Panthers, Eagles still searching for identity in inconsistent NFC

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers searching for identity after loss to Chicago Bears.

That was the headline after a 17-3 road loss to a bad Chicago Bears team a year ago. The offensive line played so poorly that Newton, almost a sure thing on fourth-and-1, couldn't come close to picking up the 48 inches needed for a first down to make the game interesting in the fourth quarter.

"There's no excuse to not come in and find a way to win this football game," Newton said afterward. "We squandered that opportunity."

That was the feeling many Carolina players had after Sunday's 23-17 loss to a Washington Redskins team that was coming off an embarrassing Monday night loss to New Orleans. Nickelback Captain Munnerlyn referenced the 2017 Chicago game specifically.

Now the Panthers (3-2) find themselves in a situation similar to the one they faced a year ago when the Chicago setback dropped them to 4-3. The mantra now, as it was then: It's not about what happened in Week 6 as much as what happens moving forward.

The 2017 Panthers won four straight and seven of their next eight after that loss to the Bears to finish the regular season 11-5 and make the playoffs. To start that kind of a run again this season, they'll have to get past defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia (1 p.m. ET, Fox), which is coming off an impressive Thursday night victory against the New York Giants.

In truth, nobody knows yet how good the Panthers or Eagles are in 2018. Philadelphia seems stuck in a bit of a post-Super Bowl swoon, having failed to win consecutive games during a 3-3 start. Carolina is 0-2 on the road despite having a chance to win Sunday and at Atlanta in the final minutes.

So their matchup Sunday could be revealing.

"If we take advantage of the opportunity to learn and grow from it, we've got a chance to take a step forward," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said Monday of the team's ugly loss Sunday. "If we don't, we'll get beat again. When you look at games like this, losing isn't going to define us. How we handle it, how we come out next week, that's what is going to define us."

Outside of the Los Angeles Rams (6-0) and New Orleans Saints (4-1), no NFC team appears to be a certainty for the playoffs. And remember the Saints were beaten 48-40 at home in their opener against a Tampa Bay team that now has lost three straight after a 2-0 start.

Rivera pointed to the Dallas Cowboys' 40-7 victory Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who looked impressive during a 3-1 start.

"That's a sign of what's happening," Rivera said. "It's all over the place, and each week will be something different."

NFL teams once again are proving how difficult it is to win on the road. Only six of 32 teams have a winning record away from home. Road teams have won only 34.7 percent of the time.

New England, Green Bay, Dallas, Denver, San Francisco and Carolina, all considered playoff contenders entering the season, are a combined 0-16 on the road. Throw in the Eagles and that record is 1-17.

The Panthers are 3-0 at Bank of America Stadium, 0-2 on the road. Philadelphia is 2-1 at home, 1-2 on the road.

The teams that win on the road ultimately will become the most serious contenders. That's why the Rams, Chiefs (5-1) and Saints are off to fast starts. They are a combined 8-1 on the road, and were undefeated before New England rallied in the final seconds to beat Kansas City 43-40 on Sunday night.

Carolina tight end Greg Olsen understands. That's why he wasn't in panic mode after Sunday's loss.

"You have one team [the Rams] that's undefeated, and everybody else is sort of where we are. If we won yesterday, we'd have the second-best record in the NFL. Now we lose, and all of a sudden the world is coming to an end," Olsen said. "We would have loved to have won. We would have loved to have won the last five games. But we didn't. You just have to keep rolling. We'll be good."

That's to be determined.

And to be considered good, the Panthers must find a way to win away from home. Sunday's loss left them bunched among 29 teams already with multiple losses. They are 2-2 in the NFC, which could be crucial come tie-breaker time if they are in position for a playoff spot.

The Eagles seem to be peaking. Carolina defensive coordinator Eric Washington said the Philadelphia offense and quarterback Carson Wentz are getting close to becoming the dangerous unit they were a year ago before Wentz suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Washington, in almost the same breath, said the Carolina defense is getting close to playing at the consistent level needed to win -- particularly on the road.

There was no panic in his voice.

There was no apparent panic anywhere in the organization, even though there remains uncertainty about how good the Panthers and other teams are.

"That's this world," Olsen said of inconsistency ruling the league. "You can't get so wrapped up in it. You have to take each week for what it is. One week is not 16 weeks."