Pressure? What pressure?

Pressure? What pressure? That was message in the Carolina Panthers locker room on Wednesday as they began preparing for Sunday's season finale against the Atlanta Falcons that likely will decide whether they make the postseason. "I don't see it as pressure," Carolina safety Mike Minter said. "If we win, we go on. If we lose, we go home."

When a reporter suggested that sounds like pressure, Minter replied, "That's not pressure. Pressure is kind of like it's the fourth quarter and they're at the 1-yard line and you've got to stop them four times. That's pressure. But coming into this game, that's no pressure. If we go out and execute, we won't have to be in that situation."

If the Panthers win, they will clinch at least a wild-card spot.

If they lose, they would need either Washington or Dallas to lose to get in.

The Panthers admittedly have had a tough time putting Saturday's loss to Dallas behind them.

"Everybody in this locker room is sick," receiver Ricky Proehl said Monday. "It's easier said than done (to move past it). A big game like that and the way we lost it, it's disappointing. If you let it eat at you and you don't bounce back from it, and you don't come in with a positive frame of mind, you'll go down to Atlanta (this Sunday) and get your butt kicked."

On Monday, Panthers coach John Fox met with his players and conveyed one message: The playoffs begin today.

"Coach Fox told us, this week is our playoff game," safety Marlon McCree said. "You win, you keep going. If you lose, you might keep going, but you might not. But we control our own destiny, and we need to go down there to Atlanta and take care of business."

Not that it will be easy.

Carolina is 1-9 at the Georgia Dome, with their only win coming back in 1997.

"We didn't want to have to do this," McCree said. "Because we knew going down to Atlanta, it's would be like going into a bee's nest. But we've got to do it. We're capable of doing it, we just have to be prepared."

Wide receiver Steve Smith said the good part is the Panthers still control their own destiny, despite blowing two chances to basically put the division title away because of losses to Tampa Bay and Dallas.

"You never want to put your destiny in someone else's hands just like you don't want to put the ball in the zebra's hands," said Smith. "You never want to give someone else your own destiny. When that happens, you are almost always let down."

Proehl also said it's vital the Panthers play well against Atlanta and don't "back into" the playoffs.

"It's very important," Proehl said. "There isn't a guy in this locker room who wants to get in by losing to Atlanta. We've got a lot of pride, and no one here wants to back into the playoffs. That's not our frame of mind. And that's why, in a sense, it's so exciting. We're going to see what we're made of.

"I know the approach that we're going to take this week in practice. Everybody is embarrassed and everybody is disappointed about losing that ballgame the other day (to Dallas). I was in St. Louis and we were a talented football team. But I don't know if we necessarily had the heart that this football team has, and the character and the pride. And I think we'll show that."

Fox doesn't really care how the Panthers get in, just as long as they get in.

Surprisingly upbeat after the loss, Fox was asked if he was frustrated after his team lost a key game at home for the second time in three weeks.

"No, I mean, you could be a team that was going to play for nothing," Fox said. "That would be more frustrating. The way I look at it is the playoffs have already started. That's the mind-set that I think we have to have. I think we're fortunate to be in position to control our own destiny as far as getting into the playoffs."

Quarterback Jake Delhomme also shrugged off talk of pressure.

"I don't think this team really feels that way," Delhomme said. "Coach (John) Fox likes to say that you either feel pressure or you apply it. We can't allow ourselves to feel it in this situation. We have to go out and play. The good thing about it is that we're 10-5. We played better than the opponent 10 times this season, and they played better five times.

"Hopefully, we can draw from those 10 times and try to play well when we go into Atlanta on Sunday. They're going to come out ready to play, and it's probably going to go down to the wire. The best thing about it is we control our own destiny."

The Falcons should be plenty loose coming into the game after being eliminated from playoff contention last week by Tampa Bay.

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