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Undefeated, but Panthers know there’s much work ahead

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CHARLOTTE — Being undefeated at 7-0 is nice. It’s two more wins than the Carolina Panthers have ever had to start a season. But it pales in comparison to what Ron Rivera experienced as a player in 1985. Sure, those Chicago Bears are considered by many as one of the best teams in NFL history, but remembering back to that 12-0 start can help Rivera in a time like this.

“A couple times I’ve quoted coach (Mike) Ditka about trying to keep these guys focused, about rallying around each other, about being careful about being put on a pedestal,” Rivera said Tuesday. “Back then it was wise and I think it’s wise today.”

It’s not like the Panthers are hogging the spotlight. The Patriots, Bengals and Broncos are also unbeaten. Four 7-0 teams is the most in NFL history, doubling the previous high of two, which last occurred in 2009. But the Panthers are the lone remaining unbeaten in the NFC, and an 8-0 start could mean something important come January.

If Carolina beats Green Bay in Charlotte on Sunday, the Panthers will take a two-game lead in the loss column at the top of the conference. That wouldn’t guarantee much with half of the season left, but it would be a nice head start in the eventual race for home-field advantage in the playoffs.

Considering the Panthers let the Colts come back from the dead Monday night, it’s probably a bit early to be thinking about No. 1 seeds. Mostly, blowing that 17-point lead was a good reminder of how much work remains.

“I think the timing of it is perfect for us,” Rivera said. “We have an opportunity to play better and we need to.

“I think a team like Green Bay coming in is just going to heighten what the sense of improvement is. Our guys, they work hard, they do a lot of good things. We still make mistakes, but we found ways to win. That’s the thing that I think is a huge plus and that’s something that a couple years we may not have had that kind of ability. Now I think we do and I think a lot of it has to do with the players in that locker room and the leadership in that locker room.”

REPORT CARD VS. COLTS

–PASSING OFFENSE: C. QB Cam Newton was just 6-for-17 for 88 yards with an interception in a sloppy first half. He was better when the rain became lighter in the second half, finishing with 248 yards and touchdown tosses to tight end Greg Olsen and receiver Philly Brown. Newton was sacked twice and had decent protection throughout the night.

–RUSHING OFFENSE: B. RB Jonathan Stewart was again a workhorse, carrying 24 times for 82 yards and a touchdown. The Panthers totaled 140 rushing yards despite missing two offensive linemen in rough field conditions.

–PASS DEFENSE: C-plus. Colts QB Andrew Luck continued his miserable season until things suddenly clicked in the fourth quarter. The Colts, who gained 136 yards on their first 12 drives, piled up 197 on their final three possessions of regulation, mostly through the air. But Luck was picked off three times while CB Josh Norman held WR T.Y. Hilton to a season-low one reception for 15 yards.

–RUN DEFENSE: B-minus. The Colts became the fourth straight team to rush for at least 100 yards against the Panthers. Frank Gore’s 70 yards led the way, but he needed 22 carries to get there.

–SPECIAL TEAMS: B-minus. K Graham Gano’s missed extra point early in the fourth quarter appeared costly until he turned into the hero by booting a 52-yard walk-off field goal in overtime. Gano made two other kicks on a rough field. P Brad Nortman has a long of 59. Returners Ted Ginn and Fozzy Whittaker didn’t do much.

–COACHING: B. Head coach Ron Rivera and his staff deserve credit for overwhelming the reeling Colts until early in the fourth quarter. Blowing a 17-point lead leaves question marks, though. The defense appeared to soften while Indianapolis rallied and the offense didn’t do enough to put the game away in regulation.


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