CHARLOTTE – When head coach Ron Rivera watched tape of the Panthers' lopsided loss to Green Bay, a hard-to-watch tape filled with maddening inconsistencies and saddening injuries, Rivera could still visualize what his team could become by peering at the Packers.
"I'm sitting there watching the tape last night, watching Aaron Rodgers give hand signals to Jordy Nelson and the other receivers," Rivera said. "I'm thinking, 'I can't wait until we get to that point where Cam (Newton) can just sit there and kind of nod his head to Kelvin (Benjamin) or (Brenton) Bersin and they understand.'
"That's what you have to learn and develop. You hope you have time for these guys to get to that point in their career where everything is unsaid."
For this Panthers team, more time clearly is required for them to truly get on the same page, both because of the volume of new personnel added in the offseason and the new lineups required seemingly every week because of injuries.
The silver lining is that time is on their side because the rest of the NFC South – and for that matter many teams around the NFL – are going through the same thing.
"We're in flux right now. The NFC South is in flux," Rivera said. "There are reasons why, but the bottom line is we're in a good situation."
At 3-3-1, the Panthers will enter Sunday's home game against the reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks – the 3-3 Seahawks – with a one-game lead atop the NFC South.
The four teams mostly commonly identified as the NFC favorites before the season – Seattle, San Francisco, New Orleans and Green Bay – are a combined 14-12, and the group is over .500 only because the Packers have overcome a 1-2 start to win four straight.
Closer to home, a Saints defense that surprised last year has struggled this season (i.e. the Panthers) for reasons that are proving difficult to pinpoint and correct. The Atlanta Falcons have been decimated by injuries along their offensive line, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers - like the Falcons - have yet shown they have what it takes to bounce back from a difficult 2013 season.
It has opened the door for the Panthers to become the first repeat champions in the 13-year history of the division, but they haven't exactly walked right in.
"We are number one in the division right now," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "But if we continue to play the way that we have, it won't last long."
Davis said there's a simple solution – "Do your job, compete and play hard" – but it won't be easy to execute. The Panthers are enduring growing pains with a new-look secondary, receiving corps and offensive line, and the secondary and offensive line – along with the running backs – have had a new look seemingly every week because of injuries.
"But we've got guys we feel good about," Rivera said. "You're going to lose players, and you've got to replace them. You've got to feel good about it, but it takes a little bit of time to develop and build that rapport you need – that unwritten communication."
But the clock is ticking - as it always is in the NFL – and with the Seahawks and then the Saints coming to Bank of America, the Panthers find themselves at a crossroad. This feels like a critical juncture, one where the Panthers need to start finding ways to overcome bad breaks and begin making their own breaks.
"First and foremost, we have to go out and do our jobs against Seattle, or the outcome isn't going to be any different than the one we had this past weekend," Davis said. "At the end of the day, it's going to boil down to us doing our job. That's going to be the determining factor on if we're going to get this thing going in the right direction."