Before the season started it looked like the Carolina Panthers had it all.
The accomplished and respected head coach. The proven quarterback. The talented tandem of running backs. The dependable possession receiver to line up opposite arguably the game's best wideout. The potentially dominant defense anchored by a fearsome front four. The Panthers had the experience and they had the talent. They had the respect, too, as a popular choice to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLI. Yup, Carolina had everything.
Lately, though, something's been missing. The Panthers have some idea what it is. It's commonly known as a killer instinct.
After the Panthers started the season 0-2 and then put together a four-game winning streak that coincided with the return of All-Pro receiver Steve Smith from a hamstring injury, conventional wisdom was that they simply weren't the same without Smith and that all was well now that he was back in the lineup. But in losing their last two games -- at Cincinnati and at home against Dallas in Tony Romo's first start at quarterback -- Carolina was exposed for its inability to close out apparent victories. The Panthers led both the Bengals and Cowboys in the fourth quarter. In fact, Carolina has held a fourth-quarter lead in seven games, and lost three of them. Overall, the Panthers have been outscored 104-42 in second halves and 77-30 in fourth quarters.
Said Smith after the loss to Dallas, "When we get up 14 points, sometimes we act like it's a hundred points."
They say you are what your record says you are. If that's the case, the 4-4 Panthers are an average football team. Uncharacteristic underachievers. They're supposed to be better than this, aren't they?
In the season's second half, beginning tonight against Tampa Bay, the Panthers hope to better resemble themselves, or the Panthers everyone, including them, expected to see this year.
"In my opinion, we don't have to win the division just as long as we get into the playoffs," wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson told local media last week. "That's the main goal. We've shown we can win on the road. I'm not pressured to say, 'Oh we have to win the division.' I just want to get into the playoffs."
Added Johnson, "Is the Super Bowl over? Is it over? It's not over. We're not dead here. No one is dead. [People] are trying to bury us. There's all this Super Bowl hype, but we didn't ask you to give us that.
"Let's just get there [the playoffs] and then all bets are off. Everyone is equal when we get there."
First, though, the Panthers have to survive a second-half schedule that includes games against the Eagles, Giants and still-dangerous defending champion Steelers, and concludes with road contests against NFC South division rivals Atlanta and New Orleans. Carolina is 20-12 in second halves of seasons since John Fox became coach in 2002, including an inspired rally from a 1-7 start in 2004 to finish 7-9 despite being decimated by injuries. So even if they're no longer the popular favorites they once were, it's not a good idea to count out Carolina.
The Panthers have had to play without middle linebacker Dan Morgan and left tackle Travelle Wharton for most of the season, but should get rookie running back DeAngelo Williams back from injury this week. Left tackle and middle linebacker -- those are two key positions at which injuries can be devastating. What has hurt the Panthers more, however, is inconsistent performances by the guys still playing.
Carolina entered Week 10 ranked a mediocre 23rd in offense and 19th in defense. The Panthers are last in third-down efficiency at 24.5 percent. They're minus-two in turnover differential.
"When we get up 14 points, sometimes we act like it's a hundred points."
Steve Smith, Panthers WR
Bottom line is Carolina had better be a different team in the second half if it is to qualify for the playoffs for the third time under Fox. Fortunately for the Panthers, they still have many members of the cast that appeared in a Super Bowl and two conference title games and won five of seven playoff games -- including four on the road -- in the last three seasons.
For certain, there is a sense of urgency. In the search for answers after the Cowboys loss, veteran safety Mike Minter came up with the idea for the entire defense to have dinner together Thursday nights. Remember, the Panthers' defense has two new members in its tackle rotation; a new linebacker corps (you want to talk about offseason losses, Will Witherspoon to the Rams was as significant as any free agent defection in the league); a new safety, primarily Shaun Williams, next to Minter; and a rookie sub corner, in Richard Marshall. Minter thought the defensive players needed to develop better chemistry, to get to know each other a little better as people so they might perform better as a unit.
The Panthers know they can't half-step through the second half the way they did through the second halves of their first eight games.
"You start to run out of games to lose," Johnson said. "Your window of opportunity is starting to close. For all intents and purposes, we lose three more games and we might as well start making spring vacation plans.
"I equate it to spending money. You got money, you might buy that expensive drink. You running low, you might settle for a beer. When you've got a lot of games left, you might take some things for granted. When you don't have a lot of games left, you really start concentrating. Guys will watch two hours of film rather than an hour and a half. Why that is, I don't know. That's life I guess."
The Panthers no longer can afford to be an enigma from half to half. At this point, if they don't put up, then we can all shut up about all the talent on their staff and in their lineup.
"The reality is we're 4-4," Fox told the Carolina media. "We're about as average as it gets record-wise. We're not 0-8, we're not 1-7, we're not 2-6. We're 4-4. We're two games off what we set as a goal. What we do with that moving forward is yet to be seen."
Michael Smith is a senior writer at ESPN.com.