Inside Slant: Panthers vs. Saints

My, how a three-game win streak can change things. <br><br> Suddenly, players are joking around with each other in the locker room. Head coach John Fox is exchanging friendly jabs with the media now on a daily basis and no longer seems as stressed out as he once did. Heck, someone even claimed they saw owner Jerry Richardson smiling and laughing following Sunday's 21-14 win over Tampa Bay.<br><br>

My, how a three-game win streak can change things.

Suddenly, players are joking around with each other in the locker room. Head coach John Fox is exchanging friendly jabs with the media now on a daily basis and no longer seems as stressed out as he once did. Heck, someone even claimed they saw owner Jerry Richardson smiling and laughing following Sunday's 21-14 win over Tampa Bay.

Yep, things seem to be getting back to normal again this week at Bank of America Stadium.

It's no coincidence the dramatic mood swing coincides with Carolina's three-game win streak, which has the team back in the playoff hunt entering Sunday's game at New Orleans.

"It's only fun when you win," Fox said. "It's just the way it is. The sky is bluer, the grass is greener and everything feels better. Life feels better.

"I mean, you put so much into these games, so much time and energy, and when you don't win it's discouraging. And when you win it's exhilarating. It's a true statement. I know it's a cliche. To win three in row, our team feels better about itself."

Three weeks ago, the Panthers were coming off a loss to the Seattle Seahawks, which dropped them to 1-7. At the time, it seemed the only suspense left in the season was whether the Panthers would get the first pick in next year's NFL draft.

Now, the Panthers have won three straight and folks around here are talking playoffs again.

The Panthers are one of seven teams tied at 4-7, just one game back of the St. Louis Rams and New York Giants, both tied at 5-6, in the race for the final wild-card spot.

It's been a month since Pro Bowl running back Stephen Davis was placed on injured reserve, a move perceived to be the team's way of showing it had given up on the 2004 season.

But over the last three weeks, some midlevel players have stepped up big, and the Panthers are suddenly beginning to look cohesive on both sides of the football.

"It's a team game," Fox said. "Every team has a different personality. I think very early in the season we became a different team. I mean, it kind of is what it is as far as the people we've lost. There's no question they are talented guys, but it brings in new people so there is a new chemistry you are building -- whether it's on the offensive line or whether it's a quarterback and his relationship with the receivers."

Other than a hip contusion to fullback Brad Hoover, Carolina hasn't had any significant injuries the last three weeks, and Fox is fielding pretty much the same group of guys every week.

"When you're always changing in a game like football, it makes it hard," Fox said. "Because continuity is a big part of what you try to accomplish on offense, defense and special teams. It's critical."

Quarterback Jake Delhomme believes the Panthers are finding out who they are.

"Last year we found out who we were early on," Delhomme said. "We ran the ball and played great defense and special teams. John Kasay was kicking great. And then we ran into a stretch that we weren't running effectively and throwing effectively and things of that nature."

Now, all of the things that weren't happening early on are starting to happen for the Panthers.

Jake Delhomme is making plays in the passing game, having thrown seven touchdowns in his last three games. Muhsin Muhammad has developed into Delhomme's top receiver, and Nick Goings has back-to-back 100-yard rushing games. On defense, the Panthers have forced 12 turnovers in the last three games and recorded 10 sacks.

"I think the coaches are seeing what the guys we have here do best and they are starting to call those plays," Delhomme said. "So hopefully this is a step in the right direction."

If it seemed as if Carolina's play on Sunday seemed to resemble many of the things the team did right last year, that's no coincidence, either.

"When Jake threw that ball up to Keary (Colbert) and he caught it and ran into the end zone, I'm thinking, 'Magic is back! Fox ball is back!' " said Panthers safety Mike Minter. "That is what it all about -- grinding it out for 60 minutes. (Sunday) was the first time we put a total game together in all phases."



If the Saints played all season with the passion that their head coach showed at halftime of Sunday's game with the Atlanta Falcons, they wouldn't be in the position they're in today.

As it is, the Saints (4-7) are just one game out of the sixth and final postseason spot in the NFC playoff race going into Sunday's crucial game with the Carolina Panthers (4-7) in the Superdome.

But the Saints can now look back and see that they might have been a lot better off had they played like they did following Haslett's tirade in the Georgia Dome locker room.

Haslett gave a hint of his fiery halftime speech during his weekly news conference Monday. The embattled fifth-year coach said he was sick of his team's inconsistent play and "couldn't take it anymore" when he snapped at the team, which trailed the Falcons 17-6.

Haslett reportedly kicked an ice chest, threw some items and spewed profanities as he tried to get his point across. The Saints played much better in the second half, even taking a 21-17 lead and holding it for much of the fourth quarter before falling 24-21.

"I was mad. I was upset with the way we were playing," Haslett said. "I thought we were a much better team than the way we've been playing, and I just couldn't take it any longer.

"You don't know how I acted, but it was bad," he said. "I was sick of seeing us play like that. It was upsetting. I know the fans are sick of it, I was sick of it. Everybody has to start doing their job on a consistent basis, play in and play out -- and everything will fall into place."

He was particularly upset that his offense committed three false starts in its first nine plays and had four in the first half -- one each by wide receiver Joe Horn, tackle Victor Riley, and guards Montrae Holland and Jamar Nesbit.

Two of the penalties occurred on third-and-4 and third-and-7 situations and the Saints failed to pick up the first down each time. The Saints had no penalties in the second half.

"I just think it's a matter of focus," Haslett said. "A receiver moving because he's running a route; I don't think that's right. There's no excuse. You're supposed to be looking at the ball."

Haslett displayed more passion when he was asked for the second consecutive week about his job security.

"Our coaches work hard and we'll continue to work hard," he said, looking ahead to the final five games of the season. "I can promise you this: I will do everything in my power to do the best possible job to get our football team to win the next five games.

"I also promise our fans this: We will play hard, we will play our guts out, we will do whatever we possibly can do to win the next five games. After that, I don't know."

SERIES HISTORY: 19th meeting. The series is tied 9-9, but the Panthers have won the last three matchups. The Panthers have also won the last two games played in the Superdome, taking a 23-20 overtime win there in Oct. 2003 when the Saints fumbled the ball in Carolina territory after they appeared to be marching to a game-winning field goal.

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