In the wee hours of Sunday night, as we tried to comprehend the Vikings' 26-7 loss to the Panthers, we started thinking about how we define "bad" teams. See, we went into the game just generally accepting that the Panthers were a bad team. They were 5-8. They were seemingly on the decline. Etc.
But there are different types of bad teams. There are bad teams that lose because they are absolutely lacking enough skill position players to compete (St. Louis). There are bad teams that are losing because they are young and rebuilding (Detroit). There are bad teams that consistently find new and creative ways to lose in all phases of the game (Kansas City and Cleveland). And yes, we are aware that Minnesota has pounded on all those teams but KC for a 4-0 record this year.
However, in the rush to bury Minnesota on Sunday -- make no mistake: the Vikings were inexcusably flat and downright awful in many phases of the game -- we kind of overlooked the fact that Carolina isn't really all that bad. Sometimes basic facts like a team's record and surface situation cloud the overall picture. For instance, the Panthers have only one loss (a 20-9 home setback to Buffalo) that we would truly consider a bad loss. The other 7 came against solid-to-very good teams (Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, during an 0-3 start, then New Orleans, Miami, NY Jets and New England).
With many of the same skill position players as they had this year, the Panthers went 12-4 and earned the NFC's No. 2 seed last year. They were drubbed in the playoffs by the Cardinals, but that didn't change the fact that their high finish helped lead to -- at least based on 2008 records -- the second-toughest 2009 schedule in the NFL. They played or will play every other 2008 division winner from the NFC (Arizona, Minnesota and New York). So far, they are 2-0 in those games, defeating Arizona and Minnesota by a combined score of 60-28. They led at Dallas 7-0 at halftime. They were tied 20-20 at New Orleans going into the fourth quarter. They were down 14-10 in the fourth quarter at New England.
More importantly, they are 2-1 since Jake Delhomme took a seat and Matt Moore took the helm at QB. Most folks (us included) probably looked at Moore as a good thing for the Vikings. We must have overlooked just how truly awful Delhomme has been this year: 8 TDs, 18 INTs and a 59.4 passer rating. That's another step or two worse than even Jay Cutler. It's almost JaMarcus Russell territory. Give the Panthers functional quarterback play to go with Julius Peppers, Steve Smith and a running game that's still dangerous with Jonathan Stewart, and you have a team that entered the Vikings game 5-8 but perhaps had more of the makeup of a 7-6 team on the fringes of the playoffs.
Again, all that said, Part I: it was a team the Vikings still should have defeated, and there was no excuse for some of the mental and physical mistakes made on the field by a team that still has a lot for which to play. If the Vikings have any real designs on a postseason run, they can't play like that. But there are truly bad teams and there are sneaky teams that aren't as bad as they might seem. And Carolina fits the bill of the latter.
Again, all that said, Part II: The Bears, this week's five-win opponent on the road, are 2-8 in their last 10 games with wins only against St. Louis and Cleveland. They are not the Panthers. They are bad -- not as bad as the Rams and Lions, but still bad. Yes, they have held fourth-quarter leads at home against Green Bay and Philadelphia in eventual recent losses. But they are a sliding, demoralized team with dysfunction across the board. Playing them earlier in the year (when they started 3-1) would have been an entirely different experience against an entirely different team that nonetheless would have been wearing the same uniforms. Anything short of a solid Vikings performance and victory Monday will not be so eagerly examined next week for silver linings.