CHARLOTTE, N.C. — All season long, Ron Rivera has preached the importance of focusing on one game at a time and not making any game bigger than another.
Cam Newton’s go-to line has been that “it’s the most important game of the season … because it’s the next game.”
But this isn’t just any old game coming up. It’s the New England Patriots, owners of a 7-2 record, rolling into town for the biggest contest at Bank of America Stadium, since the Panthers’ playoff loss to the Cardinals five years ago.
“I have no doubt in my mind that everyone will be looking forward to this Monday Night Football game, and that’s the type of atmosphere we’ve been waiting on,” said Newton.
“Coach Rivera says it all the time, ‘We’re relevant now,’ but we can’t just stop and say ‘Hey, lets pop bottles, let’s celebrate and order some hot wings and pizza.’ For us, we’re just halfway through the season right now, and we have to continue to do the things that’s putting this feeling in our hearts.”
Last week’s victory in San Francisco brought that relevance, but if the Panthers take care of their sixth in a row (Monday), are they suddenly in the discussion for the NFC elite?
“I think I’m stating the obvious when I say everyone’s been fiending for a magical season,” Newton said. “No one wants to be affiliated with a mediocre or mediocrity, or something that’s just bland. And I think for the past couple of years, we know it, the Carolina panthers haven’t been the hot topic in the league.
“But for us, we just take it one game at a time and this game has a lot of promise in it; but we have to do our part.”
Defensive end Greg Hardy — the most outspoken member of the defense — acknowledged this game is a big deal. It’s not too often he gets the chance to sack his best friend’s favorite player — Tom Brady.
“Honestly it’s the whole situation and the way the whole set up is coming together — a Monday night football game, Tom Brady, just a championship team coming in against our winning streak,” he said. “The whole set up is big time.”
Perhaps most important, it’s a chance for him to right a wrong. Or so he thought.
Hardy was looking for more out of his first Monday Night Football experience last year against the Eagles, but he doesn’t expect that to be the case this week.
“I didn’t get my introduction [last year]. I didn’t get my streamers, no little cool people performing at halftime. I didn’t get to say the Kraken on TV. No one knows what school I went to. I got cheated,” Hardy said. “They’re not going to do that to Tom Brady.”
Unfortunately for Hardy, the player introductions are a part of Sunday Night Football, not Monday — a fact he was incredulous to.
“I thought there was something on Monday Night Football! You don’t get anything? You get nothing? It’s Tom Brady! Something’s gotta happen,” Hardy said.
Still, hearing a defensive player speak in such glowing terms about an opposing quarterback — almost in reverence — has significance. This is a three-time Super Bowl winner coming to town with the seven wins the Panthers covet, and Brady can still pick defenses apart.
“Brady is like Peyton [Manning] in that he’s going to get his team in situations and plays that are going to be beneficial for them. So we need to do a good job of planning our defenses and not showing stuff too early, so he can’t get a bead on what we got,” said middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Brady has a slew of young receivers this season, but the offense has been clicking on all cylinders since Rob Gronkowski returned from injury.
Prior to Gronk’s return, the Patriots were averaging 20.8 points per game. In the three games since, New England holds averages of 36 points.
Gronkowski could be a tough matchup for the Panthers, who struggled with the Falcons’ Tony Gonzalez a few weeks ago — allowing five catches for 65 yards and a touchdown in the first half.
Rivera said big, fast tight ends are similar to basketball players, using their frames to block defenders from the ball. Gronkowski’s even faster than Gonzalez, though, making that speed tough to simulate in practice.
“It’s going to be a combination of people [that cover him]. A lot of it depends on where they line him up,” Rivera said. “(The Patriots) move him around — they put him at wide receiver positions, they put him at the wing, they motion him across the formations and motion him outside the formations and back into it.”
The Panthers have had a ton of success getting pressure with just four pass rushers.
They’re built the old-school way behind a physical defense and running game. The Patriots have had trouble with these kind of defenses in recent years.
“The excitement should be great for our fans and this city,” Rivera said. “We’re in the spotlight, and we are relevant but that all ends if you don’t play well.”
A week of relevancy isn’t enough for this team, Newton says. He wants that feeling to return, like they had in the locker room against San Francisco.
“You would have thought doggone Jesus came back. Honestly, it was that type of feeling,” he said. “It was a great feeling and we want to continue to have that type of feeling.”
Win Monday night and Newton can stand at the center of the BoA field and continue experiencing that feeling with his city.