Panthers hoping to get healthy with bye week

Panthers coach Ron Rivera is hoping an extra week off will

enable his team to get back to full strength and make a run at the

Super Bowl.

Along with capturing the NFC South division championship Sunday,

the Panthers wrapped up a first-round bye in the playoffs. That’s

huge for a team in dire need of getting star receiver Steve Smith

and two other key role players back on the field.

Carolina’s passing game struggled in a 21-20 win over Atlanta

with its wide receivers combining for a mere 22 yards on four

catches without Smith.

Rivera said the game ”illustrates what a veteran number one

receiver does for you. I think it will be good to have him back out

there and I believe he will be back out there, just knowing

Steve.

”It’s a challenge for him and he expects to be there.”

Said offensive coordinator Mike Shula: ”Steve is a warrior and

he’s hard to replace. You need guys like that when you get to the

postseason.”

Shula added that he was disappointed ”in general” with the

offense’s performance after being limited to 283 yards and 16 first

downs by the Falcons.

The Panthers had to rely heavily on their defense, which had a

franchise-high nine sacks and returned a Matt Ryan interception for

a touchdown.

”We’re just a little bit off,” Shula said.

Tight end Greg Olsen agreed, adding: ”We were just out of sync

for whatever reason. We have to get that fixed before the

playoffs.”

Rivera hopes the extra time off gives running back Jonathan

Stewart, who is recovering from a torn MCL in his knee, and

defensive tackle Colin Cole, who has a strained calf, enough time

to return.

Others could use some rest, too.

Carolina hasn’t had a bye since Week 4.

”It’s something that we needed,” quarterback Cam Newton said

after the game. ”We got a lot of guys that we need back that play

an intricate role in making this team go.”

Olsen believes it will be a huge help.

”To get some guys back mentally and physical fresh will do

wonders for us,” he said.

Rivera said the Panthers will approach this week like a normal

work week with practices on Wednesday through Friday and some light

work on Saturday. Several players are expected to get time off to

rest their legs.

The Panthers will host a playoff game Jan. 12.

If Philadelphia beats New Orleans, the Panthers will host the

Eagles. If New Orleans wins, the Panthers will host the winner of

the San Francisco-Green Bay game.

The Panthers have been in an eerily similar situation

before.

In 2008 they also won the NFC South with a 12-4 record to earn a

first-round bye and a home game. However, that season ended

disastrously with quarterback Jake Delhomme turning the ball over

six times in a 33-13 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

This is Carolina’s first trip back to the postseason and Rivera

made it clear his team isn’t just happy being here.

”It’s satisfying, but not satisfying,” Rivera said of winning

the NFC South. ”It is one of the goals you set for yourself and

for your team. We accomplished that first one but there is a lot

more left to go.”

The coach said the biggest thing he’s learned about his team

this season is its resilience.

At one point the Panthers were 2-14 under Rivera in games

decided by seven points or less. However they’ve won their last

five games decided by that margin, including four of those in

come-from-behind fashion.

”They have confidence now to go into a fourth quarter and

believe they can get it done,” Rivera said. ”That’s the biggest

thing I’ve learned.”

Rivera said the growth of the team this season has been a

reflection of the team’s two leaders on each side of the football –

Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

”As we see Luke get better and better the defense gets better

and better and the same thing with Cam. As he’s gotten better the

offense has gotten better,” Rivera said. ”Those are two pillars

that this team can be built off of.”

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org