Originally created 01/02/00

Panthers, Ditka unsure of future



CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One team sounds like it's resigned to missing the playoffs. The other is coached by someone who sounds like he's resigned to losing his job.

There were plenty of glum faces in Charlotte and New Orleans this week as the Panthers (7-8) and Saints (3-12) prepared to play each other in their regular-season finale.

Up until a week ago, Carolina was on track for an NFC wild-card berth, but the Panthers severely damaged their chances with a 30-20 loss to Pittsburgh. Now Carolina is a longshot to make the playoffs, and the various scenarios that have to work out in the Panthers' favor are so unlikely that the players don't seem to be holding out much hope.

"We feel that we pretty much squandered our one real opportunity last week," Steve Beuerlein said. "Now the best we can do is finish on a winning note."

Finishing on a winning note might not even be enough for New Orleans coach Mike Ditka to keep his job. Ditka, 15-32 with the Saints, is waiting for owner Tom Benson to review his status after the season.

"Whatever he decides to do, I understand," Ditka said. "It's hard, you know. I've been at this a long time. We had expectations of being a much better team."

The season began with a 19-10 victory over the Panthers, but it's been all downhill since, starting with seven consecutive losses. Making matters worse, the Saints had chances to win several of those games, but surrendered leads late in the contests, damaging the players' confidence.

"We never got back the self-belief that we needed to be a good team," Ditka said.

It's been just the opposite for the Panthers, who started out 2-5 in the George Seifert era before the chemistry became evident.

Carolina won five of seven to reach the .500 mark for the first time in more than two years. The Panthers put themselves in position to make the playoffs for the first time in three years by winning their final two games.

But the Panthers started exhibiting some of the problems that hurt them early in the season, including poor run defense. The Steelers rushed for 211 yards, prompting Carolina's defenders to anticipate what's likely coming from the Saints.

"I'm not really a betting man," Carolina cornerback Eric Davis said, "but chances are they're going to try to run the ball, especially after last week."

That would also make sense given what New Orleans did in the opener against Carolina. The Saints rushed for 147 yards, setting the stage for the Panthers' next four opponents to also break the 100-yard mark.

"They're a much better team now," Ditka said. "You can see they're making more plays on that side of the ball."

But the Panthers haven't made enough plays, and now they find themselves needing plenty of help to qualify for the postseason. For starters, Carolina needs to beat New Orleans and have the New York Giants defeat Dallas. The Panthers also need to beat the Saints by 18 more points than Green Bay beats Arizona. That means that if the Packers beat the Cardinals by 20, the Panthers need to win by 38.

Seifert has no interest in discussing running up the score on opponents.

"If we were that good," he said, "we wouldn't be in this position where we could go into a game and say, `Now we're going to really turn it on.' I wish we could have done that last week."