CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Injury-riddled and out of the playoff race before December, the Carolina Panthers seemed certain to have their first season of at least 10 losses under coach John Fox.
Instead, they're playing their best football of the season, just in time for the embattled Fox to have a shot at returning in 2010.
A day after the Panthers (7-8) routed the New York Giants for their third win in four games, The Charlotte Observer reported Fox and general manager Marty Hurney will be "offered the opportunity to return next season" by owner Jerry Richardson.
However, the report Monday said Fox will not be given a contract extension. He's due to make more than $6 million in 2010, the final season of his deal.
The team declined to confirm or deny the report. Team spokesman Charlie Dayton said Fox and Hurney are under contract for next season, and he's heard nothing to indicate they won't return.
Fox's Monday news conference came before the report, and Hurney didn't immediately return a phone message left by The Associated Press. Recovering from a heart transplant on Feb. 1, Richardson hasn't spoken to reporters in months.
Fox has been heavily scrutinized since starting the season 0-3, a year after Carolina went 12-4 and captured the NFC South before an ugly 33-13 home playoff loss to Arizona.
It follows a familiar trend. While Fox led Carolina to the Super Bowl after the 2003 season two years after inheriting a 1-15 team from George Seifert, he's never had consecutive winning seasons in his eight years on the job. The Panthers have also never finished worse than 7-9.
They were 5-8 this year before stunning wins over Minnesota and the Giants the last two weeks. Backup Matt Moore has thrown six touchdown passes and no interceptions in those games.
"He played well. I think he's gotten better each week," Fox said. "He's got more comfortable managing the game. I think there are certain things he's a little more comfortable doing that we've had to tweak a little bit. But I think he's gotten better each week and I think he'll continue that."
Fox stubbornly stuck with Jake Delhomme as his quarterback despite a horrendous 18-interception season until he broke the middle finger on his throwing hand against the New York Jets on Nov. 29. The Panthers are 3-1 with Moore, who could challenge Delhomme for the starting job next season despite Delhomme's big contract.
"I knew this would come up, but I'm just worried about next week," Fox said when asked about the quarterback situation. "Tomorrow first and then we get ready to play the New Orleans Saints. What the week after that brings and all that, we'll cross that bridge when we get to it."
Fox is 75-60 in Carolina, including his three playoff appearances. He's widely respected around the league and it's believed he could quickly find another head coaching job if he left.
That could make things interesting if Fox balks at not getting a contract extension and wants to seek another job. Fox's agent, Bob LaMonte, did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Fox was upbeat earlier Monday, a day after the Panthers' 41-9 win ended the Giants' playoff hopes. Jonathan Stewart rushed for a franchise-record 206 yards filling in for the injured DeAngelo Williams, and Steve Smith held onto a 27-yard touchdown catch despite breaking is left forearm on the play.
Smith underwent surgery Monday and will be the 12th player to go on injured reserve. But despite being without their starting QB, running back, both offensive tackles, defensive tackle and weakside linebacker, the Panthers have outscored the Vikings and Giants 67-16 in the last two weeks.
Several players have come to Fox's defense, including center Ryan Kalil, who last week said "it would be a mistake to make any kind of changes."
The late-season success is nothing new to Fox, whose Carolina teams are 24-13 in December and January regular-season games.
"You get dealt the cards you have," Fox said of the numerous injuries. "To see young guys get that opportunity and have success is definitely rewarding."