Players weigh-in on playoff team comparisons

Steve Smith doesn't like comparing the Carolina Panthers team that went to the Super Bowl in 2003 to this year's club. "We don't want to compare -- they lost," Smith said referring to the Panthers' 32-29 loss to the New England Patriots five years ago in Super Bowl XXXVIII, a game that Smith was a part of.

"You talking about 2003? We were losers. I don't want to compare to losers. We lost. You can compare yourself to a loser, but I don't compare myself to a loser."

And yet the comparisons are inevitable because this year's Panthers team is viewed as having the best chance to win the Super Bowl since that '03 team came oh-so-close to bringing the Vince Lombardi trophy to Charlotte.

Sure, the 2005 Panthers reached the NFC Championship Game, but by the time they got to Seattle they were physically and mentally drained, playing their fourth straight game on the road. The result was a predictable 34-14 loss to the Seahawks.

"In my mind, that team was a group of overachievers," quarterback Jake Delhomme said of the 2005 club.

This year's Panthers are just plain good.

And they have an easier road to the Super Bowl than the '03 team, at least on paper.

Five years ago, the Panthers had to win a wild-card game at home against Dallas and then win on the road at St. Louis and Philadelphia to reach the Super Bowl. This year, the Panthers need just two wins to get to Tampa, Fla., and one of those will be at home Saturday against Arizona, a team they beat 27-23 earlier in the season.

"I like our situation better this year than in 2003," kicker John Kasay said last week before knowing Carolina's upcoming opponent. "If this team was in '03, next week would be a real tough situation. But with that extra week, guys will be able to get fresh, we'll have a home game where we've played well all year."

The one team standing in their way of making it back to the Super Bowl, many believe, is the top-seeded New York Giants. But given the way the Panthers had the Giants on the ropes two weeks ago, the feeling is they have a good chance to win the rematch - if it comes to that.

The other option, a Giants loss next weekend, is even more intriguing because the Panthers would host the NFC Championship Game.

The playoffs promise to be fun.

"You guys dubbed us the Cardiac Cats a few years ago, right?" Kasay said after kicking a game-winning field goal last week against New Orleans to secure a first-round bye. "I think you could pull out the old hats and T-shirts and get ready for the ride."

"We're younger, with the right attitude, and we've learned how to win," Delhomme said when comparing to the '03 team. "It's something we can build on."

Only 10 players remain from the Super Bowl team, including six starters - Smith, Delhomme, Jordan Gross, Brad Hoover, Muhsin Muhammad and Julius Peppers.

"It's just the landscape of our league now," Fox said. "There is much more turnover. Sometimes turnover is good."

The fact that the Panthers are where they are has been a pleasant surprise.

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