CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers have almost no experience preparing for big games. With just one postseason appearance in franchise history, the playoffs have usually been something out of reach.
The Panthers (8-3) can clinch their first winning season since 1996 with a win over the Philadelphia Eagles (8-3) on Sunday. Losses later that day by New Orleans and Tampa Bay would also give Carolina its first division title since that winning season.
In the back of their minds, the Panthers know all the scenarios. But with little history to fall back on as a guide, all they can do is treat the game against Philadelphia as any other matchup and forget about all the possible scenarios.
"We have to take care of Philly first," safety Mike Minter said. "We have way too much on our plates if we're thinking about anything other than Philly right now."
But the Eagles game is no gimme. In fact, it's probably Carolina's toughest test of the season.
Philadelphia has climbed into the thick of the NFC race after opening the season dismally with two straight home losses.
But the Eagles have won eight of nine; are tied with Carolina and St. Louis for the best record in the NFC; and will look to set their longest single-season winning streak in 23 years by beating Carolina for their seventh consecutive victory.
"We're still in this thing, we are still rolling and we are playing a tough opponent in Carolina," quarterback Donovan McNabb said. "Our next couple of games are going to be challenging."
The Eagles get no break after Carolina: They play Dallas in two weeks with the NFC East title on the line. Although the potential is there for Philadelphia to look past the Panthers, who lost to Dallas last week, coach Andy Reid doesn't think his team will fall into that trap.
"It's important that all our energy goes into Carolina," Reid said. "Their record isn't a fluke by any means and it's going to be a great game. It's two good football teams playing each other and that is what this league is all about."
The game is also a chance for Carolina to make a statement and prove the turnaround under second-year coach John Fox is no fluke.
Since going 1-15 two years ago, Fox has developed one of the top defenses in the NFL and turned Carolina into a contender.
But so far, the big wins have eluded the Panthers. Although they scored two victories over Tampa Bay this season - wins that proved to the Panthers they can play with good teams - they failed to beat Tennessee and the Cowboys when facing the best in the league.
So a win over Philadelphia would do wonders for their psyche.
"This is a test for us, because if we want to be want to do the things we think we can do, we have to win games like this," defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said. "We want to win these games, not keep it close and be in it at the end. We want to win because if you want to do things in the NFL right now, this is the battle."
The biggest battle will be slowing McNair, who fits the mold of mobile quarterbacks that have historically given Carolina fits.
McNabb comes into the game playing at his highest level of the season. Over the last five games, he's completed 93 of 142 attempts for 1,224 and six touchdowns. The NFL's worst-rated passer through the first six games, he threw for 259 yards and a touchdown on 16 of 25 passing in last week's win over New Orleans.
"They started off kind of slow, but now they are playing great football and it is all No. 5," Buckner said. "Slowing him down is going to be our biggest challenge."
The Eagles will have their own test in Carolina running back Stephen Davis. The Cowboys offered a blueprint for slowing him down last week, using nine and 10 defenders to stuff the line and hold Davis to 59 yards rushing.
Whether or not Philadelphia follows the Cowboys' example remains to be seen. So far, the Eagles have struggled to stop the run and have surrendered 164.1 yards per game in their last six contests.
Four running backs have gone over the 100-yard mark in that span, including New Orleans' Deuce McAllister, who had 184 yards and two touchdowns in last week's game.
"I don't know what the problem is, but we are going to fix it," defensive end N.D. Kalu said. "Right now we can look at the film with a smile on our face because we are winning, but we can't give up that many yards."
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