CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers can draw a degree of inspiration from the Kansas City Chiefs.
But how much weight that carries might depend on the result between the teams Sunday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium.
The Panthers have won two games in a row since starting the season with only one victory across their first six games. A year ago, the Chiefs were 1-5 before rebounding to make the playoffs.
"It has been done before," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said, referring to the Chiefs responding from a miserable start.
For as much commotion as Carolina quarterback Cam Newton has caused around the NFL the past couple of weeks regarding officiating and a dialogue with commissioner Roger Goodell, the Chiefs have their own quarterback news.
That’s because Alex Smith, who missed a game with what was listed as a head/ear injury, is expected to be back in action.
"I feel like I can go through a normal week," Smith said. "I’m pumped to get back and get going."
Smith missed the victory against Jacksonville, with Nick Foles filling in. But the Chiefs (6-2) count on Smith, and that’s part of the reason coach Andy Reid said he thought it was best that he take a week off after hitting his head hard in a game against the Indianapolis Colts.
The Chiefs look comfortable when Smith has been at the controls.
"He runs their offense very well and he has some pretty good weapons around him," Rivera said.
Smith also could have the services of running back Spencer Ware, who has been cleared from the league’s concussion protocol. Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (groin), however, will not play, joining defensive end Jaye Howard (hip) on the sideline. Linebacker Justin Houston (knee) is unlikely to make his return as well.
Having all the available big-play threats is something that the Chiefs figure they might need this week because Carolina’s defense.
"It jumps out on film how strong they are," Smith said. "They’ve played a lot of football at a high level."
The Panthers (3-5) are coming off victories against Arizona and the Los Angeles Rams (3-5).
"You could say they’re back on track," Reid said.
Still, the Panthers have an uphill climb in the NFC South, but it’s not something they’re consumed with at the moment.
"We’ve been focusing on one game at a time and that has been our approach and we’re not going to change that," Rivera said.
The past two weeks, Newton said the Panthers have reaped the rewards that come with putting in the work.
"We knew we were doing the proper things," Newton said. "We were still trying to have the winning ingredients."
Newton has been at the center of what’s an ongoing conversation regarding protection of quarterbacks, particularly after he called out NFL officiating for what he claimed was putting him in unsafe situations after the most recent home game.
Newton said he doesn’t want to be caught up in that or other topics that could be distractions.
"My job is to win football games, not grade myself," he said.
Yet Newton’s protection is one of the key components for Carolina’s game plan.
"We’ve got to keep our pocket clean for our quarterback," Rivera said.
Newton said the Chiefs have "a very opportunistic defense and we have to control the line of scrimmage. I think that’s one of the challenges of the game."
Newton said struggles on offense have popped up frequently, pinning the responsibility on the Panthers.
"We have to have answers," he said. "It doesn’t matter what defense is called."
Carolina’s injury situation seemed unclear, with center Ryan Kalil unlikely to play and linebacker Shaq Thompson also doubtful by midweek.
Linebacker Thomas Davis’ 12 tackles and one interception against the Rams were a boost for the Carolina defense while linebacker A.J. Klein filled in for Thompson.
Rivera said the Panthers appeared to be a fatigued team, something he attributed to coming off the West Coast trip. He said the energy level will need to be high by the weekend when encountering the Chiefs.
Rivera said he can tie some of his success as a coach to spending time on Reid’s staff with the Philadelphia Eagles. Rivera was the linebackers coach under Reid from 1999-2003.
This will be only the sixth meeting between the teams, with Kansas City winning the most recent matchup 27-21 in December 2012 at home.