Dayton Fliers: Don't wait till next year

One of the truisms of life in the NFL is that the game is going to kick off at 1 p.m. Sunday, regardless. It doesn't matter who is hurt, who is sick, or what happened last week.

For the Panthers, last week was a delayed arrival of Halloween, complete with ghosts and goblins; a 30-3 loss in which they were never in the game against the Tennessee Titans.

It was the first real setback for the offense, a step back for special teams, and even though the defense held the game within reach, it, too, succumbed late in the contest in the wake of a wave of three-and-outs.

When asked after the game, "Where do you go from here?" left tackle Jordan Gross simply replied, "Detroit."

What could sound like a flip answer instead just reflects the realities of the NFL and the many questions a team faces about itself during a 16-game schedule.

Yes, the Panthers do go to Detroit to play the 6-3 Lions at Ford Field, but do they go as a team playing out the string now that their remote postseason hopes have been all but extinguished? Do they go as a team intent on being a spoiler? Or as a team trying to lay a foundation for next season?

A year ago the Lions were in a similar situation, carrying a 2-10 record after 12 games. That team won its last four and a laid the foundation for this year's 5-0 start, which has Detroit in the middle of the NFC playoff chase.

Turn back the clock nearly a decade and it was the Panthers, who were 3-8 after 11 games under a new regime before winning four of their last five to finish 7-9. That set up a 3-0 start the following season that culminated with a Super Bowl run.

Like the current Panthers, that 2002 team was dealing with its own set of adversity. Leading rusher Lamar Smith was deactivated following a Thanksgiving arrest for DUI, and a rookie named Julius Peppers was suspended a week later for the last four games of the year for taking a nutritional supplement.

Before winning at Cleveland on Thanksgiving weekend to break an eight-game losing streak, that edition of the Panthers lost at home to Atlanta 41-0, the second such drubbing at the hands of the Falcons in a five-week span.

Now to Sunday. If the slap across the face against the Titans was not enough, four contributors did not practice for Carolina on Wednesday. That does not count the 12 players who are already on injured reserve.

But come 1 p.m., the Panthers will face the Detroit Lions and no one is going to be concerned about those hardships. The Lions will be trying to secure a playoff spot; the Panthers, trying to establish an identity to carry over into next season.

"We can't do anything about what happened last week. We can define how we respond," says head coach Ron Rivera.

And what happens on the coming Sundays can define what comes later.  Just ask the Lions….or the 2003 Panthers.

Director of Communications Charlie Dayton has worked 34 years in the NFL. Before joining the Panthers in 1994, he was VP of Communications for the Washington Redskins. Dayton has worked on the NFL media staff for 25 Super Bowls, is a past winner of the Horrigan Award and was recently recognized with the National Association of Black Journalists Merit Award.

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