A year ago, the Carolina Panthers' season was all but over after eight games, even if they weren't willing to admit it.

This year, the Panthers' season might be just getting going after eight games.

Carolina extended its winning streak to five games and improved to 6-2 with a rock-solid performance Sunday in a 34-14 triumph over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In a conference that lacks a dominant team, the Panthers appear to be about as good as anyone in the NFC at the midway point of their season.

It's a dramatic turnaround from last season, when they were the defending NFC champions but lost seven of their first eight games. They lost a long list of key players -- including wide receiver Steve Smith, tailbacks Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster and defensive tackle Kris Jenkins -- to season-ending injuries, making simply fielding a team a significant chore for Coach John Fox. The Panthers didn't quit, actually climbing back into playoff contention in the laughably forgiving NFC. But they missed the playoffs after a season-ending defeat to the New Orleans Saints dropped them to 7-9, making them the fourth straight Super Bowl loser to follow up with a losing season.

Now, though, the Panthers are close to full strength. Although Jenkins suffered another season-ending injury, Smith and Davis again are the focal points of the offense, helping the Panthers to a first-place tie with the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South.

"We're a team that is confident, but not a cocky football team," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "We work hard and we believe that we'll go out and play well on Sundays. It's starting to carry over now, so hopefully we'll keep it up."

But Fox, whose club hosts the New York Jets this weekend, was quick to add that nothing has been accomplished yet.

"We still have a whole half," Fox said. "It's like how nobody remembers halftime scores. . . . We hit our target of 6-2 after the halfway point, and now we have to get ready for next week against the Jets."

Saints Could Stay in La. Through 2007

Superdome officials say they are operating on the premise that last week's tentative agreement between the Saints and the state of Louisiana to postpone two deadlines for terminating the team's Superdome lease commits the club to playing its home games next season in Louisiana -- either in Baton Rouge or in New Orleans once the dome is repaired -- rather than in San Antonio. An attorney for the state agency that oversees the Superdome told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that the NFL has assured state officials that the Saints will play in Louisiana next season.

An NFL spokesman said yesterday that the league is focusing on having the Saints play in Louisiana but no plans have been completed. Saints owner Tom Benson met Monday in Washington with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to discuss plans for next season.

The agreement reached last week pushes back two lease termination deadlines until 2007, meaning that the league and the Saints won't have to determine the franchise's long-term future until after next season.

Under the terms of the lease, the Saints could have broken the lease and relocated after this season by repaying the state $81 million in subsidies. That deadline had been set for 90 days after the season. The Saints could have broken the lease without repaying the subsidies if the Superdome, which was damaged in August by Hurricane Katrina, was deemed unusable. The deadline for invoking that "act of God" clause in the lease had been Nov. 27.

The Saints have been based in San Antonio since being displaced by Katrina, and are splitting this season's home schedule between San Antonio and Baton Rouge.

Benson did not attend Sunday's loss to the Chicago Bears at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. Benson was involved in a pair of postgame confrontations following a loss to the Miami Dolphins there 10 days ago, lunging at a camera crew and exchanging words with a heckling fan. He informed Tagliabue in an e-mail sent later that day that he would not attend any more games in Baton Rouge, although Saints officials had left open the possibility that Benson might reconsider. Sunday's attendance was announced at only 32,637. . . .

The Saints signed tailback Anthony Thomas, the former Chicago starter who was just released by Dallas.

Mannings Stick Together

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning was on hand Monday night in Foxborough, Mass., to watch his older brother Peyton throw three touchdowns passes to lead the Indianapolis Colts to a triumph over the New England Patriots. Eight days earlier, Peyton had been at Giants Stadium on the Colts' bye weekend to watch the Giants beat the Washington Redskins. Peyton said he went to a Halloween party with his brother that weekend in an Elvis costume.

"It was really one of the more enjoyable nights I've had," he said. "Nobody recognized me. Well, they recognized me, but they recognized me as Elvis. I'm going to have to bring that back to Indianapolis. Of course, I just blew my secret." . . .

Colts Coach Tony Dungy's postgame news conference Monday was interrupted briefly by the ringing of a media member's cell phone. The personable Dungy didn't storm out of the room, as Green Bay Packers Coach Mike Sherman did last week under similar circumstances. "Isn't there something about cell phones?" Dungy said with a grin. "We will keep it going, though." . . .

The Patriots' struggles have become sufficiently exasperating that normally affable quarterback Tom Brady, who also threw three touchdown passes Monday, was testy after the game. He made a brief statement during his postgame news conference, then exited without answering questions. "I'll make it short and sweet," Brady said. "I don't have much to say. I mean, we got our butts kicked and we need to play better and we've got to fight harder. And give a lot of credit to the Colts. They played really well. I think we just made too many mistakes, and there's a lot of football left. We're 4-4. We've got a lot of division games and hopefully we can turn it around. But the Colts certainly outplayed us. They were the better team [Monday night]. And that's it. Thank you." . . .

Jets wide receiver Wayne Chrebet likely will announce his retirement soon. Chrebet was placed on the injured reserve list Monday after he suffered a concussion Sunday. It reportedly was at least the ninth concussion of Chrebet's college and pro career . . . .

Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Bill Cowher is sticking with quarterback Charlie Batch as the starter this week, giving Ben Roethlisberger another week to heal from arthroscopic knee surgery. Batch directed last weekend's win at Green Bay and is scheduled to start Sunday night against Cleveland.

Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme believes the Panthers are "confident, but not a cocky football team" after six wins.