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Panthers' motivation: Super-size it

CHARLOTTE -- Carolina Panthers coach John Fox was already dealing with the loss of two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kris Jenkins for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

He was already bemoaning his team's poor play in a 23-20 season-opening loss at home to the Saints, whose emotion and motivation was on a level that transcended sports.

And now he is trying to prepare his team for Sunday's ''rebound" game against the Patriots, the team that shattered the Panthers' Cinderella season in the Super Bowl two years ago.

Suffice to say, the start of the Panthers' season isn't going according to script.

''I'd say the New England Patriots are definitely a concern," said Fox. ''I haven't studied them since the offseason. From the little bit I've seen in preseason, they seem to be doing the same things."

Fox, who authored a tremendous game plan against the Patriots in the Super Bowl but came up short, 32-29, was asked if he might place a call to one of his best friends, former Patriots offensive coordinator and current Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis to get the scoop on Tom Brady.

''Charlie's got interest in both teams," said Fox. ''If I called, I'd be putting him in a rough spot, and I don't want to do that."

But it must be tempting.

Fox knows that if the Panthers are to neutralize Brady, it has to come from within. If they indeed are the team that many prognosticators believe can revert to their form of two years ago, with playmaking receiver Steve Smith back and running back Stephen Davis healthy, they must do it on their own.

The players know that, as well.

''I'll tell you what," said safety Mike Minter. ''If you have to do anything to get yourself motivated for these guys [the Patriots], you don't need to be playing football."

Minter has replayed the Super Bowl in his mind ''way too many times." He said Brady's last drive, the one that set up the decisive 41-yard field goal, is what haunts him.

''He's the best quarterback in the game right now," said Minter. ''I'll never forget, he threw a pass to the slot receiver and I hit him as hard as I could, knocked him back 5 yards, and he still held on to the ball. That play right there, I did everything I could, and they made the play."

Smith, on the other hand, who missed 15 games last season with a broken ankle, said he forgot about it quickly. The lapse of time even has softened his disdain for Patriots cornerback Tyrone Poole, who Smith claimed spit at him during the Super Bowl.

''We really haven't patched it up," said Smith Monday. ''I'm coming out here to play football. If he's fortunate enough to be blessed to cover me . . . either way, I'm going to play football." (That was a slight jab at Poole, whose injury status will be revealed today.)

Added Smith, ''As far as what goes on with that, that's over and done with. That happened, but I'm going to be out there ready to play.

''I see him and I play against him like he's anybody else. Anything else, I really don't have time for."

Smith is quick to say, however, that the Super Bowl was ''the highlight of my career. It's unfortunate someone had to lose that game. It came down to the last team with the ball, a lot like our game against New Orleans. But we were fortunate to go. A lot of guys never get that chance."

Don't let Sunday's setback -- also a game decided on a last-minute field goal -- fool you. The Panthers are a good team. But they slipped into some old bad habits, like faltering on third downs (the Saints were 8 for 13 in conversions). They also failed to stop tight end Ernie Conwell, who grabbed six passes, three of which went for first downs against rookie safety Thomas Davis, a first-round pick. They also committed 11 penalties.

''The Patriots are going to be very disciplined," said Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers. ''We have to work even harder to clean up the stupid mistakes we made."

The Panthers were a little embarrassed by the loss, but there's still a quiet confidence around the locker room, a belief in what they are and what they can do. They know, and the Patriots know, that no team has played the Patriots any tougher, and no coaching staff has come as close to solving the riddle of the Patriots' game plan, even if it was two years ago.

''It was the best game I've ever been involved with," said Minter. ''It was back and forth. It was like a chess match. If we had had the ball last, we would have won.

''But you hear this stuff about how they lost this coach and that coach and this player and that player, and ah, 'They're not gonna be as good as they were.' Please! That don't matter. When they step on the field, we're going to be playing the best."

Veteran defensive end Brentson Buckner thinks his unit, in particular, is going to have to be disruptive at the line of scrimmage. Buckner and Peppers conceded that they didn't play a fundamentally sound game against New Orleans, allowing quarterback Aaron Brooks to take his three-step drops and get rid of the ball almost unabated. He knows, too, that the Patriots offensive line buys Brady a ridiculous amount of time to survey the field and get rid of the ball.

''We have to be patient," said Buckner. ''We have to get our hands up and try to tip some passes or disrupt some passes. We watched them against the Raiders and Brady just keeps that machine going over there. They're still the defending Super Bowl champions, two years after we played them. That tells you something."

In spite of Smith's claims, Buckner said the Patriots played a hard, clean game in the Super Bowl.

''It was one of the toughest games I'd ever been involved in, back and forth," he said. ''Every player left everything they had on the field. You couldn't ask any more from anyone. That's the way good football teams play games.

''I remember the week leading up to that game, people saying that it was going to be one of the most boring Super Bowls, and it turned out to be one of the best, if not the best Super Bowl ever played."

So the Panthers know that the talent, the effort is in them.

Jake Delhomme was just a journeyman quarterback who came out of nowhere to have a great season that year. Now he's more established, smarter, wiser. He has Smith back to make plays.

''What it's going to be," said Peppers, ''is a good measure of where our team is at."

Which, right now, is not where they wanted to be after the first game of the season.

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