They're back

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:44 AM ET

While making an unlikely run to the Super Bowl two seasons ago, nobody wanted to believe the Carolina Panthers were for real.

The hot-shot contenders had established stars such as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb. The Panthers had Jake Delhomme.

Noboby wanted to believe in the interlopers from Carolina, basically because nobody knew who they were.

By the end of Super Bowl night in Houston however, the New England Patriots sure knew who they were as a second-half Panthers rally came up just a field goal short.

But just as quickly, the Panthers faded back out of consciousness when injuries led to a poor 1-8 start last season.

Here they go again though, making news and not just for the bawdy bathroom behaviour of a couple cheeky cheerleaders.

With a five-game winning streak and the continued demise of the Philadelphia Eagles, a strong case can be made for the Panthers being the team to beat in the NFC.

A 34-14 road win over the Tampa Bay Bucs on Sunday, a game in which the Panthers were the underdog, made a huge statement.

The Panthers still have Delhomme, still have a solid defence and a upper level running back in Stephen Davis. And in Steve Smith, they have one of the most electrifying and productive receivers in the league.

Despite a 6-2 record, good for a share of the NFC South lead with the Atlanta Falcons, the Panthers are viewed as more of a curiosity than a contender.

The NFL marketing machine doesn't help much, doling out the love to glitzy squads from bigger markets. The Panthers were scheduled for just one prime-time appearance this season, a Monday nighter last month against Green Bay.

Unless you look them up on the NFL Sunday Ticket package, expect not to be exposed to them until the playoffs arrive.

That's all well and good with the Panthers, though. They are 12-4 in their past 16 games and are facing the inevitable comparisons to the 2003 team that came so close to upsetting the Patriots.

"I think that's yet to be determined," linebacker Dan Morgan said when asked how the current edition stacks up with the 2003 version. "We've still got eight more games to go and then playoffs. "We'd have to go to a Super Bowl and win if we're going to be better, so there's really no point in talking about that."

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AT LEAST HE TRIED

As much as Donovan McNabb has been Terrell Owens' favourite whipping boy, the guy you should really feel for is Eagles coach Andy Reid.

The affable leader simply ran out of options, ideas and patience when dealing with Owens. Reid seemed to treat the temperamental star as a personal challenge, standing by him longer than others would. In the end, Owens let his coach down as much if not more than his teammates.

Meanwhile, it would be overstating things to believe that the Eagles will be better off without Owens -- the anemic offence in Sunday night's 17-10 loss to the Washington Redskins is enough evidence of that.

But don't be surprised if the last-place Eagles are still a player in the NFC East, which is developing into one of the best divisions in the league.


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