Originally created 09/30/03

Panthers staying grounded after 3-0 start



CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The celebration in Carolina was over Monday. The Panthers know all too well how easily a 3-0 start to the season can quickly go awry.

After all, the Panthers started last year undefeated only to fall into an eight-game losing streak.

So even though Sunday's 23-3 victory over Atlanta kept Carolina's perfect record intact, the Panthers were trying hard to keep their confidence in check.

"The thing you have to do is make guys understand that you are two games away from disaster," coach John Fox said Monday. "It is not where you start the race, it is where you finish it."

The Panthers are experts at handling adversity after a 1-15 season two years ago and the eight-game skid from last year. Success is a different story.

But then again, this year's team is so much different from last year's.

At 3-0 last year, the Panthers fell apart with fourth-quarter collapses against Green Bay, Arizona and Dallas. That was followed by NFC South division losses to Tampa Bay and Atlanta.

At 3-0 this year, Carolina has already beaten the Falcons and Buccaneers to score two critical division wins. At 2-0 and on top of the NFC South standings, the Panthers have doubled their division wins from last season.

That alone makes a ton of difference.

"I think this team is a little bit more mature," Fox said. "I think our three wins this year mean a little more in my mind because two of them were against division teams, and we didn't win a division game until the last game of the season a year ago.

"I think we are a little more grounded, a little more experienced and everyone knows a little bit more of what to expect."

The lessons from last year are felt all through the locker room, where defensive captain Brentson Buckner was cautioning players Sunday not to get too excited about the win over Atlanta.

"It's just one game, three games into the season," he told his teammates. "We've got another game next week. We can enjoy this but we've still got a lot of work to do."

Another major difference in this version of 3-0 is running back Stephen Davis, whose 406 yards rushing leads the NFC.

Davis, signed during the offseason to improve Carolina's offense, became the first back in franchise history to open the season with three consecutive 100-yard games.

"Just having him helps this team so much," safety Deon Grant said. "He gives the offense confidence that it can move the ball and score points, and that keeps the defense off the field. He's been a big, big addition to our team."

And Carolina's offensive line, so awful the past few seasons as the quarterbacks were sacked over and over and the running game never had a chance, is also radically improved. Aside from opening numerous holes for Davis, the line didn't give up a single sack to the Falcons.

"There aren't too many successful offenses in this league that don't have a good offensive line," Fox said. "It's hard to move the football if you can't block, whether you try to throw it or run it."