The stage is set

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of ALL ages. The Greatest Show on Turf is coming to town. Well at 6-6 it probably is not so great anymore. The team that came into the 21st century with Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Tory Holt and Isaac Bruce conducting aerial attacks against opposing defenses like the German Blitzkrieg of 1939 is now about as fear instilling as the 1990 Iraqi Republican Guard.

The hall of fame bound Marshall Faulk has been replaced by his talented, but still young and largely unproven protégé Steven Jackson. Bruce and Holt still pose a significant threat as a receiving duo, but it does take a good quarterback to use them properly against the suddenly re-energized Panther defense.

Speaking of Rams quarterbacks, Marc Bulger went down this weekend with a sprained shoulder and depending on how things progress this week he might be out and the Rams may come into Charlotte next Sunday under the leadership of Chris Chandler. Yep, old Chris 'Chandelier' Chandler himself complete with his AARP card and bottle of Levitra could be all that separates the Panthers from the #6 seed in the NFC playoff ladder. This is a man who is old enough to have played quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams, Phoenix Cardinals and Houston Oilers. He has been around the league so long he makes Rodney Peete feel like a rookie. Oh wait, that is Holly Robinson that makes Rodney feel like a kid. But still, you get the point. It is probably going to be Bulger playing next week. But still, be careful if you go walking up the practice field sidewalk this week. The slippery and slimy stuff on the concrete is most likely saliva coming from the mouths of Peppers, Rucker, Buckner and Moorehead as they prepare for the possibility of chasing after the gimpy one.

I remember a month ago walking out of the stadium after the loss to the Raiders in near dread of the remaining games. No matter how positive you try to be about a team, if they continue to lose it starts to catch up with you. You spend a day or two just sort of sick at your stomach that you have attached your loyalties to something that seems destined to being sub par. Then when the weekend comes around, you find getting ready for the game is almost a chore. And then, with fate accepted, the game changes as the team goes on a rampage and has 4 straight wins. Now all of a sudden the playoffs which seemed an impossibility just 30 days ago are right within our reach. It is only Monday and I am ready to head out to the parking lot already. I went to lunch today proudly wearing my #17 jersey and complete strangers are talking football in Charlotte once again. And now this upcoming match with the Rams is poised to be a game with playoff atmosphere as well as the implications. A win against St Louis means the Panthers control their own destiny for the sixth seed.

The importance of this match up is largely lost amongst the masses in NFL nation. They are all goo-goo over the AFC right now. The aerial displays and winning streaks reside in the baby conference. The sporting press cannot get enough of Peyton Manning and the potential crushing of the Marino record. The New England Patriots are the dynasty that every bandwagon fan dreams about. And the Steelers with their rookie QB are causing a run on black jersey material. To most of the NFL fans of America, the NFC representative has already been chosen in the form of the Philadelphia Eagles. There appears to be no doubt that Donavon McNabb and Terrell Owens's sharpie are going to be in Jacksonville come February. The rest of the NFC is just noise.

Would I like the Panthers to be 11-1 and looking to clinch home field advantage throughout next week? Well I am not going to lie, hell yes I would like to be there. But this season is what it is and I am just thankful that my team at least has a shot at making it to the post-season. But part of me also sort of likes it this way. Like just about everyone else, I love the underdog. But I do not think we ever actually want to be the underdog. Players and coaches certainly want to win every game. Us fans pretty much demand that every game is won, and when there is a loss we question every decision made. Part of being the underdog is that you have to suffer through these negative situations. But what separates the underdog from the loser is how you maintain yourself when things are going poorly and how you rise above them when it is your turn in the sun. The Panthers have shown up to this point that they are not going to quit on the coaches, the fans or themselves. The goal of this club remains the same. Win the division, go to the playoffs and win the conference. The weeks and months leading up to this weekend have set the stage for what could be the most important game of this season. Who could ask for anything more?

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