The Carolina Panthers are the NFL’s lone unbeaten at 11-0 following the New England Patriots loss on Sunday night.
Now the focus is solely on the Panthers.
Talk of an unbeaten season has begun to permeate the team’s locker room with players being peppered with more and more questions with each passing victory about matching the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the NFL’s only unblemished team.
Rather than fight it, some Panthers are just enjoying the ride.
“Hey, winning is fun, it’s very fun,” said veteran center Ryan Kalil. “As far as the undefeated stuff, all I know is it’s really hard to win every week.”
But not impossible, said safety Roman Harper.
“Why can’t we?” Harper said of going 19-0. “We just have to keep playing our games, don’t worry about it, and when we get there, we get there.”
Added defensive tackle Dwan Edwards: “The way our team is playing it’s going to take us to not play well on a Sunday for a team to beat us.”
Carolina’s schedule certainly lends itself to a possible run at perfection.
The Panthers travel to New Orleans (4-7) on Sunday before finishing the season with a home-and-away series with slumping Atlanta (6-5), at the New York Giants (5-6) and at home against Tampa Bay (5-6).
None of those teams are particularly playing well.
The Saints have lost four straight games, the Falcons three and the Giants two. The Buccaneers are probably playing the best of their remaining foes having won three of their last five, but they too lost this past weekend 25-12 to Indianapolis.
Quarterback Cam Newton said his approach is to remain focused on the Saints, a team the Panthers beat 27-22 at home without Drew Brees in September.
“We aren’t trying to get lured in by what others may think,” Newton said of a potentially perfect season. “Our main focus — and we are already reminded by what coach (Ron) Rivera says — is to become 12-0 first.”
The Panthers, who haven’t lost a regular season game in more than a full year, returned to practice Tuesday for the first time since a dominating 33-14 win over the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day.
Carolina has now scored the third-most points in the NFL and given up the third-fewest. Yet, Rivera has kept his players focused by reminding them they haven’t played a complete game yet.
Rivera has an extra carrot to dangle in front of his players this week: If the Panthers beat the Saints they’ll clinch their third straight NFC South championship.
It some respects, it seems a foregone conclusion, but when you’re looking to keep a team from looking too far ahead anything helps.
“If you start talking about undefeated seasons and trips to the Super Bowl you’re not focusing on the details of what you’re doing and who we have to play next,” Rivera said. “… Our message here is very clear — we have a ways to go and a lot of thing to improve upon.”
Rivera was a linebacker for the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears, a team that started 12-0 before suffering its only loss of the season.
The coach said losing that Dec. 2, 1985 game to the Dolphins on a Monday night was actually a good thing for the Bears.
“The Miami loss refocused us,” Rivera said. “I think it was (good) at the time for us. I really do. Could we have been a good undefeated team, yeah, the ’85 team might have been. But we’ll never know.”
He doesn’t know if a loss would be good for the Panthers or not.
Right now, the word losing simply isn’t one that is being tossed around a Panthers locker room that has suddenly been swarmed by national media attention.
“We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” said Harper, a member of the 2009 Saints that started 13-0 and went on to win Super Bowl XLIV. “We are in a whole bunch of one-game playoffs. We have to control the controllable. … (But) we know that if we play the way we’re capable of playing we have a great chance of winning every game.”