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Panthers at critical stage after loss to Giants

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)

The struggling Panthers find themselves at a crossroads less than a month into the NFL season.

Their five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver already blasted their young star quarterback on the sideline, their coach says the team needs to find an identity, and their schedule isn't getting any easier following a 36-7 drubbing at the hands of the New York Giants last Thursday night.

At 1-2, Carolina runs the risk of falling three games behind the NFC South-leading Falcons (3-0) if the Panthers don't get things straightened away before Sunday's game against Matt Ryan and company in Atlanta.

Still, Carolina coach Ron Rivera said it's not time to panic.

Rivera said he's not planning any lineup changes on offense or defense in the wake of the team's slow start and vows that the Panthers will get back on track.

''If this was game seven, eight or nine I'd have a little more concern,'' Rivera said. ''But this was the third game of the season. We're 1-2 and there are a number of teams in this league that are 1-2. To me the big objective, more so than anything else, is continue to improve and show improvement. Show that we've gotten better.''

The Panthers showed improvement in Week 2 when they bounced back from a disappointing loss to Tampa Bay in the season opener to beat New Orleans 35-27 at home. But that was before the Panthers laid a gigantic egg in front of their home fans and a national television audience.

Carolina's offense sputtered and its defense was leaky. They had five turnovers, including two on special teams. And a frustrating night ended with Steve Smith telling Cam Newton to get up and watch backup quarterback Derek Anderson play - and learn from his mistakes - instead of sulking on the bench.

''It was a frustrating night for everybody. Really embarrassing, I think - not just for us but the fans, the coaches, for everybody,'' Panthers Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said.

Rivera said he had no problems with Smith talking to Newton, although he said he would have preferred Smith kept it between the two of them. Newton went through practice as usual Monday and seemed in an upbeat mood. He denied reports that he's seeing a therapist.

''I have not hired a sports psychologist,'' Newton said. ''I have no idea where that came from. I have a strong support system in my teammates, coaches and family. My focus is on improving this week and getting ready to play Atlanta.''

Rivera said he doesn't believe Smith's comments are something that will cause a rift between the team's two most explosive offensive players.

''Not at all,'' Rivera said. ''Just because it's all part of it. You've got to learn to accept it. Whether you get criticized or you're the one criticizing, you take it for what it is. It's a discussion.''

Rivera believes turning things around means the Panthers finding an identity. They had one late last season, closing out the schedule with four wins in six games and lending hope to a promising season this year.

But so many of the things the Panthers relied on as their identity during that promising stretch - big chunk plays on offense and turnovers on defense - have forsaken them so far in the early going.

''We have to find out who we are,'' Rivera said. ''Are we a physical, aggressive downhill football team or are we an attacking big play team? ... Defensively we talked about trying to go out and ball hawk a little bit and when we've done it we've had success, and when we haven't we've struggled.''

The Panthers scored 46 touchdowns on offense last season; this year they're on pace to score 32.

Meanwhile, Carolina's defense allowed the Giants' first-time NFL starters Andre Brown and Ramses Barden to gash them. Brown, who had only run for 75 career yards coming in, piled up 113 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, while Barden looked like the second coming of Hakeem Nicks with 138 yards receiving on nine catches.

Rivera said the team's pass coverage was ''soft'' and that has to improve against Atlanta.

If the Panthers had trouble with Brown and Barden, you can imagine their concern with facing the talented trio of Michael Turner, Roddy White and Julio Jones this Sunday, not to mention Ryan and tight end Tony Gonzalez.

''We took a step back'' against the Giants, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. ''We have to get back to playing defense the way we did the first two weeks and that means playing attack-style football.''

''They have an impressive bunch,'' Rivera said of the Falcons before adding, ''(but) it's no different than what we've seen and what we have here.''

The Panthers have a tough schedule ahead.

After the Falcons, they'll host Seattle and Dallas, and then travel to face Chicago and Washington before returning home to face Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.

If there's some good news for the Panthers it's that Rivera expects running back Jonathan Stewart, offensive tackle Byron Bell and linebacker Thomas Davis to return this week after sitting out the Giants game on a short week. All but Stewart practiced Monday.

Newton is fine after cutting his finger against the Giants.

However, starting defensive end Greg Hardy said he fractured his right thumb in two places. Hardy, who was wearing a hard cast in the locker room, said he still hopes to play Sunday against the Falcons with a larger protective cast.

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Online: http://bigstory.ap.org/NFL-Pro32 and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Tagged: Falcons, Giants, Panthers, Steve Smith Sr., Ryan Kalil, Matt Ryan, Ramses Barden, Andre Brown, Cam Newton

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