[size=13pt]Vikings: Carolina says talk is cheap, often wrong[/size]

A team some prognosticators called a favorite to win the Super Bowl lost its opener 20-6, but Keyshawn Johnson and coach John Fox aren't overly concerned.

Mark Craig, Star Tribune
Last update: September 14, 2006 – 10:46 PM

The Carolina Panthers are in a position unfamiliar to the modern athlete. Instead of nourishing a perceived lack of respect, the Panthers are fighting those who perhaps gave them too much of it based on last week's 20-6 home debacle against Atlanta.
"I don't listen to it," Panthers receiver Keyshawn Johnson said of preseason predictions. "Half the people who are writing about this stuff don't know about sports any damn way."

Four days ago, Carolina was a popular choice to win Super Bowl XLI. It seemed logical based on last year's appearance in the NFC title game, a top-three defense in 2005 and the addition of Johnson to line up opposite No. 1 receiver Steve Smith.

Everything changed on Sunday, at least temporarily. Smith (hamstring) didn't play; the defense gave up 252 yards rushing; left tackle Travelle Wharton (knee) was lost for the season; and middle linebacker Dan Morgan (concussion) was hurt in the first quarter and will miss at least Sunday's game against the Vikings.

The Vikings beat Washington on the road on Monday night. But they're still a 2½-point underdog, so the Panthers still are getting the respect they don't seem to embrace.

"Young minds are all fragile," Panthers coach John Fox said when asked how it felt to be a popular Super Bowl pick. "But there's only been one team go through the league undefeated. At least my expectations were we wouldn't go through the season undefeated. There's still a lot of football left. I think those things get answered between the lines and not in the newspapers."

Smith is questionable this week. He didn't practice Wednesday and is "day-to-day," according to Fox.

Smith caught 103 passes for 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, including a memorable 11 catches for 201 yards and a touchdown in a 38-13 victory over the Vikings. And that was without an established No. 2 receiver.

Johnson, a former No. 1 overall pick, arrived this offseason after being released in Dallas to make room for Terrell Owens. He doesn't necessarily appreciate being called the player who is -- or was -- supposed to push the Panthers over the hump.

"I just do my job, man," Johnson said. "I just came here to catch balls, block, do my job. I don't get caught up in what predictions are. One week you're no good, and the next week you're the player who is going to put a team over the top. You tell me.

"One week, you're the third-best receiver on your team, or shouldn't be on the team, and the next week you're going to put the team over the top. So what the hell are you going to listen to that stuff for? Those people don't know what they're talking about."

Predicting the NFL isn't easy. In each of the past 10 seasons, at least five teams reached the playoffs after not making it the year before. Last year, seven teams made the playoffs after not reaching them in 2004.

"You never know from year to year what you're going to get," Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson said. "Two years ago, everybody wanted to talk about how bad Chicago was when they were 5-11. Last year, they were [11-5 and won the NFC North]."

The trend continued into Week 1 this season. The six teams that made the NFC playoffs were a combined 2-4, including 0-4 at home. Tampa Bay was shut out at home by Baltimore, 6-10 last year. And reigning NFC champion Seattle didn't score a touchdown in a 9-6 win at Detroit, 5-11 last season.

"What you learn is that every year stands on its own merit," Vikings coach Brad Childress said. "Whether it's a new coach or an old coach, the same bodies coming back, different bodies coming back, it all stands on its own."

Mark Craig • [email protected]