), and many of us fans, there is still hope. The light at the end of the road is bright enough and the road is not as long as it seems. Can the depleted Panthers beat the Seahawks? YES they can. Can they lose to the Seahawks? YES they can. But the bottom line remains … Never under-estimate the heart of a champion: the defending NFC champion, and NEVER under estimate the heart of its leader who takes each loss personally. The leader who refused to walk off the field after the heartbreaking loss to the Patriots in the Super Bowl until he saw enough of their celebration because he wanted that image to remain in his mind until the day he is the one celebrating with his Carolina Panthers teammates.

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