CHARLOTTE – When the schedule came out six months ago, Panthers pundits marked the four-game stretch that started at two-time NFC champion Seattle and continued with home games against three teams that won 10 or more games last season and wondered: How are the Panthers going to win a game?
Now, halfway through the stretch, with two victories for the Panthers along with their four victories to open the season, the visiting Indianapolis Colts are the ones facing such questions. At 3-4, the Colts are beginning a three-game stretch against opponents with a combined record of 18-1.
While outsiders have gone from asking how Carolina could possibly win this contest to wondering how it could possibly lose, that's not a game the Panthers are interested in playing.
It's an approach that has served them well during what is currently an NFL-best streak of 10 consecutive regular season victories.
"That's pretty good, obviously, but our focus around here is to be 1-0 every week," tight end Greg Olsen said. "It's one game at a time, and that approach – as cliché as it is – is really the only way you can approach an NFL season.
"It's such a hard, long season, such a grind. If you start grouping things and look to far ahead, you can find yourself overwhelmed."
The Panthers have allowed themselves to enjoy their recent run of success and have embraced the limelight with now a second consecutive primetime game. At the same time, they've done a good job of not getting swallowed up by the spotlight.
"We just enjoy playing for each other. And we play for each other, not just with each other - that's a big factor," fullback Mike Tolbert said. "You get a sense of excitement, a sense of urgency when you play in prime time. But I know the Colts are going to come with everything they've got to try to beat us here on Monday night. It's our job to stop them."
The Colts, hoping to build on their appearance in the AFC Championship last season, have been much more up-and-down than expected this season. They lost their first two games, pieced together a three-game winning streak, and have now again dropped back-to-back games – falling short in a good showing against New England and then falling behind 27-0 at halftime last week against New Orleans before playing better in the second half.
But the Colts, like the Panthers, are in first place in their division with all of their hopes for the season still within reach.
"That's a good team," defensive end Jared Allen said. "Wins and losses come by a slim margin in this league. I expect their best, and we've got to prepare as such."
And that, without a doubt, is how the Panthers have prepared. No, they aren't immune to bad days, and they haven't reached a point where they're immune to losing even on good days.
But one thing you can count on with this Carolina team: It won't lose because it took an opponent for granted.
"You can get caught up in numbers and statistics and where teams rank and whether they're struggling. But in the NFL, every team is going to give you their best shot," Olsen said. "These guys are professionals with a lot of talented players and a great staff. They're going to come in fired up and prepared.
"When you're talented and prepared at this level, every game is a fight."
LAST TIME THEY PLAYED
Photos from Carolina's win over Indianapolis.