CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Only one conclusion could be reached after a week of asking the Carolina Panthers how they feel about being ranked 23rd in ESPN's preseason poll and facing the No. 1 Seattle Seahawks in Sunday's opener.
The Panthers don't care about rankings.
Or preseason hype.
Or the lack of it.
Coach Ron Rivera went so far as to dip into his predecessor's repertoire of mind-numbing quotes.
"It is what it is,'' said Rivera, referencing former Carolina coach John Fox, now the head coach at Denver. "I'm not trying to take a dig at anybody, but that's what it is. You are what your record says you are. That's the approach we have to accept. We are what we are.''
Then came the "but.''
You knew there had to be one because no coach or player is going to be satisfied with the status quo.
"The nice thing is, we're starting a new season,'' Rivera continued. "We have an opportunity to do things differently. We have an opportunity to show what we've become.
"You want to take things and look at numbers and all that stuff. Look at the numbers we had the last eight games of [last] season. Those are things to build on.''
That's where this game doesn't look quite like the mismatch. The Panthers won their final four games, five of their final six and finished 6-3 after a 1-6 start.
The offense averaged 25.4 points over the final nine games compared to 18.2 during the first seven. The defense gave up 21.7 points during that span compared to 23.8 during the first seven.
Seattle, by comparison, went 7-2 down the regular-season stretch. The Seahawks averaged 32.8 points during that run and gave up 15.4 points a game.
So if you look at it purely from the end of last season the teams don't appear as widely separated as their final records -- Carolina 7-9, Seattle 12-6 with a playoff win and loss -- indicate.
"This team is in a great growing process right now,'' Rivera said. "We've got a lot of young guys who have stepped up and done some good things. I'm talking about just going forward from here.''
But is it built to win? Right now?
"This team can be built to win,'' Rivera hedged. "There's a lot of good people in place. Everything we're doing is really geared toward one thing, and that is to win football games.''
The "can'' in that statement leaves one to wonder if Carolina is ready for Sunday's challenge. It suggests there are holes to be filled, that the team remains maybe a year away from being a playoff contender.
But with the 2011 Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year on one side of the ball in quarterback Cam Newton, and the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year on the other side in middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the foundation is there.
It's just a matter of whether all the pieces around them are there to compete with a team as loaded as Seattle.
As defensive end Charles Johnson said, Carolina has to bring its "A'' game. What that "A" game is remains the big question.
"They're a good team,'' Johnson said. "They're deserving to be up there on top. We have to earn the right to be up there.''
Sunday is an opportunity for Carolina to earn respect and discover where it is right away. The players know and relish the opportunity to find out if they're ready to win now or "can'' be built to win.
While they don't care what everybody is saying about them compared to Seattle, you sense there's a chip on their shoulders.
"Every team can be beat,'' defensive end Greg Hardy said.
While the temptation is to say this is a must win for a team with the league's worst opening day record (6-12) in league history, the Panthers appear to be keeping things in perspective.
"Realistically, every game is a jewel,'' veteran wide receiver Steve Smith said.
Newton summed up best where this team's mindset is when asked what his personal goals were for the season.
"To be 1-0 at the end of Sunday when I lay my head down,'' he said. "That's about as personal as it gets.''
Outside of that, the Panthers really don't care.