Panthers ready for uphill battle

If there's anything 2005 should have taught the Panthers, it's just how important home-field advantage is in the NFC playoffs.

The Panthers won road playoff games at New York and Chicago a year ago, but then ran out of steam when they traveled across the country to play their fourth consecutive road game (they also finished the regular season with a must-win game at Atlanta). They lost 34-14 at Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.

But the Panthers have failed to learn from their past mistakes.

Now 4-4 at the halfway point of the season, the Panthers are just hoping to get into the postseason anyway they can.

"In my opinion, we don't have to win the division just as long as we get into the playoffs," wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson said. "That's the main goal. We've shown we can win on the road this season. I'm not pressured to say, 'Oh, we have to win the division.' I just want to get into the playoffs."

Nonetheless, the NFC South division title is not out of reach.

The Panthers are two games behind New Orleans (6-2) and one game back of Atlanta (5-3) in the NFC South entering Monday night's game against Tampa Bay.

But the Panthers can hardly worry about the teams ahead of them. They have enough problems of their own, the biggest being their inability to close.

The Panthers bandwagon endured a mass exodus following the Week 8 loss to the Cowboys in which they took a 14-10 lead into the fourth quarter only to lose 35-14. It was the third time this season the Panthers have taken a lead into the fourth quarter and lost. Even in the games they've won, they've been unable to bury their opponent.

Still, Johnson promises the Panthers will be just fine.

"Is the Super Bowl over? Is it over? It's not over," Johnson said. "We're not dead here. No one is dead. (People on the outside) are trying to bury us. There's all this Super Bowl hype, but we didn't ask you to give us that. ... Let's just get there (to the playoffs) and then all bets are off. Everyone is equal when we get there."

The Panthers came into the season with high expectations, many of those thrust upon them by prognosticators outside the organization, as magazines like Sports Illustrated picked them to win the Super Bowl.

Coach John Fox said he doesn't pay much attention to predictions, but did admit the team failed to reach its goal of being 6-2 at the break.

"I've been doing this a long time, and you have to be fortunate and realize it's not over until it's over," Fox said. "It's not where you start but where you finish it. Even here, we were 1-7 (in 2004) and almost made the playoffs. You just never know."

The good news for the Panthers is they're typically strong in the second half of the season with a 20-12 mark since Fox took over in 2002. Never has a Fox-coached team finished the final eight games worse than 4-4.

Of course, going .500 the rest of the season probably won't get them in the playoffs this time.

The Panthers likely will need to finish the second half of the season 6-2 to have a legit shot at the postseason, especially given the head-to-head losses to Dallas and Minnesota could come into play.

And the schedule down the stretch won't be easy.

The Panthers face some tough teams down the stretch with away games at Atlanta (5-3), New Orleans (6-2) and Philadelphia (4-4). The home opponents include the New York Giants (6-2), St. Louis (4-4) and defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh (2-6).

"All we can change is the eight games ahead of us," Fox said.

This was the last bye week for NFL teams.

Fox said there are both good and bad aspects of having a bye this late in the season.

"The disadvantage of that is that other teams had a bye before we did, so they've had a chance to work on things before we have," Fox said. "But the upside is from a physical standpoint, having a bye in the middle is a good thing to get guys rested and healthier and ready for a second-half push."

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