PHILADELPHIA -- The Carolina Panthers could be excused for looking around and asking: "What are we doing here?"
The NFL's final four this weekend include the 2002 Super Bowl champion (New England), a team in its third straight NFC title game (Philadelphia), and a team led by a co-MVP (Indianapolis' Peyton Manning).
Then there are the Panthers, in their eighth year of existence and, with the exception of 1996, relatively ignored outside the Carolinas. Hey, they haven't played on Monday night since November 2000, while the Eagles, their hosts for Sunday's conference championship game, appeared in three prime-time games this season.
"You've got to do something the year before to get one of those," Eagles tackle Jon Runyan said Wednesday. "They'll get one next year."
This year and this month, though, the Panthers have been a major surprise.
After beating defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay twice and running away with the NFC South, they manhandled the Cowboys in the wild-card round. Then they ended St. Louis' 14-game home winning streak with a 29-23 overtime victory.
So they should be the darlings of the postseason, right? But they aren't. In fact, they're pretty much being ignored.
"We've only have one winning season around here, so a lot of people don't look at us because of that," said safety Mike Minter, referring to 1996, when the Panthers lost to Green Bay in the NFC title game. "And we don't have that big name. If we had that big name, a Brett Favre or somebody like that, that would help."
Yes it would. But instead of a Manning, Donovan McNabb or Tom Brady at quarterback, they have the low-profile Jake Delhomme. And instead of a Bill Belichick, the AP NFL Coach of the Year, or Tony Dungy at the helm, they have the unheralded John Fox.
But Fox has made a huge difference in a franchise that went 1-15 in 2001 under George Seifert.
"I think it turned when John Fox came," Minter said. "He said, 'Look guys, I don't care what happened up to this point. From this point on, this is a new era and this is the way we are going to run things. The guys who have been here, I am sorry you had to go through that, but this is something new about to start."'
What they went through was an unimaginable string of off-field problems. Former wide receiver Rae Carruth is serving 18 years in prison for conspiring to kill his girlfriend. Fred Lane, a former Panthers running back, was shot and killed by his wife in 2000.
Kerry Collins, now with the Giants, was accused of using a racial slur to a teammate. Collins was punched by another player for using another racial slur, and the quarterback later quit the team.
Those are not the kind of headlines a sports franchise wants.
"Anytime you have situations like we had off the field, it's definitely embarrassing, because that's all people were talking about," Minter said. "They weren't talking about football, and that's what we do for a living. They weren't talking about the Carolina Panthers winning championships. They were talking about the Carolina Panthers and their off-field problems."
Much nicer are the dramatics in St. Louis last week, and the fact the Panthers are one victory away from their first Super Bowl.
Much nicer is the way they haven't been spoiled by sudden success.
"We feel no pressure," linebacker Dan Morgan said. "We're having fun with it and will just come out and try to win the game."
Added Delhomme: "It's a pretty good fairy tale."
Yet, it's a fairy tale that has not become a household story. Manning's precision, Belichick's brilliance, the Eagles' failures with a Super Bowl berth on the line - those have been the juicy subplots.
"I think we'll get noticed," Morgan said, "if we win Sunday."
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