After a 1-7, the Panthers have won four straight, including Sunday's 32-21 win over the New Orleans Saints, and have climbed back in the wild-card picture.

However, the Panthers must win Sunday against the St. Louis Rams to keep any realistic playoff hopes alive.">
After a 1-7, the Panthers have won four straight, including Sunday's 32-21 win over the New Orleans Saints, and have climbed back in the wild-card picture.

However, the Panthers must win Sunday against the St. Louis Rams to keep any realistic playoff hopes alive.">

Inside Slant: the NEW Panthers

John Fox has dubbed his team the "new" Carolina Panthers.<br><br> After a 1-7, the Panthers have won four straight, including Sunday's 32-21 win over the New Orleans Saints, and have climbed back in the wild-card picture.<br><br> However, the Panthers must win Sunday against the St. Louis Rams to keep any realistic playoff hopes alive.

But right now, Fox is feeling pretty good about his team, a band of fill-in players, rookies and veterans stepping up to the plate.

"We've become a new football team," Fox said. "We have a lot of new faces in here that are starting to come together."

New faces is an understatement.

The Panthers have nine players on their current 53-man roster who weren't around when the team opened the season. And 22 didn't play for the Panthers in last year's Super Bowl.

Many others were role players a year ago who have stepped up to take on bigger roles. They are guys like running back Nick Goings, linebacker Vinny Ciurciu and defensive tackle Kindal Moorehead.

The new Panthers also start three rookies in cornerback Chris Gamble, receiver Keary Colbert and guard Travelle Wharton, although none is performing like a first-year player.

Every good team has a few veteran leaders, and the new Panthers have a few good ones in quarterback Jake Delhomme, receiver Muhsin Muhammad, defensive end Julius Peppers and linebacker Will Witherspoon.

They're guys who helped lead this team to the Super Bowl last season, and in the last four games they've been forced to assume bigger leadership roles, especially with stars like Steve Smith, Stephen Davis, DeShaun Foster, Kris Jenkins and Dan Morgan out with injuries.

"I think it took us awhile to overcome some of the injuries and to figure out what each guy in the backup role did well," said Muhammad, who has already established a career high with 10 touchdown receptions with four games remaining.

Muhammad points out the coaching staff did a tremendous job of figuring out the things that new starters like Goings and Moorehead do well and then utilizing their talents to the best help the team.

The new Panthers are averaging 31 points per game over the last four weeks while the defense is allowing less than 67 rushing yards per game and has forced 14 turnovers in that same span.

It's pretty easy to pinpoint when the old Panthers became the new Panthers.

It happened in the locker room at Monster Park in San Francisco when head coach John Fox chewed a little butt at halftime after his team fell behind 17-3 to the lowly 49ers.

"I don't know what possessed us to go out there and play so well in the second half," Panthers safety Mike Minter said. "Coach Fox got into us pretty good at halftime, and we came out of the locker room mad and we were a different ballclub.

"We came out of there and said, 'We're going to do what we do and if it ain't good enough, then it ain't good enough.'"

It was plenty good enough.

The new Panthers came out with a purpose and scored 34 points in the second half and forced four San Francisco turnovers and devoured the Niners 37-27.

Philosophically, the new Panthers aren't much different than the team that went to the Super Bowl last season, except for the obvious fact they don't have nearly as much talent.

How could they with so many of their top players on injured reserve?

But the new Panthers believe in the same principles -- run the football, take chances down the field in the passing game and play an aggressive, attacking style of football on defense while remaining solid on special teams.

In other words, play "FoxBall" -- play the way Fox wants them to play.

"That's what we're trying to get back to --playing FoxBall," said Delhomme. "That's how you have to play to win consistently in this league. You've got to be able to run the football and make plays in the passing games. We're starting to do that. We're starting to evolve. Hopefully we can keep it going."

Just how far the Panthers go this year will largely depend on what they do the next two weeks against St. Louis (6-6) and Atlanta (9-3).

"It's a real fine line between winning and losing in this league," Minter said. "It's all about confidence. It's all about momentum. And it's all about having that chemistry.

"We have those three things going for us. If we can keep playing the way we've been playing, we're going to be happy at the end of this thing. We'll look up and be where we want to be."

SERIES HISTORY: 15th meeting. Series tied 7-7. The Panthers won the last meeting (although it doesn't count in the series history) when they defeated the Rams in the NFC Divisional Playoffs in a double-overtime thriller in St. Louis. Carolina is 3-4 against the Rams in Charlotte.

NOTES, QUOTES

--QB Jake Delhomme threw for 294 yards and one touchdown on Sunday against his former team, the New Orleans Saints, posting a career-best 119 quarterback rating. But he seemed to take no extra joy in the fact it came against his former team.

"It's getting to the point where it's my second year removed from here," Delhomme said. "It's nice to have a lot of family come down, but when you come in and play against old guys, I'm not really into all that stuff."

--Coach John Fox said middle linebacker Dan Morgan is getting closer to being on the field but his status for Sunday's game won't be known until later this week. In the meantime, Vinny Ciurciu is doing a respectable job as his replacement.

--OG Travelle Wharton made several key blocks to open up holes for Nick Goings on Sunday.

Wharton, the team's third-round draft pick out of South Carolina, has emerged into a valuable player for the Panthers after a slow start in training camp.

BY THE NUMBERS: 566 -- Number of receiving yards for Muhsin Muhammad during the team's last five games.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "For a while there, it seemed like we took one blow after another. It never seemed to stop. Once it kind of stopped people were able to reevaluate and we became a new team. We had a lot of different people. This is the ultimate team game and it takes awhile to build chemistry. I think we're just now starting to find ourselves as a football team." -- Panthers head coach John Fox on how his team finally found itself after a 1-7 start.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Panthers lined up Julius Peppers as a receiver on one offensive play late in the second quarter on Sunday, but quarterback Jake Delhomme overthrew the 6-foot-6 defensive end in the corner of the end zone.

"That was one where I put it too high and too far out of bounds," Delhomme said. "I was a little disappointed on that. We had the run-pass option on for that play, and I kind of held onto it too long. I was a little disappointed in myself.

"I just wanted to give him a chance. I wanted to see how high he could jump -- because I already know how fast he can run. And I didn't do it. We need to go back and work some more on that play maybe, at least on my end of it."

Asked to evaluate Peppers as a receiver, Muhammad joked, "His release is a little shaky. But I think if he had thrown it up in bounds he probably could have jumped out and got it."

Expect to see more of Peppers in goal-line situations in the coming weeks.

--DT Brentson Buckner (knee) sat out Wednesday's practice but is likely to play Sunday.

--LB Dan Morgan was back at practice Wednesday but remains questionable while recovering from a concussion.

--QB Jake Delhomme could have a big game against the Rams defense this week.

--WR Muhsin Muhammad needs 38 yards to record his third 1,000-yard season. He has already posted a career-high 10 touchdowns.

--RB Nick Goings will get the bulk of carries this week against the Rams after three straight 100-yard games.

--P Todd Sauerbrun missed practice on Wednesday with a quad pull, but he is likely to play Sunday.

GAME PLAN: With reborn confidence in their running game, the Panthers will look to control the ball with Nick Goings. He has run for three 100-yard games and scored four touchdowns in the last three weeks. Look for the Panthers to use Goings to set up the play-action pass and try to take advantage of the Rams secondary. On defense, the Panthers will bring plenty of heat, knowing the concussion-prone 39-year old Chris Chandler doesn't react well to pressure.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Panthers CB Ricky Manning Jr. vs. Rams WR Torry Holt -- Manning got the best of Holt in last year's NFC divisional playoff game, helping limit the Rams star receiver to two catches for 21 yards.

INJURY IMPACT: Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner, offensive tackle Todd Fordham and punter Todd Sauerbrun were held out of Wednesday's practice, but all three are likely to play Sunday against the Rams.

Linebacker Dan Morgan, who has missed the last three games with concussion symptoms, practiced but remains questionable.

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