NFL Wire News

Record no concern to streaking Panthers


ATLANTA – The Carolina Panthers, left for dead after a six-game losing streak in the middle of the season, are very much alive heading into their second consecutive playoff appearance.

The Panthers won only one game from Sept. 21 to Dec. 7, but put it all together in a closing four-game stretch that saw Carolina win the NFC South for the second straight season.

The Panthers (7-8-1) blew out the Atlanta Falcons, 34-3, Sunday in the Georgia Dome to secure the division title and a home playoff game. They’ll host the Arizona Cardinals next week in the wild-card round.

It didn’t seem possible a month ago, when Carolina was in the process of dropping six straight games by an average margin of 14.5 points. Quarterback Cam Newton was banged-up and inconsistent, and the defense was having trouble slowing offenses down.

But Newton got healthy, shook off a scary car accident and accounted for eight touchdowns in his last three games. And the defense started clicking on all three levels. They sacked Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan six times Sunday, and safeties Roman Harper and Tre Boston each returned interceptions for touchdowns in the big win.

“I think that was the best overall defensive game we played this season,” Boston said. “Front seven, back seven, we just all did our jobs.”

Linebacker Luke Kuechly, the NFL’s second-leading tackler, credited coach Ron Rivera for keeping the team’s confidence up during the difficult two-month stretch that began on Sept. 21 with a home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. They won only once in the next in the next 10 weeks.

“It’s a testament to our team and a reflection of coach,” Kuechly said. “Never give up. Stay the course. That’s what’s great about our team. We just knew if we stuck together as a team, played as a team, things were eventually going to go our way and we were going to get hot.”

The turnaround began in New Orleans, when Newton threw for three touchdowns and ran for another in a 41-10 rout of the Saints. The following week Newton suffered two transverse process fractures in his lower back after a car accident. Backup quarterback Derek Anderson stepped in for Newton against Tampa Bay the next week and led a 19-17 win over the Buccaneers. Newton returned the next week in a win over the Cleveland Browns then capped the regular season with an efficient and emotional performance against the Falcons.

“This game meant so much, not only to myself, but also to my teammates, this team as a whole, this organization and (owner) Mr. (Jerry) Richardson,” Newton said. “We were playing for so much and we were doing a lot of that a lot of people weren’t expecting us to do.”

The Panthers are the second team to host a playoff game with a losing record since the advent of the wild-card format, following the 2011 Seattle Seahawks (7-9). But Rivera says he is not concerned with his team’s record, only how they’re playing right now.

“I’m not concerned with what the record is because right now everybody is even and at the end of the day the team that wins this is the only team that is going to be happy,” he said. “We finished strong in December to build some momentum and hopefully we will build off that and get ready for next week for whoever we play.”

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