Panthers to face Bills

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:08 AM ET

The Carolina Panthers fancy themselves as a team that thrives on toughness, not the type that cowers in the colder weather.

If they are to remain in the thick of one of the best divisional races in the NFL, they'll have to prove it this afternoon at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo.

"Two cold games back-to-back on the road," Panthers safety Mike Minter said this week. "Playing two teams like that in their stadiums is tough."

The first chilly trip didn't work out so well. Riding high on a six-game win streak, the Panthers (7-3) got the freeze out in a 17-3 loss at Soldier Field last week.

At this point, few will mistake the NFC North-leading Chicago Bears for the middling Bills. For one, the Bears are a team on the rise. For another, the Bills slip in and out of mediocrity by the week.

Still, with a win today at The Ralph, the Bills could keep their flimsy playoff hopes alive. And as their 4-1 record at home (against 0-5 away) suggests, they are a dramatically different outfit at Orchard Park.

"We've been going back and forth, back and forth," Bills safety Troy Vincent told Carolina media on a conference call this week. "Now we are sitting at 4-6 and it's not what we had planned. We're still in it. We just haven't played sound, good defence week in and week out."

Nowhere was that more in evidence than during last week's 48-10 loss to the San Diego Chargers, the Bills' worst defeat since 1987.

The Panthers, meanwhile, are coming up on two seasons removed from their trip to the Super Bowl and coach John Fox's crew is locked in a tight battle in the tough NFC South. Currently tied with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Atlanta Falcons are hot on the heels of both teams.

Fox, who interviewed for the Bills head coaching job in 2001 but was bypassed for Gregg Williams, didn't waste time worrying about da loss to da Bears.

"You've just got to get better," Fox said this week. "There were areas last week that we need to improve (on). Coaches have made those corrections and that's why we practise."

If there is a knock on the Panthers, it is that they are becoming one-dimensional on offence. The run game has struggled with Stephen Davis, who has just 493 yards thus far. And as brilliant as wide receiver Steve Smith has been (an NFL-leading 72 catches), he seems to be the only guy quarterback Jake Delhomme will (or can) throw to.

If it is windy at The Ralph today, as often is the case, it could be a long day for the Panthers offence, though the forecast calls for a mild high of 7C.

The Panthers aren't buying the fact that the Bills are as bad as they looked in San Diego. And the snow piles outside the stadium will serve as a second reality check.

"You can say all you want about stats, but the only one I pay attention to is they're 4-1 at home," Panthers guard Mike Wahle said. "That's pretty good."


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