NFL Wire News

This time, Panthers enter bye on high


The Sports Xchange

CHARLOTTE, N. C. — To say the Carolina Panthers went into last year’s bye week on a down note is putting it nicely. They had just lost their fifth straight game, and they did it at home to the Atlanta Falcons, who weren’t very good either.

This year’s bye arrived seven weeks earlier, and with the Panthers in a much different position.

“We’re giving out hugs instead of high fives because we’re loving up on each other that much,” cornerback Josh Norman said Wednesday. “It’s an awesome feeling to be 4-0 because that winning helps in a way to where you become closer and bonded as a group and as a family.”

As poor as last year’s team was playing — they ran their losing skid to six straight after the bye — the late week off probably helped them put together a late-season four-game win streak that left them atop NFC South standings.

Now, as the Panthers head their separate ways for the weekend, it’s fair to wonder if the bye is too early. But whatever momentum may be lost, there is something to be gained when the guys get back. Or more specifically, someone.

The Panthers are hopeful linebacker Luke Kuechly will be ready return to practice Tuesday when they start preparing for their Week 6 trip to Seattle. After three games without Kuechly, who has one hurdle to clear in the NFL’s concussion protocol, adding the league’s best middle linebacker could be quite a boost.

“He’s an animal,” Norman said. “He’s the number one guy. I just love playing with him. When he gets back, everything’s going to just be even that much better — flow so smooth.

“I can look at him, he can look at me — and we’re on the same page. We came in together. I can’t say enough good things about him and what he has achieved in this league. We’re going to get him back and that’s just going to be a great freaking spark for our defense.”

Because of Norman’s elite play, the defense was able to get through without Kuechly. And because of quarterback Cam Newton, the offense did well enough. So far.

Except for his rushing yards, few of Newton’s statistics are impressive. But the way he led his team to four check marks in the victory category is what matters most and puts him in discussions for potential MVP.

“That’s not important right now,” Newton said. “That’s irrelevant. No disrespect to anybody, but we’re just four games into, hopefully, a 19-week season.”

And if anyone is going to stay in Newton’s ear about how much is left to accomplish with three quarters of the schedule still to be played, it’s his coach.

“We’re trying to not listen to the noise,” head coach Ron Rivera offered. “It’s nice to know you’re getting that type of recognition — that people are beginning to see the positive qualities you have as a football player. “We try to keep our focus because the thing that’s more than anything else is winning games.”

Rivera and Newton didn’t do much of that in the opening month of their first four seasons. Before this year, their overall record in the first four games was 5-11 with the best start coming last year at 2-2.

Because of a soft early-season schedule and the rougher road that’s ahead, perhaps this will be the pinnacle of the Panthers’ 2015. Or maybe the bye will be a brief pause in a special season.

“If we do get knocked off, I know we got the guys in there that have enough of that sustainable ability to continue to fight through the adversity,” Norman said. “It’s not going to be a fairy tale where you don’t have struggles in life. Everybody has struggles. When you can overcome that and be somewhere where you know you can, it’s an awesome feeling.”

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