Green Bay - Is this the point at which the Panthers tell themselves there are no moral victories?
Or is this the point at which they say "Hey, look how far we've come from last year. We know we can play with the big boys"?
Really, the bottom line is that Carolina is 3-1, courtesy of the growing legend of Brett Favre and an unbelievable gaffe on special teams.
The defense hounded Favre all day, sacking him four times, intercepting him once, and holding Green Bay to a pitiful 2 for 11 on third down conversions. Yet when it counted most, the Packers' QB just gutted it out and came through.
Aided by a pass interference call on Emmanual McDaniel which negated a Mark Fields interception, the Packers moved quickly to the Carolina 29 before Donald Driver caught a 22 yard touchdown strike to make the score 17-14. Carolina had a chance to tie or win, but newly signed kicker Shayne Graham, playing in the place of the injured John Kasay, shanked a 24-yard field goal wide right.
One has to question the play call on third down, though. The final drive was textbook, involving a nice catch-and-run by Steve Smith, a great pitch-and-run by Dee Brown, and some pass interference help in kind by Green Bay. But on 3rd-and-four, Coach Fox calls 36 year old Rodney Peete to run up the middle? Ouch. It wasn't even as though this was a spread formation from the shotgun- Peete just took the snap, took a quick drop, tried to run and was plowed down.
Why not search for veteran Wesley Walls on a corner route, or emerging threat Steve Smith on a slant? Even another pitch to a back would have made more sense.
Alas, it is easy to second guess play calls, as Coach Fox probably will for another week. He can, however, take solace in the fact that his team is exceeding expectations in spite of injuries. Steve Smith gained 116 yards against a solid defense in the place of Pro Bowl receiver Mushin Muhammad. He proved he is not a one-dimensional speedster, either, making a spectacular 61-yard run across the middle of the field, bowling over safety Matt Bowen even as he was being grabbed by the facemask. Lamar Smith continues to run hard in the absence of star rookie DeShaun Foster, and Terry Cousin has really stepped up in the absence of Terry Fair.
With a healthy John Kasay, overtime would have been a certainty, and 4-0, a real possibility.
Yet there can be no excuses in the end. Carolina considers itself a team on the rise, gunning for the playoffs in the very near future. Replacement or regular, missing chip shot field goals is not the answer, and a negative two turnover differential will not win many games. Especially distressing was the heretofore reliable Rodney Peete losing two fumbles in Green Bay territory, killing promising drives.
So the most appropriate question might be where to go from here? The Panthers need to get back to the rope-a-dope strategy which won the first three games- grinding it out on the ground, making enough plays through the air, continuing with strong defense, and waiting for the opposition to get impatient and make more mistakes.
Arizona will prove a good target to rehone this strategy. Jake Plummer is the ultimate hot-and-cold quarterback, and their defense has been less than spectacular. With David Boston struggling and Thomas Jones inconsistent, the Panthers will have a good chance to get back on track.