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Panthers inspired times two

For the Panthers, the focus is on defeating the Patriots.

But for Mark Fields and Sam Mills, it's beating cancer.

Carolina players and coaches were stunned in August when Fields, the team's leading tackler in 2002, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. But they were in disbelief when, two weeks later, Mills, linebackers coach, learned he had intestinal cancer.

Both have been the inspiration behind the Super Bowl run.

"It's a very humbling experience, no question about it," Fields said. "What you have to keep in mind is how ironic the situation is. You have a player who is a linebacker and all of a sudden his position coach gets hit. That is like one in a million. Nobody would have ever thought something like that would happen in a situation like that. It is unbelievable."

Mills said Fields became the coach and he became the student after cancer struck both men.

"I was coaching Mark and then a month later, Mark was basically coaching me because he was trying to help me out with what to expect," Mills said. "It can be tough on you. When you are pumping this stuff in your body, it can be tough on you."

Defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said the Panthers' fight this season was inspired by Mills and Fields.

"When things go bad for us on that football field, we look to him and Mark Fields and say, "Look what they are going through and they are still here with us,' " Buckner said. "They could easily be somewhere feeling sorry for themselves, but we mean so much to them that they are here fighting in both the life field and the football field. This stuff right here on the football field means nothing."

THE CAP FITS: The Bucs might have the worst salary-cap surplus in the NFC, but that's not saying much.

The 2004 salary cap is expected to be set at about $79-million. According to information filed with the players union, Bucs salaries total $80,214,199.

By comparison, the Dolphins and Titans each are more than $10-million over the expected 2004 salary cap.

ON THE RISE: Call this a state of the union address.

As in the players union.

Flanked by executive members of the NFL Players Association, union executive director Gene Upshaw praised the direction of salaries, the new salary cap, the league's commitment to minority hiring and the fact that players are enjoying longer careers.

The union boss said players will earn a projected total of $3.3-billion in 2004 season, an increase of $2.1-billion since 1992.

Upshaw said the average salary (including benefits) will rise to $1.6-million and that the projected salary cap for the 2004 season will be approximately $79-million.

"I think as a league we're doing better than we have ever done," Upshaw said. "We continue to have tremendous amount of growth not only in fan base but in revenues."

The union boss also unveiled plans to begin serious negotiations with the league to extend the collective-bargaining agreement, which expires in 2007.

Negotiations are expected to begin in April with the target date of a new agreement set for December.

"We don't want to wait until 2006 or 2007 to start talking about that extension," Upshaw said. "We plan on doing it right now. It's the right thing to do, the prudent thing to do."

AREN'T YOU?: It's hard to believe the Bucs aren't in the Super Bowl. That's because so many of them are at the Super Bowl. Defensive tackle Warren Sapp, linebacker Derrick Brooks, safety John Lynch and quarterback Brad Johnson all are making appearances this week, along with receiver Keenan McCardell, who lives here.

"I just got in town, but you see everything taking place, you know the schedule of the teams, you know what they're going through," Johnson said. "Unfortunately, we're not in it. Better a has-been than never was."

As for recent reports that the Bucs are interested in either Mark Brunell or Rich Gannon, Johnson said he hadn't given them much thought.

"Really, I don't know much about it, truthfully," Johnson said. "I really don't know anything. I've been in Tallahassee and playing with the kids.

"There was chatter after the Super Bowl last year. You really don't know."