"Unfortunately, the season didn't end today, and we've got three games left, including a very tough game Saturday night at Atlanta, which just clinched the NFC South. That's where all our focus is at this point."">
"Unfortunately, the season didn't end today, and we've got three games left, including a very tough game Saturday night at Atlanta, which just clinched the NFC South. That's where all our focus is at this point."">

Panthers vs. Rams AFTERMATH

John Fox doesn't put too much into the fact that if the NFL season ended today the Panthers, a team that needed life support after a 1-7 start, would make the NFC playoffs as a wild-card team. <br><br> "That's really not reality," Fox said. <br><br>"Unfortunately, the season didn't end today, and we've got three games left, including a very tough game Saturday night at Atlanta, which just clinched the NFC South. That's where all our focus is at this point."

At this point, Fox knows the NFC playoff picture can change in the blink of an eye.

In fact, there's even a scenario in place where even if the Panthers (6-7) defeat the Falcons in the Georgia Dome they could still drop out of the second wild-card spot. That scenario exists if St. Louis (6-7) beats Arizona, Seattle (7-6) loses to the New York Jets and Minnesota defeats Detroit.

In that case the Rams would take over first place in the NFC West and drop the Seahawks into the wild-card mix. A win would get the Vikings to 8-6, earning them the first wild-card spot. The Seahawks, like the Panthers, would be 7-7 but would capture the second wild-card spot and the sixth overall seed in the NFC playoffs because they defeated the Panthers head-to-head on Oct. 31.

Fox views those scenarios as wasted time.

He prefers to focus his energy on preparing for the Falcons, a team that crushed the Panthers 27-10 at Bank of America Stadium on Oct. 3. That loss began a six-game slide for the Panthers, leaving them on the brink of elimination at 1-7.

If the Panthers do end up in the NFC playoffs, they'll have ventured through uncharted territory. No NFL team has ever overcome a 1-7 start to make the playoffs.

"It's not worth talking about until it's done," Fox said. "So right now our guys are aware of that. We're taking it one game at a time. If we can win out, you know, there's always a first for everything. But right now we're just worried about Atlanta."

In Fox's mind, the Panthers must win three straight games and finish 9-7 to have a realistic chance at the postseason.

"That's our goal," Fox said. "It will end up being what it is at the end. Whether it will be good enough to get in at the end, who knows? A lot of things can happen."

Fox is quite proud that his team has battled back and not given up.

"They've been through a lot," Fox said. "I think it says a lot about the guys in that locker room.

"They've hung together. It took awhile for us to find ourselves as a football team. We had so many changes. Once we did, this game's about confidence and momentum. Right now, we're playing at a high level."

The Panthers have always been a streaky team under Fox.

In 2002, the Panthers won their first three games only to lose the next eight in a row. They won four of their next five to finish 7-9.

That set the stage for last year's Super Bowl season in which the Panthers won their first five games but then, while trying to wrap up the NFC South, lost three straight late in the season. The Panthers rebounded to win their next six games, including three in the NFC playoffs, before losing to New England in the Super Bowl.

With five straight wins this year, the Panthers are on the verge of erasing that six-game slide.

"How you deal with adversity and prosperity kind of defines you," Fox said. "We fought through it, guys kept swinging their sword, and we fought our way back into this."

Still, even after Sunday's 20-7 win over the St. Louis Rams there remains some question about the legitimacy of this Carolina team, one that has placed 15 players on injured reserve, including stars Stephen Davis, Steve Smith, DeShaun Foster and Kris Jenkins.

That's why many believe Saturday night's game against the Falcons will be a huge test for the Panthers.

"I'm sure people on the outside will make a big deal out of it," Fox said. "It's another tough game for us, and it's on the road. They're probably filling their house now. It'll be loud, and a hostile environment, and it's going to be great challenge for us."


--For the last five weeks, the Panthers have escaped games relatively injury-free.

But the Panthers are concerned about an injury to center Jeff Mitchell, who was helped off the field Sunday with what was initially described as a knee sprain. As of Tuesday, there was no official update on Mitchell.

The injury occurred on a failed quarterback sneak on a fourth down play in the second half of Carolina's 20-7 win over the St. Louis Rams. Mitchell was helped off the field, his arms wrapped around the shoulders of two of his teammates.

Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme said he's hoping for the best.

"Hopefully he's not hurt bad," Delhomme said. "He was in good spirits after the game. He's one of our better players. I feel extremely comfortable with him."

Rich Tylski, who has never played center in a regular-season NFL game, filled in with Mitchell out. There were no fumbled exchanges between Tylski and Delhomme.

"Obviously that's a big injury for us, but Rich is probably the most solid backup we have," said Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross. "So no one was freaked out about it. I feel bad for Jeff but we knew that Rich could come in and do a nice job."

In other injury news, cornerback Chris Gamble injured his groin late in the first half and did not return. However, Gamble said he expects to play next week at Atlanta.

Backup fullback Casey Cramer left Sunday's game with a concussion and did not return.

--For the second time in three years, defensive end Julius Peppers has posted double-digit sack totals. Peppers got his team-leading 10th sack on Sunday when the hauled down Chris Chandler for one of Carolina's three sacks.

--For the second straight week, the Panthers lined up Peppers as a receiver in a goal-line situation.

However, this time Delhomme didn't try to throw Peppers' way, instead throwing to his favorite target, wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad.

"I have an option of throwing to either side," Delhomme said. "I went to Moose. I know where my bread and butter is. Moose does a great job. It's a match-up call. I'd probably take my chances with Moose again."

--Delhomme insists he has no idea where the Panthers stand as far as the NFC playoff race.

"I don't have a clue what we need to happen," Delhomme said. "I have no idea... We've got to keep trying to win. I couldn't tell you everyone's record right now. I don't know. All I know is we have a tough task this week (against Atlanta)."

--The Panthers have now scored on their opening possession in four straight games, three of them touchdowns.

--With the win Sunday over the Oakland Raiders, the Atlanta Falcons became the third different team to win the NFC South since the NFL realigned and created the new division back in 2002. The only team that has not won the NFC South so far is the New Orleans Saints.

--C Jeff Mitchell has a knee sprain. It's unclear the extent of the injury, but the Panthers should know more Wednesday.

--WR Muhsin Muhammad has 11 touchdowns on the season, two shy of breaking the team record shared by Patrick Jeffers and Wesley Walls.

--LB Will Witherspoon has four interceptions in the last six weeks.

--TE Mike Seidman seems to be gradually getting more involved in the offense. He caught two passes for 7 yards on Sunday after catching only one pass in the previous seven games.

--The Panthers rested RT Todd Fordham on Sunday. He had been listed as questionable with an ankle injury. Matt Willig got the start for the Panthers and played fairly well in his first significant action in six weeks.

--RB Nick Goings has run for at least 100 yards in four straight games, matching the club record established last season by Stephen Davis.

--LB Dan Morgan had a huge game for the Panthers after missing the last three games with a concussion. Morgan had two interceptions, a team-high nine tackles, a forced fumble and two batted passes.

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