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Vets like Derek Anderson, Thomas Davis know the clock is ticking

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The 2007 Cleveland Browns finished strong, just missing the playoffs with a 10-6 record. Derek Anderson was returning at quarterback after a Pro Bowl season and so was much of the team.

Optimism during the offseason for a playoff run in 2008 was high.

"We come back the next year and we were trash," recalled Anderson, now the backup quarterback for the Carolina Panthers. "It was partly because guys were like, 'We're going to do it and just get back and rolling.'

"It didn't happen that way. We lost a couple of guys. Some guys got hurt. You lose the nucleus of guys a little bit and now it starts to fall apart."

The Browns, 0-12 this season, haven't had a winning season since.

Anderson isn't suggesting the same thing will happen to the Panthers, who are 4-8 following a 15-1 regular season and trip to the Super Bowl in 2015. He isn't suggesting this team is trash like the 2008 Browns that went 4-12.

But he is suggesting that there's a fine line between winning and losing, and if you don't take advantage of the opportunities you get you never know when you'll get them again.

That makes missing out on a fourth straight trip to the playoffs harder on older players such as Anderson, 33, than most. That makes playing the final four games with nothing to play for more frustrating than it is for a younger player who has his whole career in front of him.

"Knowing it's [playoffs] fairly out of reach, that you've got to have some magic have to happen for us to get in, it's frustrating," Anderson said. "For me, some of the older guys, who knows. Is this the last four games? Do we have another year?

"That part of it's like, we're all getting older and you want to maximize the most of your opportunities."

Outside linebacker Thomas Davis, 33, agreed.

"You definitely never know when that opportunity is going to come again, if it's going to come again," Davis said. "As a group, we're going to work as hard as we can to make sure we're back to the point where we were as a football team."

Davis and Anderson are under contract for next season, so there's no reason to think they won't be back. Davis has played some of his best football over the past few years, and Anderson has been a solid backup for Cam Newton.

But 30-year-old defensive end Charles Johnson, likely to miss Sunday's game with a hamstring injury, doesn't have that security. He signed a one-year deal during the offseason after the team released him to clear $11 million in salary-cap space.

His four sacks are his second-lowest total in the last seven seasons. While he'd love to play here again next season, there are no guarantees.

"It's not on my mind," Johnson said of whether he'll have another opportunity to get back to the Super Bowl with the Panthers or any team. "I always have a reason to play. The record, it is what it is. All I can do is go out and play. I have a reputation on the line and stuff I have to play for."

As bad as this season has gone, the older veterans believe the immediate future is bright for the organization.

Anderson likes the returning nucleus that includes key players such as Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly in the prime of their careers.

He doesn't expect the Panthers to fall to the depth of mediocrity that Cleveland has, understanding injuries -- particularly on the offensive line -- have made winning tough this season.

He knows those players will be back next season.

But he also knows it won't be easy. Carolina's history is evidence enough. The 1996 team that made the NFC Championship looked primed for a run the following season, but the defense got old in a hurry, franchise quarterback Kerry Collins had issues and the Panthers went six straight seasons without a winning record.

The 2008 team went 12-4, but that was followed by four straight non-winning seasons.

"You still have to put the work in," Anderson said. "It doesn't just happen. You don't just show up and you're 15-1."

Tight end Greg Olsen expects better things for next season because of the no-quit mentality he sees in this year's team.

"We're going to prepare each week," he said. "We have the right guys to do it. If we find out we don't, we address it and try to make it right. Thus far, that has not been our issue.

"This is not a game for the feint at heart. It's not a game for weak-minded people who just want success all the time. That's not realistic in this game. Guys are maybe understanding that for the first time."

Newton said the Panthers still are in a learning process, and until they learn how to sustain success they will continue to be.

"When we don't do that, that's a problem and that’s an issue," he said. "It's no need to panic about certain things. You've just got to go back to the drawing board. We're still in a process of getting better."

Some just have more time than others.