Although the Redskins are eight-point favorites as they play host to the Panthers in Landover today, some of the players have adopted a motto to help them resist overconfidence and the temptation of drifting ahead to the coming bye week.
"A pat on the back and a slap on the face [are] about 6 inches away," said Brad Johnson, the NFL's top-rated passer. "And if you're playing bad, it's going to come right at you."
Under coach Norv Turner, the Redskins (2-1) have had trouble in the role of a big favorite at home, losing in the past four seasons to non-playoff teams such as the Ravens, Oakland and St. Louis and twice to Philadelphia.
On the team's bulletin board, a sign reiterates how quickly seasons and careers can change. It reads: "NFL, Not For Long."
Turner has attempted to keep his team focused by stressing that teams lose more often in games before their bye week. Reality check: Teams actually are 5-2 this season before their bye, and Carolina also has next week off, but don't blame Turner for trying.
Turner realizes he cannot afford a loss at home to Carolina (1-2), knowing the Redskins will come off their bye week with road games at Arizona and Dallas.
"People talk about overlooking games. Then you put the film on, and you see Jacksonville holding on to beat Carolina, 22-20," Turner said. "Then you see [Panthers running back Tshimanga] Biakabutuka has two runs for over 60 yards last week. So that gets their attention pretty quick."
Nonetheless, the Redskins match up favorably against the Panthers.
With a 12-minute deficit in time of possession, the second-worst ball-control offense in the NFL, Carolina has run an average of 26 fewer plays than its opponents this season. The Redskins are averaging a touchdown every 13 minutes, scoring 14 in 40 possessions this season (35 percent).
The Panthers are minus-four in turnover ratio and allow an average of 163 yards rushing a game. The Redskins have a league-best plus-six ratio, and Stephen Davis alone has run for 109 yards a game.
The Redskins also will not back away from Carolina defensive tackle Sean Gilbert, who will be returning to Washington for the first time since his 14-month holdout in 1997. Gilbert, traded the next year to the Panthers for first-round picks in 1999 and 2000, was limited to two tackles in the Redskins' 28-25 victory over Carolina last season and declined to talk to local media here last week.
"This will be our toughest test for our defense so far this season," said Carolina coach George Seifert, who is in his first year with the Panthers but holds the NFL's best all-time winning percentage at .747 (109-37) and led San Francisco to two Super Bowl victories.
"We can't assume that we're going to control the No. 1 offense in the league," Panthers quarterback Steve Beuerlein said. "We have to go in there thinking we have to do our part to score a lot of points."
But even the Redskins, who have the NFL's worst-ranked defense, seem to find the Panthers' offense appealing.
Carolina has converted just eight of 29 third downs and has surrendered 12 sacks on 93 passing plays. The Panthers have had their problems with two new offensive tackles, as well as injured center Frank Garcia (concussion), who is expected to start.
The Redskins' defensive front, meanwhile, showed its first signs of improvement last week, when it sacked the Jets' Rick Mirer six times. Kenard Lang, who will line up against Carolina rookie right tackle Chris Terry, recorded three of the sacks and was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week.
"You look at the mistakes they had, and you see the opportunities you can get," Lang said. "You still have to make plays happen."
And what about Lang's matchup? "He went to the University of Georgia, and I went to Miami," Lang said. "I'm going to tell him that the better football is played in Florida, and I'm going to show you why."
Still, the Redskins' young linebackers, Derek Smith, Shawn Barber and Greg Jones, whose average age is just over 24, has been prone to misread formations, which keeps them a step behind on outside sweeps and screen passes.
This unit had better key on Biakabutuka. The 1996 first-round draft pick became only the third player since 1970 to have two runs of more than 60 yards in the same game when he scored from 62 and 67 yards out against Cincinnati last week.
"If you don't have your eyes right, you're going to be in the wrong places," Barber said. "Then you're going to do stuff that's not going to allow you to be as good as you could be. It's frustrating sometimes."