Tag Archives: Ron Rivera

Carolina Panthers win franchise-record eighth-straight game

CHARLOTTE – The Carolina Panthers didn’t have to sweat out a last-second win this time. Using a bruising defense to stifle any chances the Tampa Bay Buccaneers thought they had, the Panthers (9-3) won their franchise-record eighth game in a row, 27-6. Now, however, the next two-out-of-three games against the New Orleans Saints loom, and everyone is ready.

Cam Newton, who sat out the last series, is ready. “It was great to be a part of this type of win,” Newton said. “But we all know that all roads are leading to New Orleans.” The Saints play tonight in Seattle in one of the biggest games of the season, and will host Carolina on Sunday night.

The Panthers defense dominated the Bucs, sacking quarterback Mike Glennon five times and forced him into two turnovers. Just how dominating was the Panthers’ defense? How about holding the Bucs to just one third-down conversion in ten attempts.

And the offensive line did a great job protecting Newton, not allowing a sack for the first time since November, 2012. The Bucs entered the game with 24 sacks in 11 games.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) jokes around with receivers Brandon LaFell (11) and Ted Ginn, Jr. (19) on the sideline.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) jokes around with receivers Brandon LaFell (11) and Ted Ginn, Jr. (19) on the sideline.

After two very tight games, the Panthers came out and took care of business. Carolina had more than a 2-to-1 edge in total yardage, racking up 426 yards while holding Tampa Bay to 206. Newton was 18-of-23 for 263 yards, throwing two touchdowns and two interceptions. Additionally, he led the team in rushing with 68 yards on five carries. It was the third consecutive game Newton has led the team in rushing. Tight end Greg Olsen was his favorite target via the air, catching 5 passes for 85 yards. Ted Ginn, Jr. and Brandon LaFell caught a touchdown pass each. Carolina swept the season series with the Bucs by a combined score of 58-19.

Once again, “Riverboat” Ron (Rivera) gambled on fourth-and-goal from the Tampa Bay 1 late in the first half. He got it on a Cam Newton dive in which Newton broke the plane of the goal line a half-second before fumbling. The Panthers never looked back.

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera jokes with an official during a timeout.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera jokes with an official during a timeout.

Rivera called the win “cautiously efficient,” which was correct. The Panthers weren’t perfect, but they played well enough to never be in serious danger. In many ways, for Panthers fans used to sweating it out until deep in the fourth quarter, Sunday was a relief.

The next three weeks are huge for the Panthers, who are defying the beginning-of-the-season odds. Very few people expected the Panthers to be 9-3 going into the two New Orleans games. And, should Seattle beat the Saints tonight, the Panthers and Saints would be tied for the NFC South lead. Can’t get much bigger than that!

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING:

Panthers right tackle Jordan Gross: “It’s awesome. I’ve been a part of a few winning seasons and some good teams, but winning eight in a row is tough. Especially now. As the wins pile up, you become the team other teams want to beat to put a notch in their belt. … It was a good win going into a huge game.”

Panthers center Ryan Kalil: “I’ve always felt we had a pretty talented group here. The difference has been the maturity. It’s been sort of a culmination of the last two seasons, of finally saying, ‘Enough is enough.’”

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on the win streak: “People want to keep pointing at me. But the truth of the matter is, our defense is playing lights out.”

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera on the dominating defense: “We disguised coverages very well so it put a little bit of doubt in the quarterback’s mind. He didn’t have the opportunity to release the ball quickly because I’m not sure that he was sure what our coverages were.”

Rivera on not only this win but the season as well: “It’s very satisfying because of where we came from. As I’ve said before, it’s been a hard four years for a lot of guys in that locker room. It’s been a hard two years for myself and a lot of other people as well. It is very satisfying to be on a nice little roll, but again there is a lot of work to do.”

Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen caught five passes Sunday.
Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen caught five passes Sunday.

Panthers tight end Greg Olsen: “We’ve said it all along we’re not going to have any one individual that’s up in the top of the league lead in anything.”

Panthers wide receiver Brandon LaFell: “It’s a great feeling but we’ve got a lot of unfinished business. We’re going to enjoy this win and keep rolling.”

Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy: “They beat us physically, mentally, every facet of the game. They just dominated us.”

Tampa Bay Bucs embattled head coach Greg Schiano on his rookie quarterback: “He (Glennon) maybe looked more like a rookie than he’s looked.”

Tampa Bay running back Bobby Rainey: “When we don’t beat ourselves, we’re a great team. We didn’t do that today and the results showed.
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Carolina Panthers win 7th in a row; beat Miami 20-16

MIAMI – “Seven! Seven wins in a row for the Carolina Panthers! MWA! HA! HA!” (Count Von Count on the Panthers). The Panthers (8-3) are on a roll and have tied their franchise regular-season win streak (with the 1996 team) at seven games following another close win – this time at Miami (5-6). Quarterback Cam Newton led the black-clad visitors down the field on an 80-yard drive as time was running out, and the Panthers came away with a 20-16 victory. It was his second signature drive in seven days after having none in his first 41 games.

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was not pleased with the team's effort in the first half of the game at Miami.
Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was not pleased with the team’s effort in the first half of the game at Miami.

The Panthers went into halftime trailing 16-6, and it could have been worse. Head coach Ron Rivera was furious at halftime because he felt, in his words, that the Panthers had “disrespected” the Dolphins by not playing hard enough. When the team came back onto the field at Sun Life Stadium, it was a different bunch of guys. Focused, physical and determined. Yet it took another gamble by “Riverboat Ron” to put the Cats in position to win the game.

Facing a fourth-and-10 at their own 20 with 2:33 left on the clock, the Panthers trailed Miami 16-13. Rivera, who said he prefers “Calculated Risk-Taker” to “Riverboat Ron,” played the odds.

According to an advanced NFL statistics website’s win-probability calculator, the Panthers had a 14 percent chance of winning before the fourth-down snap. Had Carolina punted, and using the average Brad Nortman punt from Sunday, the Dolphins would have gotten the ball back with an 88 percent chance to win, and the Panthers would be left with one timeout and the 2-minute warning.

“We got to do it,” Rivera said of his decision. “We only had one timeout left. You know this (Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill) is a very elusive quarterback. He showed it.”

A 19-yard completion to Smith got the Panthers a first down, and a 9-yard pass to tight end Greg Olsen got them near midfield at the 2-minute warning.

Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen caught Cam Newton's one-yard touchdown pass to give the Panthers a 20-16 win in Miami.
Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen caught Cam Newton’s one-yard touchdown pass to give the Panthers a 20-16 win in Miami.

Driving down the field while working the clock down, Newton found tight end Greg Olsen open on a 1-yard touchdown pass with 43 seconds left.  The touchdown gave the Panthers their first lead of the game, as well as the victory in front of a crowd of 60,156 and a lot of empty orange seats at Sun Life Stadium.

The game did not really feature the back-and-forth scoring as in last week against New England…yet it did come down to the opponent trying to score a last-second touchdown via the pass to take the victory from the Panthers. This time, there would be no controversial ending. Instead, second-year Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw a Hail Mary pass to the one-yard line, hoping receiver Mike Wallace would come up with the miracle catch. He almost did. Wallace was a thorn in the side of the Panthers defensive backs, who collectively had a horrible day. On the game’s final play, Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell somehow let Wallace get behind him near the goal line, but this time Wallace was unable to make the catch and the game ended.

GAME NOTES:

  • On the first series of the game, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who does not wear a mouth guard because he tends to get cotton-mouth, was hit by Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake after releasing the ball, and the force caused him to bite his tongue. “I bit my tongue and it was numb for a minute, but it didn’t have any effect on me as far as game play. I wanted to make sure my tongue was still intact,” Newton said. “I had to feel around for it for a minute and I felt it so I was good.”
  • Tannehill completed 28 of 42 passes for 310 yards – the first time the Panthers allowed a 300-yard passer since Seattle’s Russell Wilson threw for 320 in Week 1.
  • A third of Tannehill’s yardage came on two completions to Wallace, the $60 million free agent acquisition who had not been the deep threat Miami envisioned through the first 10 games. But Wallace found his way against Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, beating his twice for receptions of 53 and 57 yards.
  • The 53-yarder was the first touchdown allowed by the Panthers in the first quarter in 15 games, dating to a loss at Kansas City last December.
  • The game was the third fourth-quarter comeback win in a row for the Panthers, who now will get ready to play a revitalized Tampa Bay squad Sunday in Charlotte.
  • Week 14 game at New Orleans has been moved to an 8:30 p.m. start on Dec. 8 at the Superdome. The game was originally scheduled to kick off at 1 p.m.
  • The Panthers (8-3) remain a game behind the Saints (9-2) in the NFC South by virtue of their win at Miami on Sunday. The Saints beat Atlanta on Thursday night. Carolina and New Orleans will play twice in a 15-day span in December, in games that likely will determine the division winner.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING:

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera on Cam Newton:  “He’s been playing with a lot of confidence the last six, seven, eight weeks. I know this much, it gives everybody else confidence. I think that’s the biggest thing, not just for him, but for us as a team.”

Rivera on Miami:  “They’re a much better football team than we gave them credit for. I kind of felt like a couple of times that we were going through the motions like they’re supposed to lay down. This is the NFL and at any point in time anybody can beat anybody. It doesn’t matter what the record is. This was not an easy victory. This was a hard victory. This victory tested us.”

Rivera on the play of Newton following the big hit where he came up spitting blood:  “It took him a little bit to get refocused. Sometimes that does that, it spooks the quarterback a little bit. And I think our offensive line was spooked a little bit too. And they got a little concerned after that and they didn’t play well.”

Wide receiver Steve Smith said he thought the Panthers were lazy before halftime.  “We underestimated that team, They’re a good team, they’ve got a good defense. We had to improve and improve quickly, because it was getting ugly.”

Wideout Smith, as usual, had something more to say:  “We would’ve been getting dog-cussed and (there’d be) talk about how bad we are and we’re pretenders. I think we’ll still hear a little bit of flak from people and fans, naysayers – ‘This team’s not for real. We’ll see next week.’ Because obviously this week has passed and we survived.”

Smith, on the Panthers, a team that lost seven times by seven points of fewer last season: “Unfortunately, we had experience with two-minute drives a lot last year in our losses, so we’ve had a lot of practice. As they say, practice makes perfect.”

Carolina Panthers wideout Steve Smith makes a reception on 4th down late in the game as Miami Dolphins defenders Brent Grimes (21) and Chris Clemons (30) try to take him down.
Carolina Panthers wideout Steve Smith makes a reception on 4th down late in the game as Miami Dolphins defenders Brent Grimes (21) and Chris Clemons (30) try to take him down.

Smith on what he told Cam Newton regarding passes over the middle: “I always tell Cam, hit me in the chest and I’ll deal with the consequences.(Clemons) eyed me, so I knew he was coming. The hardest job is catching the ball. I’m going to get hit.”

Wideout and punt returner Ted Ginn, Jr. on the difference between the Panthers play in each half:  “We all came out, we’re looking at (the Dolphins) and it ain’t no real hoorah. We went out and played to their level. We came in and our leaders stepped up and talked. Coach came in and spoke. We went out and tried to play a complete half, and that’s what we did.”

Panthers defensive tackle Dwan Edwards on the difference between this year’s team and last year’s:  “Last year’s team would have found a way to lose this game. This year’s team found a way to win it.”

Panthers center Ryan Kalil, he of the infamous Super Bowl guarantee ad that ran LAST season:  “This team does an incredible job of keeping its composure. In past years, we’ve been all over the place.”

Carolina Panthers win 5th straight – What they’re saying

For those of you who enjoy physical, defensive football, your new favorite team is the Carolina Panthers. Going into Sunday’s game in San Francisco (6-3), facing a formidable challenge, the Panthers (6-3) defense was suffocating. They held the 49ers to 9 points and gave up just four yards in the fourth quarter. Oh, and the Carolina offense was good enough to score just enough points, as Graham Gano made up for his first missed try of the season by nailing a 53-yard field goal with 10:05 remaining in the game, to help the Panthers win 10-9.

The game was a throwback, which was perfect, considering this is the last season the Niners will play in Candlestick Park before moving to their new luxury stadium in Santa Clara. The old-timers would have loved this knock-down, drag-out fight…and that’s what it was. The Niners could do very little on offense. They managed three field goals before the Panthers could get on the board just before the end of the first half.

Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams (34) scored the game's only touchdown at San Francisco.
Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams (34) scored the game’s only touchdown at San Francisco.

Trailing 9-0 late in the second quarter, Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams scored the game’s only touchdown on a vintage cutback run, bouncing off one tackler for a 27-yard touchdown. In a game where yards and points were at a premium, Williams not only scored the lone touchdown of the game, but that play was the only one that went over 20 yards from the line of scrimmage for either team.

The game represents the biggest win in head coach Ron Rivera’s three years. Earlier this season, the coach was concerned about the Panthers being relevant…now, he wants them to stay relevant.

The Panthers offense was sloppy in the first half of the game, losing two turnovers and dropping an interception, but it was the defense that starred on Sunday. Facing a very potent 49ers quarterback (Colin Kaepernick) and one of the league’s top running backs (Frank Gore), the defense did not allow a touchdown to be scored, forcing the Niners to settle for three field goals.

Carolina Panthers punt returner/wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. looks to gain more yardage on this punt from would-be tackler Andy Lee (4)
Carolina Panthers punt returner/wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. returned to play against his former team on Sunday. On this punt, he looks to gain more yardage on this punt from would-be tackler Andy Lee (4)

Ted Ginn, Jr., whom the Panthers picked up from the 49ers this season, wanted to make his presence known. He did that. Ginn caught two passes for 19 yards, and returned three punts for 65 yards. His statement catch was a third down conversion in the fourth quarter – an 11-yard pass from Cam Newton at the San Francisco 49 for a first down. He dragged his back foot while his motion sent him slowly out of bounds. He stood there at the San Francisco sideline, staring at 49ers safety Bubba Ventrone.

His punt returns included a second-quarter return of 19 yards to the Carolina 43, but the drive stalled. In the fourth quarter, his 25-yard return went to the San Francisco 44. Seven plays later, Carolina had its first lead of the game, on a 53-yard field goal by Gano.

Defensively, the key was to stop the 49ers on third down and not let them extend drives. Job well done, Panthers. They held the Niners, who entered the game with a conversion percentage of 40.2, to 15.4 percent on third downs. Not allowing Kaepernick to use his legs to extend plays certainly was a key. The six sacks by the Panthers defense (second-most in a game this season) had to affect Kaepernick’s decision-making. The sensational quarterback was less than that Sunday, as the Panthers held him to just 91 yards passing and grabbed a timely interception to ice the game.

Feel good about this one, Panthers, but know you have another tough game coming up Monday night. In prime-time, under the lights…New England (7-2 and coming off a bye) visits Bank of America Stadium in a game that has been sold out for weeks. The Panthers look to avenge some bad losses to the Pats, including a 38-6 loss in 2001 that ended a 1-15 season and, of course, the 32-29 loss in the 2003 Super Bowl.

(All photos courtesy Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer)

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING:

Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson, who had 1.5 of the unit’s six sacks on Colin Kaepernick: “Everybody was on the same page. When everybody is on the same page, buying into the scheme, you’re going to end up being successful. It’s all about being a team and playing as one. We’ve always got each others’ backs, so I’m always trying to pick them up on that side of the ball when things don’t go right, and that’s what they do for me when I need it. That’s a good thing, because if we’re not looking out for each other, no one is.”

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera on how he has changed his coaching style:“My first two years I did everything by The Book. Punt the ball, kick field goals, stuff like that — bypassing opportunities to go for it on fourth down. I looked at certain situations, certain circumstances, and the one that got me was Buffalo. One of the things we could’ve done is go for it on fourth down, and we didn’t. I’ve thought about that ever since, and part of my maturing as a coach is understanding certain situations and circumstances and going with it.”

“One of the biggest things I know (defensive coordinator) Sean (McDermott) and them emphasized was getting them in third-and-long or as long as possible and putting a lot of pressure on them. We felt pretty good about the pass rush. It worked to what we wanted to do. I understand Vernon Davis went out and that was one of those things that helped us in that situation. You lose a weapon, especially of his caliber, it’s tough.”

“This was big. We’re going to enjoy it. It’s going to make the flight home a lot easier. We look forward to getting back to work next week.”

Carolina Panthers cornerback Drayton Florence (29) intercepted this Colin Kaepernick pass late in the fourth quarter to ice the victory for the visitors.
Carolina Panthers cornerback Drayton Florence (29) intercepted this Colin Kaepernick pass late in the fourth quarter to ice the victory for the visitors.

Panthers cornerback Drayton Florence, who sealed the outcome with an interception at the San Francisco 42 with 23 seconds left to play: “We know that now we’re going to get everybody’s best. When you win [five] in a row, that opens people’s eyes. They see the film. They see how we play. We have the second-ranked rush defense and scoring defense. That’s big. We’re not under the radar anymore.”

“Defending NFC champions, 5 1/2 hour flight, one of the best running backs (in Frank Gore), the best running quarterback in the league, one of the best defenses in the league, and we come in, 10-9 ballgame, a slugfest. We’ve just got to keep preparing every week. We’re going to get everybody’s best shot from here on out.”

Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell: “We heard all the naysayers say we hadn’t played anybody and blah, blah, blah. Well, we played somebody today on the road in their place, and beat them. So they shouldn’t have too much to say. We’re relevant. We’re here.”

“We had a great game plan, and really we just played Panther defense. We had a good idea what they were going to be about and we just took those things away. Our coaches did a great job preparing us. We were locked in on everything they were doing.”

Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano hit this 53-yard field goal during the fourth quarter that led to a 10-9 Panthers win.
Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano hit this 53-yard field goal during the fourth quarter that led to a 10-9 Panthers win.

Panthers kicker Graham Gano, who kicked a few extra balls following his first miss of the season: “I was so angry up until the ball left my foot on the 53-yarder. I always want another opportunity after a miss.”

Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams on how tough the game was: “We knew it was going to be one of those dogfights because they had a really good defense. I knew we had a really good defense. Coming into this game, we said the first team to get to 14 was going to win. Fortunately for us, it only took 10.”

Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith: “I can say with confidence, if you’re a fan of football, you look at Candlestick, you look at the history, very few games that are relevant and mean something, you never come out with a blow out.”

San Francisco head coach John Harbaugh: “Moving the ball wasn’t coming easy for us. I thought there were plays to be made, and (Kaepernick) made some really good ones. And we put all put our fingerprints on that. It’s not a good feeling when you don’t prevail, especially when you had multiple chances to get it done.”

Carolina Panthers safety Mike Mitchell (21) and defensive end Charles Johnson (95) combine to make this sack on San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. This was one of six sacks recorded by the Panthers defense.
Carolina Panthers safety Mike Mitchell (21) and defensive end Charles Johnson (95) combine to make this sack on San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. This was one of six sacks recorded by the Panthers defense.

San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick: “They didn’t surprise us at all. We didn’t execute.”

Carolina Panthers beat Falcons – What they’re saying

CHARLOTTE – The Carolina Panthers (5-3) did not play their best game of the season, but, as the old saying goes, “Good teams find ways to win games when they play poorly”. The Panthers did exactly that. They found a way to dominate the Atlanta Falcons (2-6), winning 34-10 at Bank of America Stadium.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton did not have a great game, but his team won 34-10 over Atlanta

Quarterback Cam Newton was 23-of-37 for 249 yards and did have one touchdown pass, but he also threw two interceptions and was very consistent in his passing…mostly high or overthrown…but the Panthers still found a way to win. The defense put enough pressure on Atlanta’s front four to force Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan into throwing 3 interceptions, including one pick-six by Drayton Florence.

Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart
Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart returned to action after missing nearly a year due to injuries. He ran for a team-high 43 yards Sunday.

Jonathan Stewart returned to the Panthers backfield for the first time since last November and led the home team with 43 yards. His backfield partner, DeAngelo Williams was just a yard shy of that total.

When he found his receivers, Newton picked up chunks of yardage. Brandon LaFell led the receiving corps with 6 receptions for 74 yards. Tight end Greg Olsen caught 4 passes for 66 yards and scored the game’s first touchdown. That reception was Carolina coach Ron Rivera’s first of two fourth-and-one calls of the game and he was rewarded by having Newton find Olsen wide open on a play-action call for a 14 yard touchdown to open the scoring.

Coach Rivera’s second opportunity, in the last two minutes of the game, was an easier call. He let Graham Gano come on for an easy 20-yard field goal to ice the game.

Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis with an interception
Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis made the first of three interceptions yesterday for the home team.

As the league is coming to understand, the Panthers defense is a force to be reckoned with. When you pick off a good quarterback like Matt Ryan three times in a game (linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly and cornerback Drayton Florence) including Florence’s 38-yard pick six (on a nice shoe top grab), obviously your front four is putting pressure on the quarterback. And that’s how this team has been built. Big boys up front, agile linebackers and adequate safeties and cornerbacks. Pressure up front has been a trademark of this year’s team.

Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez is tackled by Carolina Panthers safety Quintin Mikell (27) and safety Mike Mitchell (21)
Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez is tackled by Carolina Panthers safety Quintin Mikell (27) and safety Mike Mitchell (21) in Sunday’s 34-10 Panthers win.

Atlanta’s future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez was a real force in the first half, catching 5 Matt Ryan passes for 77 yards. It seemed like every time Ryan went back to pass, Gonzalez was open. The Panthers defense addressed that situation at halftime, jamming him at the line and holding him to just one reception for four yards in the second half. Clearly, without Gonzalez as a target, Ryan and Atlanta’s offense was limited.

The Panthers travel to San Francisco next Sunday for a 4:05 p.m. Eastern start against the very dangerous 49ers, playing in Candlestick Park for one last season before moving to their new stadium in Santa Clara, CA.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING:

Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross: “We’ve done enough to get ourselves back on track. But we’ve got some tough games coming up. Winning this game, I said we’ll feel like we’re a pretty good team. But the rest of our schedule really just gets harder and we’ll see what we’re made of.”

“I thought Cam, even though his stats maybe aren’t as good as the last couple weeks, I was as proud of him today as I’ve been any game,” Gross said. “It wasn’t real pretty. He was getting banged around in the pocket. The run game was kind of slow starting and there wasn’t just long play after long play. We kind of had to hang in there and take our punches.

“He just kept his composure and was never rushed or stressed out or seeming to feel the pressure, and by the end of the day we were all smiling.”

Panthers strong safety Quinten Mikell on Gonzalez: “Tony is hard to stop. That’s why he’s a Hall of Famer. But we just turned it up a little bit the second half and played our technique a little bit better. We were aware where he was at all times. Obviously, we know that Matt Ryan, that’s his go-to guy, especially in crucial situations.”

Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart on returning to action after a year’s layoff due to injuries: “I’m pretty sure if you’re not nervous your first carry, you’re kind of not human. I definitely had some nerves today and got worked out.”

Panthers tight end Greg Olsen: “To beat a team by that margin and not play your ‘A game,’ that’s the sign of a good team.”

Atlanta head coach Mike Smith: “We’re all held responsible and we’re all accountable for the 2-6 record.”

Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez: “I love going up against guys like that (Luke Kuechly) because they bring out the best in me and hopefully I can bring out the best in them.”

Carolina Panthers beat Tampa to improve record to 4-3

TAMPA – The Carolina Panthers have not been above .500 since 2008. 70 games, to be exact. George Bush was in the White House the last time the Panthers had a winning record. Quarterback Cam Newton was a sophomore at the University of Florida. Yes, it has been THAT long.  But Thursday night, the Panthers, with a 31-13 rout of the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers finally got that elusive winning record (4-3).

Using the same strategy that has worked so well for the past three games,the Panthers won the coin toss and again deferred to the second half. This put their defense on the field going up against rookie quarterback Mike Glennon. The Panthers did their thing…and then it was the offense running the show.

The first drive took 15 plays, they went 70 yards and ate 8:52 off the clock. Oh, and the end result was a one-yard touchdown pass from Newton to tight end Greg Olsen and a quick 7-0 Panthers lead which they would not relinquish all game.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton had another outstanding game leading the Panthers to a 30-13 win over Tampa Bay.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton had another outstanding game leading the Panthers to a 30-13 win over Tampa Bay.

 

Newton was again efficient and accurate. He ended up completing 23-of-32 passes for 221 yard, two touchdowns, and, again, NO interceptions. He also ran for 50 yards and scored a touchdown. Wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. caught five passes, and dropped one that would have been a sure touchdown. Wide receiver Steve Smith had four receptions, fullback Mike Tolbert caught four out of the backfield including one for a touchdown and tight end Greg Olsen had a touchdown on one of his three receptions.

Carolina Panthers defensive lineman Greg Hardy stands over Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon after recording his second sack of the evening.
Carolina Panthers defensive lineman Greg Hardy stands over Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon after recording his second sack of the evening.

Defensively, linebacker Thomas Davis led the team with 7 tackles. Defensive linemen Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy rushed Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon effectively, sacking him three times during the game.  Linebacker Luke Kuechly again had an outstanding game (when was the last time he didn’t?), making five unassisted tackles and assisting on three others.

Now the Panthers are off until Nov. 3 when they play division rival Atlanta at Bank of America Stadium.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING:

Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross (one of nine players remaining from the 2008 team – the one with the last winning record, until Thursday night): “It’s been a long time since we’ve been in this position. Our next game’s in November against another division team (Atlanta). We put ourselves in a position where we’re in the mix, and that’s great. Guys in this locker room deserve that. The young guys that have never felt this deserve it. Coach (Ron) Rivera deserves it. The thing that I love is that nobody around here thinks that we finished anything.” 

Gross continued: “I think you might have quoted me as saying, ‘When Cam’s hot, we’re hot,’ earlier in the year. I think that’s more true now than ever. The thing that’s great about him is I wouldn’t even necessarily say he’s been hot. He’s just been good – smart with the ball, running for first downs, diving on the ground, not taking as many hits. He’s just managing the game really, really well. I think he knows he doesn’t have to do it all.”

Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, whose 1-yard touchdown catch started the scoring: “To come on the road and win on a short week and just handle our business is what good teams should do. Games in the past we would have let them hang close and made it difficult. But I think this is starting to show a new step that we’ve taken where we come out businesslike, move forward and get ready for the next game. That’s what the good teams do.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton: “It’s a relief in numerous reasons, but being (above) .500 is just a small percentage of it. We’ve got to keep meshing as a team, keep building off and keep getting momentum in the upcoming weeks because we’re about to hit the meat of our schedule and we’re going to need every single ounce of energy that we’ll have.”

Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano (whose job is definitely on the line): “We got licked. My hat’s off to Carolina. They played better than we did. They coached better than we did. That was the result.”

Schiano on his team’s 0-7 start: “It falls on me.”

Schiano on how the “Fire Schiano” billboards that have gone up in Tampa, bought by a radio station effect him: “Doesn’t effect me. People are certainly entitled to their opinion.”

 

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. gains extra yards after making this reception, but dropped a sure touchdown pass earlier in the game.
Carolina Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. gains extra yards after making this reception, but dropped a sure touchdown pass earlier in the game.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera on Ted Ginn’s drop of a potential touchdown pass in the second quarter that would have given the team a 21-3 lead: “He’s going to kick himself. He knows it.”

 

Rivera on his team’s transformation from a 1-3 start to being 4-3: “I never doubted this group of guys.”

Carolina Panthers blank New York Giants 38-0; What they’re saying

CHARLOTTE – The Carolina Panthers answered a lot of questions with their 38-0 shellacking of the visiting New York Giants. Namely, would Ron Rivera still be the head coach following next week’s bye? Simply put, of course he will. Early in the game, a source within the organization said even if the Panthers had lost to the Giants, Rivera would not be replaced during the season.

But, getting the team’s first shutout since 2008 certainly erased those rumors.

It was the largest margin of victory in the Panthers’ 19-year history. It also was the Giants’ worst loss under head coach Tom Coughlin.

Carolina Panthers' wide receiver Ted Ginn caught this 47-yard touchdown pass from Cam Newton.
Carolina Panthers’ wide receiver Ted Ginn caught this 47-yard touchdown pass from Cam Newton.

Offensively for the Panthers, Cam Newton threw touchdown passes of 16 and 20 yards to Brandon LaFell, and completed a 47-yard pass to the speedster, Ted Ginn, for the Panthers’ final score. DeAngelo Williams rushed for 120 yards on 23 carries.

The defense was outstanding…or maybe it was just simply the ineptitude of the Giants’ offense making the Panthers look so good. An emotional Rivera nearly came to tears twice during the post-game presser. “This makes life easier. The last two weeks have been tough.”

The Panthers’ front four were led by defensive end Greg Hardy, who had three sacks in the first half alone. He repeatedly beat Giants left tackle Will Beatty to put pressure on Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning.

Carolina Panthers undrafted rookie Robert Lester recovered this fumble in the 38-0 win over the New York Giants.
Carolina Panthers undrafted rookie Robert Lester recovered this fumble in the 38-0 win over the New York Giants.

The convincing win brings the Panthers record to 1-2 and drops the Giants to 0-3. The Panthers defense came into the game a beat-up group. The secondary was decimated, with just one starter playing. But they helped themselves out a lot today. Given the chance, this motley crew came through with three takeaways. Undrafted rookies Robert Lester and Melvin White accounted for all three.

The Panthers’ defensive front line sacked Manning seven times, which tied a franchise mark set six previous times, most recently in a loss last season in Atlanta.

What I liked about this game:

  • The way Rivera finally opened up offensively. He went for it on an early fourth-and-one from the Giants’ 2-yard line. Fullback Mike Tolbert scored standing up and the rout was on.
  • Cam Newton looked like the Cam from the final six games of the 2012 season. Following an early interception, he ran the ball effectively when needed, and threw three touchdown passes.
  • Brandon LaFell finally looking like the receiver the Panthers thought he could be. Two touchdown receptions and he made a tackle at the Carolina 17-yard line following an interception thrown by Newton. His tackle allowed the Panthers’ defense back on the field where they stuck it to the Giants, not allowing any points.

HERE’S WHAT THEY’RE SAYING:

Panthers’ offensive tackle Jordan Gross on the impact of this win: “It’s huge on a lot of different levels. It might silence a little bit of the murmurs about our organization, give our players a ton of confidence, and lend validity to what we’ve been doing. To be able to come out and get a 38-point win against the Giants, who did almost the exact opposite to us last year, really means a lot.”

“I was so nervous before the game,” Gross said. “I was as nervous as I’ve been in years. I knew how much this game meant and how bad I wanted the guys in the locker room to feel a victory.”

Gross talked about the play that everyone thinks changed the perception of the Panthers. Fourth-and-one from the 2 yard line, and Rivera went for it, in a scoreless tie:

“That was huge. Very symbolic. That’s been criticized for seven days now (since Rivera didn’t go for a fourth-and-1 in a loss to Buffalo). … So on the sideline afterward I told (center Ryan) Kalil, ‘Dude, that was awesome! We got that on fourth and 1!’ And Kalil says, ‘It was fourth and 1? I thought it was third and one!’”

Panthers’ linebacker Chase Blackburn (a former Giant) on the defensive effort Sunday: “We’ve got a great front four. In my career, I have been a part of some great defensive lines. To have those guys hunt (the quarterback), especially when we stop the run and make them one-dimensional, is a great feeling.”

Carolina Panthers linebacker Chase Blackburn tackles David Wilson. The former Giant played well in the Panthers' 38-0 win.
Carolina Panthers linebacker Chase Blackburn tackles David Wilson. The former Giant played well in the Panthers’ 38-0 win.

Panthers’ wide receiver Steve Smith talking about Cam Newton: “He was the better quarterback out there. That’s all we need. That’s all we ask. We just need him to be Cam Newton.”

Carolina Panthers' quarterback Cam Newton ran effectively for the first time this season and threw for three touchdowns leading the Panthers to a 38-0 win over the visiting New York Giants Sunday.
Carolina Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton ran effectively for the first time this season and threw for three touchdowns leading the Panthers to a 38-0 win over the visiting New York Giants Sunday.

Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton on the win: “A win like this boosts our ego, but not in a negative way. It just gives us that swagger we will need.”

Victorious for the first time this season, Carolina Panthers' head coach Ron Rivera walks off the field following the 38-0 win over the New York Giants.
Victorious for the first time this season, Carolina Panthers’ head coach Ron Rivera walks off the field following the 38-0 win over the New York Giants.

Panthers’ head coach Ron Rivera on the win: “You look at our guys and some of the things they do and the fact that they really want to win. And to win games like this, it’s because they deserve that opportunity. These guys have gone through a lot in the last three seasons, and I think to win a game like this, especially a team coached by Tom Coughlin, says something about who they are. And these guys have persevered, and hopefully this is the catalyst for us to get rolling.”

Carolina Panthers' rookie defensive lineman Kawann Short sacked Eli Manning...one of seven Panthers' sacks on Sunday's 38-0 win over the New York Giants.
Carolina Panthers’ rookie defensive lineman Kawann Short sacked Eli Manning…one of seven Panthers’ sacks on Sunday’s 38-0 win over the New York Giants.

Giants head coach Tom Coughlin on the Panthers’ defense and one big reason his team lost: “I’ll bet the quarterback got hit 20 times today.”

The Panthers are off this week with a bye and return to action at Arizona on Sunday, October 6.

Carolina Panthers (0-2) drop game at Buffalo: What they’re saying

The track record for 0-2 teams making the playoffs since 2008 may tell the Carolina Panthers their season is over. But let’s hold off on that. The NFL is full of 1-1 teams right now, including San Francisco, Green Bay and the Super Bowl champions, the Baltimore Ravens. What is telling is that the Panthers continue to lose games they should win.

The 24-23 loss to the resurgent Buffalo Bills Sunday (with just :02 seconds remaining in the game) now makes head coach Ron Rivera a huge target. Under his leadership, the Panthers are 2-14 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, teams that started the season 0-2 have made the playoffs 11.6% of the time.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton sacked by Buffalo Bills defensive lineman, Marcell Dareus. This was one of six sacks recorded by Buffalo.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton sacked by Buffalo Bills defensive lineman, Marcell Dareus. This was one of six sacks recorded by Buffalo.

The offensive line was a sieve, allowing the Bills defense to sack quarterback Cam Newton six times on Sunday. While the Panthers’ offensive brain trust wants to limit Newton’s running  this season, his line must provide better protection. His only options, run or be sacked. The offense needs to be more vertical as well, in my opinion. Conservative football is on the wane in the NFL, and with Newton, the Panthers have an outstanding weapon. He is big, strong and has football smarts. Just look at the results in the final six games of the 2012 season and you can see that.

While the Panthers have been slow starters for the past two, now three, seasons, speculation, of course, is how long will Rivera remain in charge. Personally, he’s a nice guy who is very open to the media. You can see this team is hurting. But this is a “win now” league, and with Atlanta and New Orleans the big dogs in the NFC South, this team cannot afford to lose Sunday to the similarly smarting New York Football Giants and Eli Manning. If you thought EJ Manuel, the Bills rookie quarterback had an up-and-down day, maybe you’re right. In the Panthers’ defense, they did lose three-fourths of their secondary to injuries. Free safety Charles Godfrey is probably lost for the season with an Achilles injury. However, Manuel was 27-of-39 for 296 yards and did lead the Bills on a game-winning 80-yard drive to close out the game. So…what do you think Eli will do to the Panthers’ secondary?

Here’s what they’re saying about the loss:

Carolina Panthers' head coach Ron Rivera is certainly on the hot seat. His team is off to another slow start in 2013.
Carolina Panthers’ head coach Ron Rivera is certainly on the hot seat. His team is off to another slow start in 2013.

Head coach Ron Rivera: “It’s very excruciating. You put yourself in position to win a football game, and you’ve got to close them out. That’s probably the toughest thing that we’ve got to learn to do – finish it off. How to punish somebody and end the game.”

Cam Newton, when the Panthers faced a fourth-and-one, from the Bills’ 21 yard line, with 1 minute, 42 seconds remaining on a call by Rivera, who opted for a field goal instead of going for the first down. “If we would have went for it on fourth-and-short, then obviously guys would have gritted their teeth and said, ‘Let’s get it’. And I have no doubt in my mind that we would have gotten it. But I have full confidence in our coaches’ decisions.”

Buffalo Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel led his team on an 80-yard drive capped off by a 2-yard touchdown pass to Stevie Johnson with :02 remaining to beat Carolina 24-23 Sunday. It was Manuel's first win in the NFL.
Buffalo Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel led his team on an 80-yard drive capped off by a 2-yard touchdown pass to Stevie Johnson with :02 remaining to beat Carolina 24-23 Sunday. It was Manuel’s first win in the NFL.

On the Bills’ final drive, it appeared that the Panthers had stopped them on third-and-6 from the Panthers’ 31 with 21 seconds left. Manuel sailed a pass that third-team safety Colin Jones intercepted. But officials ruled Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly interfered with Johnson, who was Manuel’s target.

Kuechly on the call: “He was running down the middle of the field, he crossed my face and I had my arm out and he ran into my arm. Everything happened quick. I’ll take a quick peak at it (Monday) to see what it looked like.”

The Bills were able to run another play…and this one was the dagger. Stevie Johnson, lined up in the slot, ran a corner route, with wideout Chris Hogan coming across the middle. The Panthers were in man coverage, with cornerback Josh Norman lined up across from Hogan and defensive back D.J. Moore on Johnson in the slot.

Moore yelled for a switch, meaning Norman was to pick up Johnson in the corner. Johnson said he heard the call, but Norman said he never did.

Moore on the play: “They ran the play earlier in two-minute, and we’re supposed to switch it off. It was virtually the same thing. It was probably on me. I have to make sure the corner gets (the call). If he didn’t get it, it’s on me.”

Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen (88) and tackle Jordan Gross (69) react to the Buffalo Bills' winning touchdown with :02 remaining in the game.
Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen (88) and tackle Jordan Gross (69) react to the Buffalo Bills’ winning touchdown with :02 remaining in the game.

Tight end Greg Olsen, who had a 13-yard touchdown reception Sunday, on being 0-2, and losing another game the Panthers should have won: “I don’t even know at this point what to say anymore. We need to change it, and that’s our only option. … We can’t continue to sit around and feel sorry for ourselves and continue to say, ‘Man, why did this happen to us?’ It happens to us because we allow it.”

The Giants will also be seeking their first win of the season, which makes the upcoming game absolutely crucial for two teams expecting to be in the playoffs this year. Only one will have any kind of chance.

Carolina Panther break camp and prepare for Eagles game

SPARTANBURG, SC – The Carolina Panthers ended part one of training camp this morning with a quick-paced practice as they prepped for their Thursday night game at the Philadelphia Eagles. Under new head coach Chip Kelly, the Eagles ran 86 offensive plays in their preseason opener against New England, far more than the average NFL team, so the pace needed to be quick.

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was in a good mood at the start of Tuesday morning's practice.
Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was in a good mood at the start of Tuesday morning’s practice.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera has been pleased with the practices at Wofford College, but reminded everyone, they are far from through. Today’s practice started nicely. “It was really good, really smooth. A lot of good things happened. We slowed down at the end. You could tell the guys were thinking of I-85 (the road from Spartanburg back home to Charlotte). The beginning of practice was good and smooth, but by the end, you could kind of tell they were wandering and I think they were thinking about going home. I wish they could have finished practice focused all the way through.”

Talking to the team after practice, Rivera stressed staying focused. “We can’t have distractions. I know this is our move…we’re going to be back in Charlotte the next time we get together and we’ve got to be able to stay focused and get ready to go up to Philadelphia to play them.”

Upon hearing the final air horn, Rivera said, “I was trying to think of what to say to these guys about being safe. The natural response is to try and get home as quick as you can and I just want them to be safe. It (the final horn) signifies the end of camp here and the beginning of camp in Charlotte. I’m trying to get these guys to understand we’re still in training camp basically, we’ve just moved from here back to Charlotte.”

With the new training camp rules, Rivera said he feels the Panthers accomplished a lot. “I really feel good about what we did, the way we did things, the way we changed schedules… some of the periods we added, some of the periods we took out…I really do feel good. I think it showed in the way we played the other night (a 24-17 win over the Chicago Bears on Friday). We were physical and aggressive, much more than we have been in the past in the first preseason game.”

Rivera was very pleased with nine on seven drills. “We had good tempo, they had a nice thud tempo and they were physical. I though that was good. It is a long practice. It’s funny, people talk about in my day we did double days, they weren’t two-and-a-half hour practices or two-hour-and-15 minute practices. They were an hour-forty-five. Today because of the way the rules are, you’ve got to put so many periods in, you’ve got to get so much done and you have a three-hour window to do it. It’s hard to keep focused…it’s hard to do because something happens…You know, something shiny and all of a sudden guys are distracted…that’s a part of it.”

To keep the players sharp, the coaching staff has been using two periods of physical play followed by an installation period and a special teams period. “Then we bring them back. Any time you can help these guys stay focused, you’re going to accomplish a lot. And I think we accomplished a lot.”

Carolina Panthers rookie running back and kick returner Kenjon Barner was one of several players mentioned as surprises in camp by Coach Ron Rivera
Carolina Panthers rookie running back and kick returner Kenjon Barner was one of several players mentioned as surprises in camp by Coach Ron Rivera

Rivera singled our Atmanti Edwards as a real surprise of camp. Edwards has been playing wide receiver as well as handling kick returns. “I like what we’ve got from Kenjon Barner (rookie running back from Oregon). I think he’s an exciting kid.” Tauren Poole (second-year running back from Tennessee) was also mentioned, as was veteran running back DeAngelo Williams, who is showing a lot of growth. Charles Godfrey (a veteran safety) has been a standout during the first three weeks of camp also.

The third-year head coach also has liked the consistency of veteran wide receiver Brandon LaFell as well as the veteran leadership from Steve Smith (receiver) and Jordan Gross (offensive tackle). He likes both the offensive and defensive lines, plus Rivera loves the linebacking crew. And then there’s Cam Newton…the third-year quarterback. His leadership has been questioned in the past, but Rivera is seeing some real growth from No. 1 this year.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is maturing and improving.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is maturing and improving.

“Probably the one thing…and I think about this…I really like how Cam is starting to step-up and exhibit that leadership you are looking for with your quarterback when he’s on the field. He’s still growing…still maturing. He did a lot of good things in this camp and I think the future for this team is positive. It’s heading in the right direction, but you won’t know until you start playing.”

When asked about the health of certain players, especially veteran linebacker Jon Beason and veteran running back Jonathan Stewart, Rivera could not say whether they would start the season on the PUP (physically unable to play) list or not. “We’ll see. Again, it’s a matter of how they are improving in terms of their health. I can’t predict that.” He has not heard they could be out 6 or 7 weeks, which is a good sign.

Depth is a source of concern for the coaching staff because of the injuries – the little knick-knack injuries we’ve had. I’d like to think we are answering the question at right guard. I would have loved to have (Edmund) Kugbila (fourth round pick) out this week, but unfortunately not, hopefully next week he’ll be back. But, if not, Garry Williams has done a great job at right guard this week, and we’re excited about that. Depth at tight end is a little bit of a question. Brandon Williams is stepping up so that’s helped us. Strong safety – Mike Mitchell has kind of taken the bull by the horns there. I’m not as concerned about cornerback as people think. Those guys are fighting it out and we’re going to have a tough decision in terms of who is going to earn that spot so I’m not concerned about it as much as like anyone else, I’m curious as to who’s going to step up there.

Nate Chandler has been great at left tackle. He’s an athletic guy…very physical. He played well the other night. His run blocking really stood out and seeing his athleticism learning the position of left tackle. We’re excited and we hope he continues to grow and get better.”

The Panthers fly to Philadelphia tomorrow, play at Lincoln Financial Field Thursday evening, and return to Charlotte after the contest. They will practice at their Charlotte facility this weekend.

CAMP NOTES:
*My observation this year leads me to believe this Panthers’ team is more focused on the big picture. The players know they are in a very tough division, with two teams, New Orleans and Atlanta, ahead of them. In order to gain a playoff spot, those are the teams you must beat. Camp was faster-paced overall, and Cam Newton was all business. Even his backup, Derek Anderson, was very focused.

*The defense had its back to the offense today, turning around at the clap coming out of the huddle. This was done to prepare for the fast-paced Philadelphia Eagles offense.

*Domenik Hixson, a veteran wide receiver, has been nursing a hamstring injury. He said, “You go out there too early and have something happen, it could be even more devastating than a strain.” Safety first, is the Panthers’ credo this summer.

*The team took steps to limit soft-tissue injuries, but injuries happen. They did avoid major injuries to starters, though.

*Offensive tackle Byron Bell left practice early due to illness. Coach Rivera said there is a bug (stomach) going around camp.

Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil out for the season

Just when the Carolina Panthers thought it the season couldn’t get any worse, it has. After avoiding major injuries all season long, the league’s highest-paid center, Ryan Kalil, is out for the season, in a move just announced by head coach Ron Rivera.

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera and center Ryan Kalil spent a lot of time together during training camp this summer

Kalil has a Lisfranc injury to his left foot that will require surgery and he has been placed on the injured reserve list. A Lisfranc injury is in the midfoot, and pretty painful from what I hear. The recovery is 8-12 weeks.

Rivera said the injury occurred before halftime of the Seattle game on Sunday. His foot was re-taped and Kalil continued to play.

“It’s unfortunate. He was having a terrific year in spite of our situation,” Rivera said. “Individually, he was doing great. We’re just going to hope for the best and we’ll go from there.”

“He’s certainly one of the emotional leaders and it’s hard to replace those kind of guys,” Rivera said. “But the truth of the matter is, it’s time for us as a team to step up anyway. And this is another one of those things that’s going to try us. That’s why we keep guys as back-up players. Now they’ve got their opportunity.”

Rivera said the team may look outside the organization for help on the offensive line.

Kalil took out an ad in the Charlotte Observer at the start of training camp promising the city a Super Bowl.  The team wore shirts saying, “We have Ryan Kalil’s back” to show their support of the outlandish promise (at least today it looks outlandish). He is an emotional leader and will be missed by the team. His spot at center will be taken by guard Geoff Hangartner, who has starting experience. Jeff Byers and Garry Williams will compete for the guard position.

Carolina Panthers: Season Outlook and Opener in Tampa

The Carolina Panthers open the 2012 regular season with an NFC South divisional rival as they travel to Tampa Bay to play the Buccaneers on Sunday. This marks the first time the two teams have opened the season against each other.

Because of the Democratic National Convention taking place in Charlotte, the Panthers began preparations for the game on Tuesday in Bradenton, FL at the IMG campus.

Will Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton suffer from the sophomore slump? I doubt it!

Quarterback Cam Newton, last season’s offensive rookie of the year, heads a potent offense that finished fifth in the League in points, and most of his offensive teammates also return.

Guard Travelle Wharton and tight end Jeremy Shockey have left the team, but the team is very confident that second-round draft pick Amini Silatolu (replacing Wharton) and former back-up tight end Greg Olson will pick up the slack.  Offseason acquisition fullback Mike Tolbert also replaces Shockey.

In addition to Newton’s terrific season (accounting for 35 touchdowns – 21 scoring passes and an NFL quarterback record 14 rushing touchdowns), veteran wide receiver Steve Smith returns. Smith has moved to the top 36 career receivers in receptions and receiving yardage, caught 79 balls and had 1,394 receiving yards in 2011. Smith will look to extend his streak of 75 consecutive games with a reception, which began in 2006. He has played in 151 career games and with six games played, he will rank second in team history, passing Brad Hoover and Muhsin Muhammad.

Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, the author of a full page ad that ran in the Charlotte Observer in July declaring the Panthers will win the Super Bowl this year, heads the offensive line that returns four of five starters.

Coach Ron Rivera feels this year’s team will be better than last year when the team was the first to have three 700 yard rushers and saw their passing game jump from 32nd in 2010 to 13th last year. “I think we have the potential to be better. Cam is now in his second season and has gone through offseason OTA’s for the first time. We have good continuity throughout our starters and some young players who I believe are prepared to take another step up.”

Rivera is speaking of receiver Brandon LaFell, who had an excellent preseason, tackle Byron Bell and the big fella, Newton. LaFell, now in his third season, started the final six games last year and Bell started 12 as a rookie after moving into the lineup due to injuries.

On the defensive side of the ball, there are more changes, but good ones. Linebacker Jon Beason returns after missing the entire 2011 season with a torn Achilles suffered in the opening game at Arizona. He missed much of the preseason with a pulled hamstring, however. Thomas Davis, who has been attempting to come back from three ACL surgeries after missing the last 2-1/2 years, played in only one preseason game (against the New York Jets), but looked good. Rookie Luke Kuechly, the team’s No. 1 draft choice, had a strong preseason and will be a starter at linebacker on Sunday.

After backing up All-Pro safety Ed Reed in Baltimore, newcomer Haruki Nakamura will also begin the season as a starter. One of five potential new defensive starters, he was impressive in the preseason and knows what it takes to get to the championship game, as he did with the Ravens. Other potential starters are defensive end Charles Johnson, linebacker James Anderson, cornerback Chris Gamble and safety Charles Godfrey, all back from last year, will try to improve upon the 28th ranked defense (in yards allowed) last year.

“We saw some good signs of progress in the preseason and now have to  transfer that into the regular season while continuing to improve,” said Rivera.

Carolina Panthers’ rookie kicker Brad Nortman won the punting job beating out veteran Nick Harris.
Carolina Panthers placekicker Justin Medlock beat out incumbent veteran Olindo Mare during camp this year. .

One area the Panthers worked during the offseason to improve upon were the special teams.  Carolina drafted its first punter, Brad Nortman, and he averaged 48.2 yards per kick in the preseason. Placekicker Justin Medlock, with just one NFL game under his belt, but with three solid years of CFL experience behind him, beat out incumbent veteran Olindo Mare for the position. His strong leg was the difference. Kick returner Joe Adams, is a quick (and fast) player who has the potential to change games in a hurry. These three specialists should give the Cats a big improvement over last season’s dreadful special teams.

The Panthers and Bucs have met 23 times previously, with the Panthers holding a 14-9 edge. The game will mark head coach Greg Schiano’s debut in the NFL. He is the ninth head coach in Buccaneers’ history, and was the head coach for Rutgers University for the past 12 seasons.

Every season is a fresh start, but…on December 24, 2011, the Panthers came of age, beating Tampa Bay 48-16 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. This year every team begins anew, but on paper, the Panthers look to be much stronger.  The Panthers made two new additions to their roster as the team reached the NFL’s 53-man active roster limit for the regular season.

The team acquired safety Colin Jones from the San Francisco 49ers on Friday, August 31, in exchange for an undisclosed draft choice and signed defensive tackle Dwan Edwards on Sunday, Sept. 2.

Jones is a second-year player from TCU, who played 13 games for the 49ers last season, seeing action primarily on special teams (a glaring weakness on the Panthers part last year).

Edwards is in his ninth NFL season, having played the last two in Buffalo, where he started 24 of 27 games for the Bills. His career began in Baltimore where he played six seasons for the Ravens after being selected by the team in the second round (51st overall) in the 2004 NFL Draft.

Having seen this team play four (okay, three…we all know the fourth preseason game is a joke) games and having watched many practices, the Panthers are going to be much improved from last year. The only problem…their division rivals, the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons are also improved. The Saints, in fact, just got a whole lot better, as their previously-suspended players were granted amnesty and all of them, including All-Pro Jonathan Vilma, are eligible to play beginning Sunday. The Panthers improved to 6-10 last season (they had nowhere to go but up) and Cam Newton’s level of play shocked nearly everyone. Newton is poised to be even better this season, and has the weapons he needs to lead this team to the top. Looking at their schedule when it first came out, I said the team would win 10 or 11 games. I am sticking with 10 wins this season, but even that could be a stretch. The opener is one of those games they must win, because the next three games (New Orleans, New York Giants, at Atlanta) could all be losses. Their fate in the NFC South Division could be sealed by the end of September, but, should they win two of those three games, the Panthers will have put their divisional rivals on notice…as well as the rest of the league.

I am confident the Panthers will prevail, 24-10, in the opener.