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Why 2-2 feels worse than 1-3 a year ago

BALTIMORE -- Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith said a lot of interesting things following Sunday's 38-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers, but talking about meeting his former team deep in January wasn't one of them.

That, by the way, would be in preparation for the Super Bowl on Feb. 1, 2015.

But if the Panthers (2-2) learned anything from last year -- when Smith, then with Carolina, predicted a rematch with the Seattle Seahawks deep in January after a 12-7 loss on opening day -- a season can turn on a dime.

The Panthers were 1-3 this time a year ago. They were coming off a 22-6 loss at Arizona in which they at times were as undisciplined as they were against Baltimore.

Then they won eight in a row and 11 of their final 12 games.

That might be why quarterback Cam Newton insisted, "We're OK, we will be OK" and it's not time to "push the red panic [button]."

Maybe he's right. As badly as the Panthers have played the last two weeks, being outscored 75-29 by Baltimore and Pittsburgh, they're still tied atop the NFC South with Atlanta.

The division is in such upheaval at the moment that an 8-8 record may win it. Atlanta was pounded 41-28 by a one-win Minnesota team. The Saints, the preseason favorite to win the division, are 1-3 after a 38-17 shellacking at Dallas.

Even Tampa Bay, which looked like the worst team in the NFL a week earlier in a 56-14 loss to Atlanta, is alive at 1-3 after beating the Steelers 27-24 on the road.

Thus, coach Ron Rivera's message to the Panthers.

"We went through the same thing last year -- Week 4 against Arizona -- and that’s what I basically brought up,'' Rivera said. "I said, ‘Guys, we have an opportunity to get things rolling in the right direction.’ ''

Perhaps, but 2-2 feels worse than 1-3 did then. The Panthers weren't being gashed defensively then the way they have been in the last two games. As bad as the Arizona loss looked, the Cardinals had only 250 yards offensively.

The Panthers don't have Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved, although they will get end Frank Alexander back today after a four-game suspension for violating league's substance abuse policy.

They don't have a veteran tackle like Jordan Gross to motivate the unstable offensive line. They may be down to two undrafted rookies -- Darrin Reaves and Tauren Poole -- at running back if DeAngelo Williams (sprained right ankle) joins Jonathan Stewart (sprained knee) on the inactive list next week.

They don't have a running game, period, failing to reach 100 yards rushing for the third straight game.

They don't have a quarterback currently with good pocket awareness. Newton taking a sack to take Carolina out of field goal position on the first series Sunday is Exhibit A.

They don't have Smith, whose 139 yards receiving and two touchdowns for the Ravens isn't what the team is missing as much as his attitude. Even Newton said "I wish he was still here.''

It's only the first quarter of the season, but the team that started 2-0 grades out no better than a C-minus now.

Newton says the Panthers "will get it.'' As a leader, he has to say this.

"What are we going to do? Pack up and leave?'' Newton said. "We still have a long season left.''

But for now, they're a long way from facing Baltimore again.