Football is serious business to Carolina linebacker Sam Mills.
Now that the Panthers have beaten San Francisco three of four times, Mills expects his entire team to be taken seriously -- if that's not the case already.
Sunday's 30-24 victory over the 49ers put the Panthers in an enviable -- and unprecedented -- position.
"When you look at the first win over San Francisco last year, I think most people considered that a fluke," said Mills, 37, who signed with the Panthers as a free agent for their inaugural season after nine years with the New Orleans Saints and three with the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars of the United States Football League. "Even when we beat them the first time this season, I don't think anyone expected us to be able to go to San Francisco and do it again.
"When it happens for the third time, clearly, I think that should convince people that we're a team to be reckoned with. That was a huge game, considering everything that was at stake. We knew that in order to win the West, we had to win at San Francisco."
Mills is one of five former Baltimore Stars still in the NFL. The others are defensive end William Fuller (Philadelphia), offensive tackle Irv Eatman (Houston), linebacker George Jamison (Kansas City) and punter Sean Landeta (St. Louis).
When coach Dom Capers and general manager Bill Polian began assembling the Panthers for their expansion season, the creation of an experienced defense was central to their blueprint.
As is evidenced by Mills' recent selection as the NFC's defensive player of the month for November (the third time in his career he has claimed that honor), Mills at middle linebacker has been a central component of that unit since the team's inception.
It was a maturing offense that managed 30 points against the 49ers -- led by second-year quarterback Kerry Collins, whose 327 passing yards and three touchdown passes earned him unanimous selection as the NFL's player of the week.
It was defense, however, that sealed Sunday's victory when an interception by Eric Davis deprived San Francisco of a potential game-winning opportunity in the final minutes.
"That's the way the defense has played from day one," said Mills, the runaway team leader in tackles with 96 solos and 26 assists. "But I think what has made us a better team is that the offense has gotten a lot better. Any time you can go into San Francisco and score 30 points and move the ball the way we did -- that says something."
The Panthers' offense has continued its substantive improvement despite the loss of running back Tshimanga Biakabutuka, the top 1996 draft pick who underwent season-ending knee surgery in late September.
In Biakabutuka's stead, Anthony Johnson has gained 971 yards.
"We've been plugging the holes as we go along," Mills said. "Anthony Johnson's come in and done a fine job. But that's the way things have been going for us. There really is a lot of talent out there. It's just a matter of finding not only a talented player, but one with the right kind of attitude who can fit right into the team. [Outside linebacker] Kevin Green is a good example of that."
Mills expresses no surprise at Carolina's quick success, but he acknowledges that the more typical struggles an expansion franchise often faces could have inflicted the Panthers.
"I knew that making the playoffs was a possibility," he said, "but how likely it was I really didn't know. It could have gone either way.
"But you've got to have faith in the management and coaches to put together the kind of team that can win. They've obviously done a great job of that."
If Mills takes football seriously, he also approaches the game with confidence. He sees the prospect of winning the final two bTC regular-season games -- and the division -- as a distinct possibility, especially since the Panthers are unbeaten in six games at Ericsson Stadium.
"We feel that way, but it will only happen if we concentrate on the business at hand," he said. "It's great to come back home and play those two games in front of our own crowd, but nothing is guaranteed.
"What we do from this point on depends on how well we maintain our focus. We'll leave all the celebrating to our fans."
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Carolina Panthers
Site: Ericsson Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 11/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Panthers by 8
Pub Date: 12/12/96