Panthers return from bye in tight NFC South race

Published 8:12 am Tuesday, November 4, 2008

By By MIKE CRANSTON, AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTE — John Fox got away from football, played some golf and relaxed on the Carolina Panthers’ bye weekend. Everything went well for the coach except for those other pesky teams in the NFC South.
While the Panthers (6-2) were enjoying the weekend off, their division lead was sliced to a half-game.
Tampa Bay rallied from 21 points down to beat Kansas City in overtime to improve to 6-3. Atlanta shut out Oakland — Carolina’s opponent Sunday — to move to 5-3. New Orleans (4-4) was idle, leaving little wiggle room in a much-improved division void of bad teams.
The Panthers returned to Bank of America Stadium on Monday for a half-day of meetings, running and weightlifting. They’re off Tuesday before conducting their first practice in a week Wednesday.
The Panthers then begin a stretch of two straight games against bottom-feeders Oakland (2-6) and Detroit (0-8), where anything less than two wins and an 8-2 record will be considered a disappointment before the schedule turns tough.
After watching the Raiders hold the ball for less than 15 minutes, manage 77 yards of total offense and 10 yards passing, there could be a tendency to think the Panthers have another bye week this Sunday, an issue Fox acknowledged he had to address this week.
It also may help to change the subject. When Fox was first asked about the Raiders, he instead brought up the Chiefs, who the Panthers crushed 34-0 last month. They then nearly knocked off the Buccaneers Sunday, who Carolina lost to 27-3.
The Panthers could get two starting offensive linemen back this week. Center Ryan Kalil has missed the past three games and right tackle Jeff Otah the past four with right ankle injuries.
Receiver D.J. Hackett (knee) might also be ready to play Sunday, but Fox has a decision to make with the No. 3 receiver job because Dwayne Jarrett has played well in Hackett’s absence.
The defense, ranked eighth in the league, is healthy, and could dominate the next two weeks. Led by middle linebacker Jon Beason, fresh off winning the NFC’s defensive player of the month award for October, the defense will face Oakland’s 29th-ranked offense and Detroit’s 27th-rated unit the next weeks.
Then comes a tough closing stretch of four of six games on the road against Atlanta, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Denver, the New York Giants and New Orleans. All have records of .500 or better.
So the golf weekends are over for some time.