- Anothersign of the postseason -- the "NFL Playoffs" logo at midfield, near the Carolina sideline. (PHOTO: ANDREW MASON / PANTHERS.COM)*
CHARLOTTE -- Damione Lewis now knows that a playoffappearance doesn't come easy. Early in his career, however, thedefensive tackle could have been excused for believing that playofffootball was as routine as a mid-week practice, going to the postseasonin three of his first four professional seasons after being afirst-round pick of the St. Louis Rams.
"It's natural that youdo," Lewis said. "We probably had one of the greatest offenses ever puttogether, and we were going out and scoring, 50, 40, putting uppoints. It was unbelievable. It seemed like it just came real easy."
Duringhis second season in 2002, Lewis first began to comprehend thestruggle; the Rams slumped from 14-2 to 7-9, buried under an avalancheof injuries, including one to their quarterback and reigning leaguemost valuable player, Kurt Warner. Three years later, when he beganthe first of a personal three-season postseason skein, he finallyunderstood how daunting the task was.
"I didn't understand the work that went into it or how long it took for them to get to that point," he said.
Fullback Brad Hoover saw the postseason from an oppositeperspective; his first three years in the NFL were defined byfrustration, with a pair of 7-9 campaigns sandwiching a 1-15 season.
Hooverentered the 2003 season having never come within two games of apostseason appearance. In the six years since, he and the Panthershave been in the playoffs three times, while narrowly missing out ontwo other occasions.
"These opportunities don't come along (allthe time)," Hoover said. "For some teams, they do, but it's hard to getin and it's hard to have home playoff games, period, so any time youget an opportunity, you try to take advantage and make the best of it."
Thatmessage hasn't just been hammered home this week -- but for severalweeks, beginning in the midst of a five-game, season-ending gauntletthat saw first place in the NFC South, a playoff spot or a postseasonbye week in the balance each time the Panthers stepped onto the field.
"Wehad a meeting in here probably about a month ago, just to let (theyounger players) know that it's not easy," Lewis said. "It's a hardroad. It takes luck, chemistry, making the right plays at the righttime -- there's just so much that goes into being able to get to thatpoint.
"We just have to go out and prepare every day knowing that's the goal in mind."
Theveterans are selling the message with a bottomless satchel of maxims,parables and clichés, and the 23 players in their first, second orthird professional seasons are buying them.
"Just stay focused. Don't believe the hype," said third-year running back DeAngeloWilliams. "They have a whole bunch of sayings. When you get aroundguys that have been in the league for a long time, they come up withpretty good sayings, and they've been around for a while, and they letyou know what's going on, so you don't experience it on the fly and youknow what to expect. They do a great job of getting us ready --especially with Coach (John) Fox, him being there before. He knowswhat it's like, so he knows what we're about to go into."
That'san environment where there is just one successful outcome and a myriadof sad endings, each of which the Panthers hope to avoid.
"You're always going to look at it as a failure if you didn't get it done," quarterback Jake Delhomme said.
ONE OF THE ASPECTSof the Panthers' preparation that has gotten them to this point is aperiod of practice where the first-team offense and defense face off. This runs counter to most segments of practice, which see the first-and second-team units duel with a scout team that mimics the opponent'splays, styles and tendencies.
"I think it's a great drill thatFox came up with, because it's competition," wide receiver MuhsinMuhammad. "For one segment of practice, we're not going up against alook team or some guys that are just trying to provide a look thatanother team does. We're actually going against our team, and it'scompetition. It really simulates what the game is going to be like. It's good for both sides of the ball."
The work came in handy inWeek 15 against Denver, when the Broncos opened in an exotic 4-4formation on the first series. But after being forced into third downon the third play of the series, Delhomme quickly adapted, exploitingthe Broncos' crowded box by finding a wide-open Steve Smith on the leftside of the field and moving into Denver territory.
Three plays later, the Panthers were in the end zone and en route to a rout.
"Theydid something on the first drive that we hadn't prepared for and hadn'tseen, and we just went right along and adjusted on the fly, becausethat's what you have to do. It goes back to coaching in the offseasonand training camp. So that's what's always fun, going against ourdefense.
"When I'm going against Julius (Peppers), (Jon) Beason,(Chris) Gamble, those guys, they're in their defense, it makes it goodand it keeps everybody sharp."
SPLIT SECONDS:Lewis, fellow defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu and right tackle JeffOtah all practiced fully on Thursday ... Guard/center Geoff Hangartnerreturned to on-field work on a limited basis; he did not practiceWednesday as he continues to recover from an ankle injury ... InArizona, wide receiver Anquan Boldin did not practice once again as herecuperates from a strained hamstring.
AND ONE MORE SHOT ...
The end zone is ready.