The improbable notion that an NFL team could make the playoffs in its second season is bursting into reality.
The Carolina Panthers took a Texas-sized step toward their postseason goal Sunday by beating the Houston Oilers 31-6 in a nearly empty Astrodome.
The Panthers raised their record to 8-4, surpassing last season's win total and clinching at least a .500 record. With four games remaining -- three at Ericsson Stadium, where Carolina is 5-0 -- the Panthers probably need only one more win to clinch an NFC wild-card berth.
This is uncharted territory. None of the previous eight expansion teams since 1960 won more than five games in their second season.
``We want to make history,'' said Panthers linebacker Carlton Bailey. ``Guys don't really talk a lot about it. But it's there. It's brewing deep inside.''
Brewing and percolating.
Remember the stigma that the Panthers couldn't win on the road, in a dome or on artificial turf? They've put a double whammy on that supposed jinx by winning consecutive indoor games at St. Louis and Houston.
``I think we've dispelled some of those myths,'' coach Dom Capers said with a grin and a wink.
The Panthers are doing it with impenetrable defense. In the past 11 quarters, opponents have scored 19 points. In 12 games this season, the Panthers have given up 46 second-half points.
``We're really jelling,'' said outside linebacker Kevin Greene, who had 1 1/2 of the team's four sacks to raise his season total to 12.
Sunday's game was by far the Panthers' best on the road this season. For the first time, they scored first and led at halftime (10-3) in an away game.
As far as Houston was concerned, this game may as well have been played in Tokyo.
The lame-duck Oilers, who are moving to Tennessee in 1998, had virtually no homefield advantage with a crowd of 20,107, 25 below their all-time Astrodome low set earlier this season against the Baltimore Ravens. Credit the 57 tickets purchased by Panthers linebacker Lamar Lathon, a former Oilers, for preventing a new low.
``I feel bad for them having to play in this environment, but it was good for us today,'' said nose tackle Greg Kragen. ``When the cheerleaders were doing their cheers, you could hear it on the field. It kind of felt like a high school game.''
To Houston coach Jeff Fisher, it felt like a spanking.
``We got our butts kicked by Carolina; it's the worst I can remember,'' Fisher said. ``They beat us on offense, defense and special teams. And then they rubbed our noses in it.''
The Panthers wore down the Oilers (6-6) in the second half and won in a rampage. Their last two touchdowns happened during a span of 2 minutes, 11 seconds -- a 41-yard fumble return by linebacker Sam Mills and a 40-yard pass from backup quarterback Steve Beuerlein to tight end Wesley Walls.
``It was Panthers-style football,'' Capers said. ``We had a group of guys who refused to accept anything but their best and they went out and got the job done.''
Next week, the Panthers play in Charlotte against Tampa Bay in a game that's not as easy as it looked a month ago. The Buccaneers have won three straight and four of their past seven after an 0-5 start.
``The great thing is we're in control of our own destiny as long as we take care of business,'' Capers said.
After a scoreless first period, the Panthers drove 80 yards for a touchdown midway through the second quarter. Quarterback Steve Beuerlein hit Willie Green on a 30-yard scoring pass.
Houston pulled to within 7-3 on a 24-yard field goal by Al Del Greco with 70 seconds left in the first half, but the score was a disappointment for the Oilers. A fumble on a punt return by Winslow Oliver gave them the ball on the Panthers 37, but they weren't able to drive in for a score.
Stops like that have become routine for Carolina, which has held opponents without a touchdown 14 of the 15 times they've gained possession inside the 50.
``That's something our defense takes a lot of pride in,'' said Capers. ``We talk about adversity all the time and we feel good defenses are at their best in adverse situations.''
To compound the Oilers' disappointment, Beuerlein quickly drove the Panthers in for a 49-yard field goal by John Kasay with six seconds left in the first half, which put Carolina ahead 10-3.
Any chance Houston had of a comeback seemed to whither when cornerback Eric Davis intercepted quarterback Chris Chandler with 8:35 left in the third quarter and returned it the Oilers 35.
Carolina capitalized five plays later when Beuerlein connected with Green again, lofting a 12-yard pass high into the left corner of the end zone. Green reached up and caught it over cornerback Darryll Lewis, the same player he'd beaten for his previous score.
After Del Greco cut the margin to 17-6 with a 45-yard field goal, Mills got the rout rolling.
With backup quarterback Steve McNair filling in for injured Chandler, the Oilers tried for a first down on fourth-and-5 from their 45 with 7:27 remaining.
The play never had a chance. McNair fumbled the snap from center and Mills scooped up the ball and ran untouched 41 yards for a score.
``The ball was loose and I think that's where being short (5-foot-9) probably helps me because I was the first one to see it down there,'' Mills said. ``As soon as I did, all I could think was run, run, run.''
It was that kind of day for Carolina. Finally, they made a road game look easy.
``This takes us to that next level,'' Mill said, ``and we're just tapping into it.''