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Slow starts for Panthers and Cardinals belie preseason expectations

TEMPE, Ariz. — When the NFL schedule came out in April, the Week 8 matchup between the Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers looked like a premier game.

Why would it have not been? The Panthers went 15-1 last season and reached the Super Bowl, while the Cardinals went 13-3 and fell to Carolina in the NFC Championship Game. Both were quite good last season, and were expected to once again be among the best in the league.

Then this season happened. Neither team got off to the kind of start that was predicted.

The Panthers are a woeful 1-5, while the Cardinals are a pedestrian 3-3-1. Surprising?

“Oh yeah. Most certainly,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “You’d like to believe that as well. Heck, the league thought that. We were the 4:30 game at one time, so we had an opportunity to do some good things and unfortunately that’s not it.”

A few weeks ago, when the Panthers were 1-4 following a home loss to Tampa Bay and the Cardinals were 2-3 after a road win in San Francisco, the NFL elected to move the game from the primetime afternoon slot to a less-exciting morning window. It will instead feature the 4-2 Green Bay Packers at the 4-3 Atlanta Falcons.

The NFL obviously wants to feature its best teams, and through seven weeks, neither the Panthers nor Cardinals can make a staunch claim that they belong in the conversation.

The question is, why?

While each team did lose some players from their 2015 rosters, conventional wisdom had each returning enough — with some key additions, too — to make you believe they were not going to take a step back. Just before the season the Las Vegas oddsmakers had them each at about 11/1 to win the Super Bowl, and Arizona was a popular pick to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LI in Houston.

A look at the statistics would show some of the reasons for their struggles. In Carolina, a defense that ranked sixth last season in yards and points per game has fallen to 24th and 29th, respectively, while in Arizona, the Cardinals’ offense has fallen from No. 1 in the NFL in yards and No. 2 in points per game to eighth and 15th.

Those, among other issues, may be symptoms, and while they surely help to explain the teams’ slow starts, the question of why remains.

Why did the Panthers’ defense slip so far? Why have the Cardinals been unable to replicate last season’s success?

Perhaps the preseason expectations were a bit too much to handle.

“I think so,” Rivera said. “I think the one thing you have to be able to do is separate what people are expecting as opposed to what you are, more important than anything else.

“Sometimes it creates a lot of outside noise that could get in the way as well. As coaches, it’s our job to make sure our guys are focused and moving forward.”

Rivera may be onto something, though it’s important to note he can only speak for his own team. Posed with a similar question, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said pressure to succeed this season has had nothing to do with his team’s early struggles.

“I don’t think that had any damn thing to do with us,” he said. “We had a young player that was put in a position and he failed. He gave up a touchdown. We missed a kick. I don’t think it had anything to do with our performance in Buffalo. And, we missed another kick or we’d be in first place.”

Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly feels similarly about his own team.

“I just think you look at some of the games we’ve played and we’ve been close in a lot of games,” he said.  “It’s just that’s what the NFL is — it’s who can make a play at the end of the game and we just haven’t been able to do that.

“We’ve been in a lot of games and you’ve just got to find a way at the end of the game to make something happen.”

Of the Panther’s five loses, three have come by three points or less, while the Cardinals have fallen by two and four points while also tying a game they probably should have won.

All that said, there is an old adage in the NFL that says a team is what its record indicates. If that’s the case, then neither the Panthers nor Cardinals are anything special.

Arians’ perspective on his own team makes sense when you consider just how bullish everyone was with regards to the Super Bowl hype during the preseason. The expectations were embraced, because the belief was the team was certainly good enough to reach the big game. The caveat was that they would have to play well in order for it to happen.

Just because they have not played well consistently does not mean there was a level of overconfidence based on the hype.

“I don’t see it being a problem,” Cardinals QB Carson Palmer said. “I don’t feel like we’ve ever gone into a game or a week where we just felt like we’re going to line up and play and win. We understand anybody can beat you on any night or any day. So, I think we’ve done a good job, and B.A. reminds us all the time. He makes sure to throw out little one-liners and zingers to keep us grounded. He’s done a great job of that.”

The way Arians sees it, his team has to expect to win, and win a lot.

“You set a goal; you don’t talk about it every day,” he said. “You set a goal and then you go to work. That expectation never changes. Our expectations haven’t changed at all. Now, how we get there has changed.”

The same can also be said for the Panthers, who even at 1-5 cannot be counted out in the mediocre NFC South. Remember, it was just two years ago when they won the division and reached the postseason with a 7-8-1 record, and it would probably not come as a shock to anyone to see them make a run by the time the season is over.

Like the Panthers, the Cardinals also are not out of the running, which means the preseason expectations are still reachable. Arians said the path to get there has changed, and that’s true. But whereas Carolina maybe needed a chance to breathe, Arizona believes it just needed time.

Since starting the season 1-3, the Cardinals have seen their record improve while playing a much better style of football in wins over the 49ers and Jets along with a tie to the Seahawks.

“Every year you get a new football team,” safety Tyrann Mathieu said. “Last year, the expectation was for us to come back this year and win the Super Bowl, but we’ve got a new football team.

“So it’s going to take us a couple weeks to kind of find our groove, to just get back comfortable. And I know — especially defensively — we had a lot of new faces, so it was going to take us a month or so to really get comfortable with each other, to trust each other, just to build that chemistry.”

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