While the East grabbed all the attention in the NFC for the first quarter of the season, the Carolina Panthers quietly have been going about their business in the South.
The rest of the world may be toasting the Giants, Redskins and Cowboys, but in Carolina folks are comparing the Panthers to the team that went to the Super Bowl after the 2003 season, losing to New England 32-29 in one of the more memorable title games of the past two decades.
Whoa, says John Fox, to whom a 4-1 start means the glass isn't even a quarter full.
``The goal is to get to a Super Bowl and win it,'' Carolina's coach replied, when asked about the comparison. ``The reality, in this league, is that we're only guaranteed 4-12. I've been on teams that were 0-4 and won 11 of the next 12 and went to the playoffs. I've been on an 8-2 team that lost six in a row to finish 8-8 and out of the playoffs.''
Coaches are always cautious.
that figures to be its main division rival, might get it a little more.
``We are running the football. We were really able to run it in '03, and I think we have a great mix,'' says quarterback Jake Delhomme, having a comeback season after missing almost all of 2007 with an elbow injury. ``We are somewhat younger, but I think we have the right mix of veterans.''
Tampa Bay (3-2) won the Super Bowl the season before the Panthers went, and the Bucs are winning this year the same way they did then - with defense, including banner work from 35-year-old Derrick Brooks.
But the Buccaneers' offense failed in a 16-13 loss to defensively deprived Denver last week. Brian Griese, who had been the starting QB, went out with an elbow injury and Jeff Garcia, last season's starter, finished up.
Griese has been hurting, so Garcia is the likely starter this week.
Whoever is his QB, the Panthers worry coach Jon Gruden.
``They're nasty, man,'' he said. ``They're really good.''
In other games Sunday, Chicago is at Atlanta; Miami at Houston; Detroit at Minnesota; Oakland at New Orleans; St. Louis at Washington; Cincinnati at the New York Jets; Baltimore at Indianapolis; Jacksonville at Denver; Green Bay at Seattle; Dallas at Arizona; Philadelphia at San Francisco; and New England at San Diego.
The New York Giants are at Cleveland on Monday night.
ennessee are off.
New England (3-1) at San Diego (2-3)
It's the fifth meeting between these teams in four seasons, including last season's AFC championship game, won 21-12 by New England. ``It almost seems like a division game,'' says Bill Belichick, who kept his team in California after beating San Francisco last week.
Each team is missing a significant star - Tom Brady for the Patriots and Shawne Merriman for the Chargers, whose absence has given opposing QBs more time to find receivers.
San Diego also was 2-3 last season before finishing 11-5, but the schedule this year seems harder - after the Patriots come the Bills and Saints. ``It gives you a confidence that you can do it,'' LaDainian Tomlinson says of the challenges of overcoming a slow start. ``But you know that it's obviously different.''
Chicago (3-2) at Atlanta (3-2)
The resurgent Falcons got their first quality win last week in Green Bay, although that's problematic if a team led by a rookie quarterback, Matt Ryan, wants to challenge Carolina and Tampa Bay. Atlanta lost to each by identical 24-9 scores on the road, games in which Ryan and NFL rushing leader Michael Turner were held down.
Kyle Orton had his best NFL game last week - 24-of-34 for 334 yards and a 121.4 passer rating. But it was against winless Detroit, last in the NFL in defense.
The Colts, looking for their first win at their new stadium, are lucky not to be 0-4. Peyton Manning has saved them twice, once from a 15-0 deficit in Minnesota and last week in Houston, where the Colts, trailing 27-10, capitalized on three turnovers by Texans QB Sage Rosenfels in the final four minutes.
Like Atlanta, the Ravens have gotten decent play from their first-round QB, Joe Flacco, who coach John Harbaugh says will remain the starter indefinitely. But the heart of the team, as it's been for 13 seasons in Baltimore, is the defense - even after allowing a late 80-yard drive by Kerry Collins and the Titans in a 13-10 loss at home last week.
Dallas (4-1) at Arizona (3-2)
The Cowboys, who a lot of folks wanted to send straight to the Super Bowl during preseason, find themselves having to apologize for a ragged win over Cincinnati. ``I guess everybody expects us to be some kind of superheroes,'' linebacker Bradie James says. ``I come in here on Monday and I'm trying to enjoy my win and people are, like, beating us up.''
The Cardinals are a worthy opponent at home if Kurt Warner protects the ball - they are 2-0 there and outscored Miami and Buffalo 72-27.
St. Louis (0-4) at Washington (4-1)
rdinator on a unit that is allowing nearly 37 points a game, tied with the Lions for last in the NFL.
The Redskins' 23-17 win in Philadelphia catapulted them over the Eagles into the elite of the NFC East, which right now is the elite of the league. They have won four straight since losing to the Giants on opening night and are finished with division road games, having gone 2-1.
Jacksonville (2-3) at Denver (4-1)
Both teams could be worse than their records.
The Jaguars beat Indianapolis and Houston with late field goals by Josh Scobee and the offense is having problems at what should be its strength - running the ball. That's due in large part to OL injuries.
The Broncos were handed one win by referee Ed Hochuli and won another game on what appears to have been a mistake by officials that forced the Saints' Martin Gramatica to kick earlier and from farther out. Naturally, he missed.
Philadelphia (2-3) at San Francisco (2-3)
Donovan McNabb apologized on his blog for losses to Chicago and Washington that have Philadelphia well behind the Giants, Cowboys and Redskins in their division. Brian Westbrook, the team's best playmaker, missed the Bears game with an ankle injury and now has broken ribs that make him a question.
But J.T. O'Sullivan, who threw three interceptions against the Patriots last week, may be regressing.
Miami (2-2) at Houston (0-4)
The Texans could have beaten Jacksonville and should have beaten Indianapolis, so this won't be easy for the suddenly dangerous Dolphins. Matt Schaub, who was ill last week, will be back at quarterback for Sage Rosenfels, who played very well against the Colts until those late turnovers.
The Dolphins have doubled their 2007 win total with wins over last season's AFC finalists, New England and San Diego. But teams run by Bill Parcells don't shoot off their mouths. The most they'll say, as veteran DE Vonnie Holliday did, is: ``We're not going to be 1-15.''
Oakland (1-3) at New Orleans (2-3)
Two more ``coulda, woulda, shoulda'' clubs.
Between their own mistakes and some unfortunate officiating, the Saints find themselves at the bottom of the NFC South. ``This isn't the same old Saints. We're changing that,'' Sean Payton said after his team dominated Minnesota, got two Reggie Bush punt returns for TDs and still lost.
Al Davis finally got around to firing Lane Kiffin during the bye week, so Tom Cable leads the Raiders, who led Buffalo by nine points and San Diego by 12 in the fourth quarter before losing.
Cincinnati (0-5) at New York Jets (2-2)
e weeks ago and came close to beating the Cowboys in Dallas last week. But all that does is make them the best winless team in the NFL.
Brett Favre had six TD passes against Arizona in the week before the bye, an indication he's picked up New York's offense pretty well. He spent the bye week in meetings with his receivers.
``It gives us an opportunity to see what he sees and what he is thinking,'' Laveranues Coles said. ``Of course, again nobody knows what Brett is thinking. ... His philosophy will go one way during the meeting, but when Sunday hits and he looks at the pictures he will come up with something totally different.''
Detroit (0-4) at Minnesota (2-3)
Rod Marinelli says he won't quit as the Lions coach. Why should he? Matt Millen, finally gone, has to take responsibility for getting him bad players.
Brad Childress doesn't have much of a knack with players. He called out punter Chris Kluwe for punting to Reggie Bush, who had two returns for touchdowns and nearly had a third in Monday's night's win in New Orleans. Public scoldings don't play well in locker rooms.
Green Bay (2-3) at Seattle (1-3)
The Packers have lost three in a row and Aaron Rodgers has a sore shoulder. Playing in pain, he threw for 313 yards against Atlanta in a loss that stemmed from defensive problems on a unit without Cullen Jenkins, Al Harris and Charles Woodson.
hawks can't be as bad as they looked in a 44-6 loss to the Giants. On the other hand, their only win was over the Rams, so they might be almost that bad.
New York Giants (4-0) at Cleveland (1-3) (Monday night)
The Browns, who entered the season with playoff hopes, think their problems began with an exhibition game against the Giants in which they fell behind 30-3 with the starters playing.
``They embarrassed us, so that's going to give us a little extra fire,'' says linebacker Andra Davis, perhaps the first player ever fired up by an exhibition loss.
Fire may not help. The Super Bowl champions lead the league in offensive yards, rushing yards and points per game at 31.7. They also are third in defense after a 44-6 win over Seattle in which they outgained the Seahawks 523-187. Their last road loss was opening night of the 2007 season - counting the neutral-field Super Bowl, they've won 12 straight away from Giants Stadium.

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