Panthers need to avoid another slow start

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Already down a game in the loss column, and with the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots here for the second game of the season next weekend, the Carolina Panthers insisted on Sunday they aren't ready yet to reach for the panic button.

At the same time, though, the Panthers were a team grasping for answers following their 23-20 loss to the New Orleans Saints here on Sunday afternoon. And a group cognizant of the fact they need to find some remedies quickly.

"We are going to come in tomorrow, watch film, take our medicine, see what we did right and what we did wrong, and get to work," said quarterback Jake Delhomme, who alternated brilliance with butchery in the season opener. "There's no break in the action. It's straight to work. They don't give you time to feel sorry for yourself in this league."

Ironically, it was the Panthers' opponents, the displaced Saints, who elicited sympathy from the crowd at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The fans afforded the Saints a standing ovation when they entered the field, and New Orleans head coach Jim Haslett made it a point before leaving the locker room to remind the media to express his gratitude for the hospitality, and then got very little to cheer about from the home team.

Fact is, by the second half, there were yawning stretches of empty seats in the stadium. It was as if many of the fans wandered to the concession stands and got lost there. Maybe, one press box wag noted, some local television station was airing a repeat of Saturday night's NASCAR race. Whatever the reason, many of the fans disappeared, and so did the Panthers at various junctures of their season-opening defeat.

It wasn't as if the overall effort was consistently poor, but rather sporadic at times. And against a motivated Saints team, a club that didn't always play well but which displayed great heart throughout the contest, Carolina's lapses were costly.

On paper, the Panthers' offensive numbers were anything but anemic, as Carolina totaled 350 yards and 20 first downs, rushed for 141 yards and a 5.6-yard average per carry, and converted eight of 13 third-down plays. But the Panthers were flagged 11 times for 84 yards in penalties. Delhomme tossed a pair of interceptions. The defense did a nice job of overcoming offensive errors, limiting New Orleans to two touchdowns even though the Saints had 37 snaps on the plus-side of the 50-yard line.

But the defense recorded no three-and-out series, as the Saints' offense averaged 7.3 snaps and four minutes-plus per possession, and kept hammering away with tailback Deuce McAllister as a battering ram. The front seven didn't apply consistent pressure and the secondary had some glaring lapses, particularly on third down. Rookie strong safety Thomas Davis, the team's first-round draft choice, appeared lost at times and eventually had to be replaced. The coaches insisted Davis suffered a minor injury but teammates acknowledged the former Georgia star was struggling in coverage.

Twice Panthers wideouts caught passes in the end zone, only to have the officials rule that they had stepped out of bounds before making the catches, nullifying each of them. On two other occasions, receivers were open in the end zone, caught the ball, but couldn't get their feet down in-bounds.

"Now that was strange," said wide receiver Steve Smith, who returned after missing the final 15 games in 2004 because of a broken leg, and posted eight catches for 138 yards and one touchdown, a brilliant individual effort on which he spun out of a tackle try by New Orleans cornerback Mike McKenzie, and turned a short catch into a 33-yard score. "I don't think I've ever seen so many calls like that. But you have to overcome stuff like that in this league. People don't hand you anything."

Speaking of strange, the Panthers opted to deactivate wide receiver Rod Gardner for the game -- the company line was that the move was made for special teams reasons -- and he might have helped in some circumstances. At the end of the game, in a "spread" set, the Panthers were forced to play Karl Hankton, a special teams standout but a guy with just 17 catches in seven seasons, as their fourth wide receiver.

With the Patriots coming to town, certainly the schedule-maker hasn't done Carolina any favors. The Panthers must regroup quickly and might be forced to do so without one of their standouts, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, who suffered a sprained right knee. The team doesn't seem to think the injury is serious but Jenkins, regarded by many as the top defensive tackle in the league, missed all but four games in 2004 and Carolina cannot afford to play without him again.

On the plus side, the team's two other standout players who missed much of the 2004 campaign, Smith and tailback Stephen Davis (13 carries, 81 yards, one touchdown), had very solid outings. For the Panthers in general, though, solid was offset by sloppy. And against the Patriots, such sloppiness will translate into another defeat.

For a Panthers team chosen by many pundits to challenge for a Super Bowl berth, and coming off a 2004 campaign in which Carolina won six of its last eight outings, another slow start to the season isn't a specter that went over well in the locker room.

"They're a football team that's got it all together," said free safety Mike Minter of the Patriots. "So we've got to pick up the pieces right now."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.