Slip-sliding away

The Carolina Panthers lost a golden opportunity to take a two-game lead over Tampa Bay and Atlanta in the NFC South on Sunday, and now find themselves on the outside looking in on the race for the division title.

"We were first in our division and now we're second," cornerback Ken Lucas said. "We're a wild-card team. That is so disappointing and kind of embarrassing. If you're ashamed of something, you have to do something about it."

Although both Carolina and Tampa Bay are 9-4, the Bucs have a better division record at 3-1 (Carolina is 2-2) and can seal the division by winning their final three games -- at New England, and then at home against Atlanta and New Orleans.

"We lost our wiggle room," safety Mike Minter said.

And more than that.

The Panthers also may have lost a great shot at getting a first-round bye and hosting a playoff game, too.

Carolina's 20-10 loss to Tampa Bay -- and the game was not nearly as close as it sounds -- was amazing considering how well the Panthers played the week before against Atlanta.

It now seems this team is a little schizophrenic, not unlike the Saints in the past. Quite frankly, you never know what you're going to get when they step on the field.

The big problem for the Panthers on Sunday was a familiar one -- third down.

Last season's common problem re-emerged when the Bucs converted 10 of 17 third-down opportunities, most of them on short passes by Chris Simms. The Panthers will try to tell you they were third-and-short conversions, but they weren't. The Bucs' average third-down play was a third-and-8.

Meanwhile, Carolina's offense converted just two of 11 third-down chances.

You would think the Panthers should be able to bounce back Sunday against the Saints in Baton Rouge, La., but you never really know. The Panthers lost to the Saints at home in the season opener and have always had a tough time with them.

The Panthers follow that game up with a tough home against Dallas on Christmas Eve, but in all likelihood their postseason hopes will come down to a the season finale at Atlanta, a place they've struggled terribly in the past. The Falcons will be looking for revenge after a 24-6 loss to the Panthers on Dec. 4.

The Panthers did their best to try to downplay the importance of Sunday's loss.

"Let's remember, we're 9-4," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "Don't lose sight of that. We didn't play a good game. We played against a good team who played well today. We need to get back to work. That happens in this business."

But in reality, good teams win games like Sunday's; they don't get blown out.

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