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After Reaching Big Game, Panthers Face a Bigger Test

Wednesday, September 8, 2004; Page H11

The Carolina Panthers just lost the Super Bowl -- now what are they going to do? Well, let's hope they come up with a better answer than the three previous runners-up (Giants, Rams and Raiders): We're going to have a losing record and miss the playoffs!

At least those teams had plenty of time to take the kids to Disney World. But their travails point out the difficulty of staying on top in the NFL. The Panthers, who won 10 games by less than a touchdown before giving New England all it could handle in the big game, will need a lot of things to go right if they are to equal last season's success.

Panthers Coach John Fox, who was on the staff of that Giants team, is well aware of this reality.

"I believe we finished 7-9 that next season after our 2000 Super Bowl," Fox said. "The difference between 7-9 and 9-7 or 7-9 and 10-6 in this league is about three close games. This past season, we were fortunate. The season before, we were 7-9 and weren't. It is that close."

Carolina helps itself win close games with its ball-control attack and stingy, disruptive defense. And it should warm the hearts of Panthers fans to know that not only are all the starters from the league's best defensive line returning, but the linebackers are bolstered by a special in-house addition. Mark Fields was the team's leading tackler in 2002 before missing all of last season with Hodgkin's disease. Now he's back and looking to provide more than just inspiration.

Quarterback Jake Delhomme's stellar playoff performance (106.1 passer rating) earned him a huge contract and questions about his ability to live up to it. But the biggest concern is on the offensive line, which lost three starters in the offseason. Their replacements are a mostly inexperienced bunch who have been plagued by injuries -- enough so that one of them actually retired. A terrific tailback tandem of Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster may have to fight extra hard for those extra yards.

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