ALBANY -- Letdown? What letdown?
Don't tell the Panthers to relax or to take it easy tonight in Columbus, where they play their final game of the regular season.
Let's review the word "meaningless." You know, something without significance. If there was ever a meaningless game, it's this one for the Panthers, who have clinched not only the home field in the first playoff game, but if they win the July 10 playoff game, they would be at home July 17 for the championship game, too.
There's a good chance the Panthers (8-2) would face Columbus (7-3) in that title game. Both will be home for the first round of the playoffs, and both have been at the top of the Southern Indoor Football League the entire season.
So what's the approach to tonight's game?
"We're going to play to win it,'' said Panthers coach Lucious Davis in a matter-of-fact tone. "We want to win every game.''
It's that simple for the Panthers, who have won both their meetings with Columbus. Even if Columbus wins tonight to finish at 8-3, the Panthers earned the home field in the title game by virtue of their head-to-head record against Columbus.
So there's really nothing to play for, right?
"We still want to win,'' Panthers quarterback Cecil Lester said. "We're not going to do the Indianapolis Colts-thing. We're already in the playoffs and at home, but we're not going to just chill.''
That's the ageless argument: Do you rest players and try to avoid any possibility of a last-game injury -- as the Colts did in the NFL last season when they put their perfect season at risk and lost to the Jets with stars such as Peyton Manning on the bench -- or do you just play the final lame duck game with the starters?
"I am not going to worry about (injuries),'' said Davis, who felt that wouldn't be a factor. ""We're going to play the game just (as if we needed to win it to reach the playoffs).''
Davis will make one concession. He plans on using all three of his quarterbacks, just as he did last week against Greenville. Lester will start, but backups Dante Williams and Andrico Hines will also see playing time.
"All three will play in this game, but once we get to the playoffs it will be Cecil,'' Davis said. "Cecil has been our guy all year, and he's our guy in the playoffs. I feel good with Cecil against anybody.''
Lester played only one quarter last week in the Panthers' 66-15 win against Greenville, which wrapped up the final question of having the home field advantage. Lester has already started and beaten Columbus twice, including the June 5 game at Columbus, where Lester ran for a TD in the final minute to lift Albany to a 51-45 win.
"We have beaten them and you know they want to beat us in this game,'' Lester said. "I don't think we should let up at all. We're going into this game like it was any other game, trying to win it. It's not one game. It's a matter of finishing strong, finishing the season strong all the way to the championship game.''
Tonight's game also will give newcomers Doug Bond, a center, and Marcus Lindsey, a right guard, who joined the team last week, another game to get ready for the playoffs. Both had impressive games against Greenville, the worst team in the league, but both will be tested tonight against Columbus.
The Panthers feel there's no reason to let up this week, and they also feel there won't be a letdown just because they have clinched. .
"There won't be a letdown,'' receiver Antwontis Cutts said. "We control our own destiny now, and no one on this team wants to let down just because we have clinched (the home field). It's up to us to win (the championship). We can't beat ourselves.''
Linebacker Larry Edwards all but rolled his eyes at the thought of a letdown.
"The guys who play defense want to make a play on every play,'' he said. "Everyone wants to step up and make the play. That won't change. There will not be a letdown.''
Davis wants to win for all the right reasons. He said last week after the Panthers clinched that he didn't want any champagne to celebrate, because the only champagne he wanted was on July 17 after the title game.
He looks at tonight's game as just another step to winning the title.
"You want to have momentum going into the playoffs,'' he said. "You have to go into this game with that approach, because you don't want to end the season with a loss and then turn around and be in the playoffs. We want to go into the playoffs with momentum, and you can't get momentum if you are resting guys.''
There's a bye week for all four teams, so if there are any small bruises teams will have time to rebound and heal in time for the playoffs.
There's another reason Davis doesn't want to hold back anything in tonight's game.
"I think Columbus feels the same way I do,'' he said. "They want to win this game. They don't want to lose another game to us, and they don't want to lose at home. They are going to be in the playoffs at home, and they don't want to lose the last game of the season at home and leave their fans with a bad taste in their mouths.
"We want to play to win,'' he said. "We don't want to rest anybody. We want to play football.''