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Panthers out to prove their record is not deceiving

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers aren't playing the lack-of-respect card.

They feel they've earned the doubts, despite winning eight of 10 games, leading the NFC South and boasting the second-best record in the NFC -- third-best in the NFL. Only the unbeaten Tennessee Titans (10-0) and New York Giants (9-1) are better on paper.

There's still something about the way things have unfolded on the field lately that have Panthers players underwhelmed with themselves.

Tough road ahead

  Panthers may be riding high with an 8-2 record, but Carolina is in for a battle down the stretch. The last six opponents on the schedule are all playoff contenders, including three teams currently leading their divisions. 

Remaining schedule:
» at Atlanta (6-4)

» at Green Bay (5-5)

» Tampa Bay (7-3) -- Monday night

» Denver (6-4)

» at N.Y. Giants (9-1)

» at New Orleans (5-5)

"There's a large group of guys on this team that are not satisfied with what's going on right now," wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. "Jake (Delhomme) has struggled in the last couple of games. Steve (Smith) is not at the top of the conference in catches and yards and touchdowns.

"Our running game, even though we played well in the last game, really is just now starting to find its identity. Our defense, I'm sure they would have liked to have played better against Arizona and in that last game against Detroit. We gave up a lot of yards in that last ball game. That hunger is there (but) guys are not satisfied."

Lou Holtz would be proud of such self-deprecation.

The Panthers don't doubt themselves or their ability to confront a rugged six-game backstretch against potential playoff teams eager to replace them in the postseason. Confidence is hardly the issue.

It's been the so-so performances in the past two games -- victories against division bottom-dwellers Oakland and Detroit -- where focus has wavered, something that tends to happen to teams against down-and-out foes who can't seem to win even on their best days. The Panthers could care less about winning relatively close games. That's the difference between 8-2 and 2-8 in the NFL. The good teams find a way to victories.

Carolina's mental edge was compromised.

"Now we're at our stretch where we have to be ready," Delhomme said.

Carolina travels to NFC South-rival Atlanta on Sunday. Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Denver, the Giants and New Orleans wait after that.

To get things back on track, Delhomme needs to recoup his mojo. The past two games, the Panthers quarterback has completed 17 of 46 passes, with two touchdowns and four interceptions. Carolina has won in spite of Delhomme but that can't last if the Panthers have hopes of keeping their division lead and making the playoffs. Carolina failed to make the playoffs last season after Delhomme was shelved early in the season with an elbow injury that required Tommy John reconstructive surgery.

Without him playing and playing well the remainder of this season, the Panthers -- despite winning the same physical way Tennessee and the Giants have -- won't be able to survive.

"The one thing we feel most comfortable about is Jake," Muhammad said. "He's not going to be lacking in confidence because he had a bad performance or he struggled on this play or that play. He's been to a Pro Bowl (2005) and he's had a lot of success this season. Right now he needs to get back into that comfort zone. As wide receivers, we can do some things to help him. There were some dropped balls, some poorly run routes where we can't put ownership totally on Jake. This would be a good game for him to get right back on track and return to that Pro Bowl status."

The last time Delhomme faced the Falcons, he torched them for a season-high 294 yards (20-of-29) and two touchdowns in a 24-9 Week 4 victory.

Putting up big numbers through the air isn't the Panthers' way, though. Passing just enough to offset a sound running game and relying on a stingy defense that has allowed an NFC-low 155 points is how Carolina wins.

This is where the Panthers are drawing on their own history. In 2003, when it advanced to Super Bowl XXXVIII, Carolina won close games and pounded teams on the ground late in the season. They started that season 8-2, also.

"We were in a good spot but then we went on a three-game skid," Delhomme said. "It was my first year starting and I was unproven. Steve Smith was mainly just a punt returner. We ran the ball. We handed it off to Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster. When Stephen got nicked up we had to make plays in the passing game, and I did. Things came together at the right time. I've learned that you've got to be hot at the right time."

The Panthers better turn up the temperature now. A three-game skid, like they had in 2003, won't be as forgiving under the current circumstances.

To their credit, they're skipping the one-game-at-a-time cliches and acknowledging that every one of their remaining opponents will be desperate when they face them.

"Every one of these six games, none more so than the other, is critical," said coach John Fox.

Middle linebacker Jon Beason, one of the league's emerging stars who has helped re-energize the rugged image of the position, knows how his team is perceived even though Carolina is only a game behind the Giants in the race for homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

"I don't mind people saying that we are suspect," Beason said. "We are right where we want to be. At the end of the day if we're still the hunters instead of the hunted, that's fine."

Besides the play of the defense, which has gotten huge seasons from end Julius Peppers, Beason and fellow linebacker Thomas Davis, the recent production of tailbacks DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have triggered optimism that this team is on the verge of producing for how it was built. Williams and Stewart each ran for more than 100 yards in a 31-22 victory over winless Detroit last weekend. At least one of them has rushed for 100 yards in the last three games.

"Back in '03 we kind of had that double-edged sword, two-headed monster, whatever you want to call it with Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster," Fox said. "We tried to keep that going, but until this year we haven't had those two high-caliber guys to do it with. Jonathan and DeAngelo, while there's not much change in style, are special guys. So we can spread that wealth a little bit."

The Panthers are unbeaten in six games at home, but four of their remaining six games are on the road. They seem girded for the challenge. Still, there are conflicting signals of trepidation and swagger.

According to Delhomme, it all boils down to this: "We can't look at our record. We've given ourselves a chance. We don't have to rely on anybody. We just have to keep going. That's the biggest thing. We've put ourselves in that position. We just have to close the deal."

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