NFC South: Carolina Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Perhaps it was a hint. At least an indication.

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera was adamant on Wednesday he wasn't ready to name his starting quarterback for Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns.

Newton
Newton
He still wants a few more days to evaluate if Cam Newton, eight days removed from suffering two small fractures in his lower back in a two-vehicle crash, is healthy enough to start.

He said how Newton looks on Thursday after a successful return to practice on Wednesday will be big.

So Rivera is playing his options close to the vest, knowing Derek Anderson is more than capable as the starter if called upon for a second straight week.

When asked if Newton will start if he looks ready to go, he gave one of his patented "we'll sees."

The hint might have come when Rivera said this felt like Week 2 when the Panthers were preparing for Detroit.

Newton sat out the opener against Tampa Bay, recovering from fractured ribs suffered during the preseason. He returned to practice full the following Wednesday and started against the Lions.

He was effective, too, despite not being allowed to run at will. He completed 22 of 34 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown for a passer rating of 100.2. He handled being sacked four times.

He also ran four times for 19 yards.

If this feels like Week 2, Newton will start.

The difference is, Rivera said on the Monday of the Detroit game that Newton was ready to roll, barring a setback. He hasn't been quite that bold this week.

But Newton showed no signs on Wednesday of a player who'd been through the trauma of a car accident. He sprinted arguably faster than he has all season from the field where the team stretched to the adjacent field where the first drill took place.

He made moves running the read option that looked more like a player trying to convince those watching he was ready than one showing off.

He showed no signs of being in pain.

Anderson might be the safe play at this point, but the Panthers (5-8-1) aren't in a position of needing to be safe with two games remaining and the NFC South title hanging in the balance.

Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin said Newton's passes were "coming out with a lot of fire." Tight end Greg Olsen said Newton looked normal throwing the ball.

Rivera was impressed that Newton had a lot of zip on a couple of 60-yard passes that weren't completed.

It's been a tough season for the Panthers on and off the field. Their record isn't nearly what they had hoped.

That they have a chance to make the playoffs if they can win their final two games and New Orleans loses once is amazing.

Newton, unless he suffers a setback over the next two days, should play because he gives Carolina the best chance to turn a tough season potentially into a memorable one.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Roman Harper put his arm around one of his young defensive backfield mates as he does on almost a daily basis and offered some sound veteran advice.

"You might want to think about taking that apron off," the Carolina Panthers strong safety said with a smile.

[+] EnlargeRoman Harper
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsRoman Harper leads Carolina in interceptions, but the Panthers say he's been just as valuable off the field.
OK, so this won’t help the Panthers beat the Cleveland Browns this Sunday and stay alive for the NFC South title.

Harper was just making sure the player didn’t leave his Monday night charity event for children in need, an event in which more than a dozen teammates such as middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin worked as waiters, looking like the hired help.

Harper, 32, loves being the senior citizen of Carolina’s revamped secondary. With two rookies (cornerback Bene' Benwikere and free safety Tre Boston) and a third-year cornerback (Josh Norman) starting around him, he likens himself to Bill Russell when the NBA Hall of Famer was a player-coach for the Boston Celtics in the late 1960s.

Harper even has Russell’s familiar peppered-gray hair that makes him look older than he is.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera said he wished he had a player like Harper, signed in March as a free agent from New Orleans, four years ago.

"You watch him put his arm around the young safeties and say things to them about how to do things," Rivera said. "It’s been great to watch veteran leadership."

Harper is the only member of the secondary left that started in Week 1. He’s played his best football of the season -- maybe the past two or three -- the last month. He had his 17th-career sack, the most by a defensive back since he joined the league in 2006, in Sunday’s 19-17 victory over Tampa Bay. He has a team-best three interceptions.

He has helped turn a secondary that at midseason was one of the weakest positions into a strength, a big reason the Panthers have won two straight.

But Harper’s value goes beyond what he does on the field. It’s his willingness to share his experiences and knowledge, in life as well as football.

"[Rivera] probably didn’t want me four years ago," Harper said. "I probably was a little more selfish as a player. Now I try to be completely selfless. I try to do whatever is best for this team.

"I look at Tre, I look at Bene'. They don’t know what they’re doing half the time. They’re just going out playing ball. What I’m here for is help show this team how to win and be a professional."

Harper does it in a way that isn’t intimidating.

"He’s not going to be a parent to you, over-coach you, but he’s always there when you need him," Benwikere said. "He’s always there to answer any question you need, to show you the ropes.

"He definitely talked to me about experiences he’s been through. It’s been a nice ride just learning from him."

Boston leaned on Harper for advice often during offseason workouts when a sports hernia kept him from participating.

"Roman has meant the world to me," he said. "It’s kind of hard to say the world when you have family, but in this football world Roman has really helped me to become a man, understand the game and life."

This season has been a learning experience for Harper as well. He feels more like the player that made the Pro Bowl in 2009 and 2010 than the one that played in only nine games and started only five last season with the Saints.

"I look at myself on tape, I look fresh, I look young, I look rejuvenated compared to how I was a player the past few years,’’ Harper said. "I really like who I am as a player right now

"I’m playing smart, very instinctive, still flying around making plays."

He’s also offering advice, from football to fashion faux pas.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton made it to Bank of America on Tuesday this time.

Exactly a week after suffering two small fractures in his lower back when his 1998 pickup truck rolled in a two-vehicle accident on the way to the stadium, Newton was in for treatment to get him ready for his possible return on Sunday against Cleveland.

Newton spent time on the underwater treadmill and was scheduled to throw.

Afterwards, Newton began delivering Christmas cheer with what he called on Twitter his #SantaCam Surprise Sleigh. His elves, according to this picture he tweeted, were backup quarterback/wide receiver Joe Webb and rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin.



Coach Ron Rivera said on Monday that Newton's status for Cleveland would depend largely on the quarterback's ability to protect himself from further harm. By that he meant Newton had to show the ability to escape pressure and keep a play alive.

Rivera said he would like to make a decision as early in the week as possible on whether Newton or backup Derek Anderson, who led Carolina (5-8-1) to a 19-17 victory against Tampa Bay on Sunday, will start.

He said Newton's status ultimately will come down to what he observes in practice from Newton, as well as what the team doctors and trainers tell him.

Players return to the practice field on Wednesday to prepare for a game the Panthers must win to remain alive in the NFC South playoff chase. Carolina needs to win its final two games and hope the Saints lose against Atlanta or Tampa Bay to repeat as division champs.

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula said he'll have a game plan ready for whichever quarterback plays.

While Shula developed a game plan, Newton continued to deliver Christmas cheer around Charlotte.

QB snapshot: Derek Anderson

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
1:00
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A quick observation of quarterback Derek Anderson and how he played in the Carolina Panthers' 19-17 victory over Tampa Bay:

Anderson
Carolina coach Ron Rivera said it best: Anderson tends to stay in the pocket longer and go through his reads, while Cam Newton tends to pull the ball down and run sooner at the sign of trouble.

Perhaps that explains why Anderson completed 15 passes of 10 or more yards against the Buccaneers, while Newton had only seven the week before in a 41-10 victory over New Orleans. The longer the quarterback stays in the pocket, the longer the play has to develop, and the longer he gets to go through his progressions. Six of Anderson’s passes of 10 or more yards went to tight end Greg Olsen, who finished with 10 catches for 110 yards. The tight end often comes into play more the longer the quarterback stays in the pocket because he often has to block before he releases into his pattern.

Olsen had a team-high eight catches for 83 yards in Week 1, when Anderson replaced Newton against Tampa Bay.

“A guy like Derek Anderson is going to lean a lot more on his tight end, as opposed to his legs," Rivera said. “With Cam on some of those, he might have pulled it down and took off running, whereas Derek Anderson is going to stay in the pocket. That is one of the bigger differences between the two quarterbacks."

Those are differences Cleveland must prepare for with Newton's status, since he fractured two small bones in his lower back a week ago, still in question.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera joked that he might break out his old Bears jersey to cheer for Chicago on Monday night against the New Orleans Saints. Tight end Greg Olsen texted a couple of former Chicago teammates and “told them to get their you-know-what together" and win.

Olsen
Olsen
It didn’t work out.

Now the Panthers have to become Atlanta fans for a week.

In case you were sleeping when it ended, New Orleans beat Chicago 31-15 to move back ahead of the Panthers in the NFC South.

With two games remaining, the Saints (6-8) lead the division by half a game over the Panthers (5-8-1) and a game over Atlanta (5-9).

Only New Orleans controls its own destiny, needing to win at home against the Falcons and at Tampa Bay (2-11) to win the division. The Panthers need to win their final two games against Cleveland (7-7) and Atlanta, and hope the Saints lose once.

Atlanta needs to win its final two, which would include a victory over New Orleans, and hope the Panthers lose once.

Carolina’s best chance at repeating as division champions rides with Atlanta next Sunday at the Mercedes Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

The Falcons beat the Saints 37-34 in overtime on opening day. New Orleans has lost four straight at home, including a 41-10 setback to the Panthers two weeks ago.

So it could happen.

“Yeah, we’re in a way better spot than we were two weeks ago, that’s for sure," Olsen said. “We’re going to keep moving forward. We don’t know what’s going to happen around us, but the one thing that we said we were going to control was we said that we had four games left, at the time, try to be 1-0 each week.

“We’ve got another big home game next week against Cleveland. That’s really where our focus goes from here."

Being a Bears fan for a night certainly didn’t work very well.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Frank Alexander knows he made the same mistake -- twice. He knows he let a lot of people down, including himself and his family. He knows he likely won't get a third chance if he makes the same mistake again.

[+] EnlargeFrank Alexander
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesDefensive end Frank Alexander, who was suspended for 14 games, has been reinstated and can play in the Panthers' final regular-season games.
But the Carolina Panthers defensive end who was suspended for the first 14 games -- the first four for one violation and the next 10 for another -- for violating the NFL substance abuse policy insists he's a changed man.

Now he hopes the Panthers give him a chance to prove it in the final two regular-season games against Cleveland and Atlanta.

"Man, it's been a learning process and an eye-opening process," Alexander said on Monday after being reinstated. "It's just been some long 14 weeks. I stayed prayed up. I got back in the church. Every Sunday I was in church. That was a big help.

"I just tried to stay focused, keep my eyes on the prize. I knew this day eventually would come.”

Alexander turns 25 on Wednesday, which will be his first official practice with the team since training camp. He's pumped, even though he knows people outside the organization are skeptical he'll mess up again.

"We all make mistakes, man," Alexander said. "So you can't sit up here and say I didn't get the message. I had a lot going on, a lot of personal issues. My mother was going through breast cancer. My father was dealing with the heart attacks. He had to get open heart surgery.

"I just had a lot of stuff on my plate. I can't sit here and say I didn't learn. I learned, but when you're going through some stuff, you never know [what you'll do]. The only thing now is I can just look for better ways to try to deal with those types of things."

The good news is Alexander's mother is cancer-free as of October and his father is doing well.

"So everything right now is falling in place," he said.

It could all fall into place for the Panthers (5-8-1), too. They've won two consecutive games to remain alive in the NFC South playoff picture with New Orleans (5-8 heading into a Monday night game at Chicago) and Atlanta (5-9).

The defense has been playing well for almost two months, and Alexander could make it better. He's the closest thing the Panthers have talent-wise and versatility-wise to 2013 sack leader Greg Hardy, who is on the NFL's commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved some time in 2015.

He can play end and tackle, and drop back into coverage. He did those things well enough in training camp that coach Ron Rivera made him his camp MVP.

Alexander's teammates like him, as well.

"I've been waiting on Frank to come back since Week 2," end Mario Addison said. "Frank has a lot of energy. I like playing with him. He gets everybody going. Frank, he's versatile, man."

Alexander kept in shape physically and mentally during the suspension for a substance he chooses not to reveal. He constantly was at Bank of America Stadium working out and going to meetings.

He'll find out on Wednesday if he's in football shape. Then it's up to the Panthers to decide if they want to activate him or not.

Regardless, Alexander is thankful the team stuck with him.

"They could have easily said, 'OK, we're done with Frank,' " Alexander said. "Without them and the support of my family, the people who was there with me, I couldn't have done it.

"I just felt I let a lot of them down and I want to get on the right track."
Derek AndresonSam Sharpe/USA TODAY SportsDerek Anderson threw for 277 yards and a touchdown in Sunday's win over Tampa Bay.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton sat in his locker, staring at messages on his phone while teammates celebrated a second straight win. He was dressed immaculately, as usual, although much quicker than normal after a game.

"I feel good," the Carolina Panthers quarterback said.

But does he feel good enough to play Sunday against the Cleveland Browns and Johnny Manziel?

Coach Ron Rivera isn’t making any predictions until he has seen his franchise quarterback throw and move around on the practice field. Newton hasn’t thrown or practiced since suffering two small fractures in his lower back when his pickup truck rolled in a two-vehicle crash Tuesday.

Derek Anderson filled in nicely for the two-time Pro Bowler in Sunday’s 19-17 victory over Tampa Bay that moved the Panthers (5-8-1) percentage points (0.008) ahead of New Orleans (5-8) in the NFC South. He expects Newton to play if "he feels like he can play and go out there and win football games for us."

But you know Anderson would love a shot at his former team. After the Browns cut him after the 2009 season, he sent an email to a reporter at The (Northern Ohio) News-Herald in which he ripped the fans.

"The fans are ruthless and don’t deserve a winner," Anderson reportedly wrote. "I will never forget getting cheered when I was injured. I know at times I wasn’t great. I hope and pray I’m playing when my team comes to town and [we] roll them."

Anderson later admitted he said some things he regrets. Still, this could be his first and perhaps last opportunity to start against the Browns, who fell to 7-7 Sunday with their third straight loss and fourth in the past five games.

It all depends on Newton’s health.

"I haven’t talked to Ryan Vermillion or our trainers about what he’s doing, but it seems like he’s moving around pretty well, which was positive," Anderson said.

The good news for Carolina is they have a capable quarterback in Anderson if Newton can’t return. Anderson completed 25 of 40 pass attempts for 277 yards and a touchdown to beat the Buccaneers for the second time this season.

Newton was more than a cheerleader for his backup. He wore a headset and constantly offered advice.

"I could tell he was frustrated sometimes," Anderson said. "He would come over and say, ‘Hey, they’re doing this. They’re doing that.’ I said, ‘OK, OK, because there were some things I missed.’"

Tight end Greg Olsen, who caught 10 passes for 110 yards, said Newton offered several good ideas throughout the game.

"He made some good suggestions on things that he saw that we ended up coming back to later in the game," Olsen said. "Just his presence on the sideline, his energy, his knowledge of our offense and him standing there on the sideline watching it, [was good].

"What DA usually does, Cam had to do. Those guys have a really good relationship. That’s one reason why we’re able to have that success."

Rivera said he heard Newton talking over the radio several times about what should be happening on offense.

"A lot of things that we do are options in terms of what the quarterback reads, and Cam was engaged the whole way," he said. "It was good to see. Again, when we get rolling and we can do the things that we did last week and this week, we can be pretty formidable."

The difference in last week’s 41-10 victory over New Orleans and Sunday’s win was the running ability of Newton versus Anderson. Newton ran 12 times for 83 yards against the Saints. Ten of those were designed plays off the read-option.

Anderson ran five times for 14 yards. One, a quarterback sneak, was a designed play. The others were scrambles.

That could factor in on Rivera’s decision on which player faces the Browns. If Newton can’t tolerate the pain to be effective as a runner in the read-option, Anderson could get another start.

If Newton proves he’s ready, he will -- and should -- be the starter.

"I’m not making any decisions until I get the opportunity to watch him on the football field, listen to what the trainers and doctors have to tell me, and then will make our decision," Rivera said. "But to make any judgment right now would be premature and would be a mistake."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers have heard the rumblings, how a team from the NFC South shouldn't be allowed to host a playoff game with a losing record, how the NFL should re-seed and not reward teams playing in a poor division, how a team with a losing record perhaps shouldn't be allowed in the playoffs.

They don't care.

"I know everybody is trying to make a mockery of our records in the division," wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said after Sunday's 19-17 victory over Tampa Bay. "But we have an opportunity to make the playoffs and we're excited about it.

"We're thankful we're playing meaningful football. People can make all the jokes that they want, but at the end of the day ... we're playing meaningful football."

The Panthers at 5-8-1 are .008 ahead of the New Orleans Saints (5-8) for the division lead. If the Saints lose at Chicago on Monday night they'll have a half game lead over New Orleans and Atlanta (5-9), needing only to win their final two games against Cleveland and Atlanta to repeat as division champions.

If that happens they would become the second team to win a division with a losing record (7-8-1) and host a playoff game in a non-strike year. Seattle won the NFC West with a 7-9 record in 2010, and then beat New Orleans in a wild-card playoff game.

"It's pretty crazy," tight end Greg Olsen said after catching 10 passes for 110 yards. "But we're not going to apologize for it. If we win next week, we'll go down to Atlanta and see what happens."

It's only been for two weeks, but the Panthers appear to have found that one-game-at-a-time mindset that helped them win eight straight and 11 of their last 12 games last season.

The blinders are on. Player by player said they weren't aware that Atlanta was losing until the end of the game.

Strong safety Roman Harper didn't even want to hear where Carolina will be in the standings if New Orleans loses.

"That's the last thing I want to hear," he said. "We're going to continue to play. Don't look at anybody's schedule. Don't look at any scores. We've got to get better. Start back to Monday ... get some things corrected."

That was the attitude throughout the locker room.

"A guy asked me what are we looking forward to," defensive end Charles Johnson said. "I'm not looking forward to anything. I'm looking forward to coming in [Monday], then having a day off Tuesday and then come back and work Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and then we'll get ready for Cleveland Sunday."

In other words, no "Victory Monday" in which players are rewarded the day off following a win.

"Nah," Johnson said. "We're close to the end of the season to have any of that."

But it was hard for players to get past the reality that they really are in a playoff race with five wins.

"Pinch me, and let me see," cornerback Josh Norman said with a laugh. "We've got to get these games. They're all lining up for us."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Perhaps it was a sign things are starting to turn in favor of the Carolina Panthers.

Coach Ron Rivera had won only three of 16 career replay challenges heading into Sunday’s 19-17 victory the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He appeared set to lose another when he challenged what appeared to be an apparent incomplete pass by Josh McCown early in the fourth quarter.

Payton
Rivera
Instead, the officials reversed the call and ruled that McCown lost the ball before his arm began coming forward, and that the quarterback basically batted the ball downfield about 20 yards.

The Panthers (5-8-1) didn’t get the return for a touchdown that strong safety Roman Harper lobbied for after forcing the fumble that cornerback Bené Benwikere recovered.

But they did get the ball at the Tampa Bay 27, and it led to a 45-yard field goal that gave them what turned out to be a much-needed 19-10 cushion.

Rivera didn’t take credit for throwing the red flag that for the most part since 2011 would have gotten better use dusting furniture. That all went to “the guys upstairs.”

“They kept yelling ‘empty hand, empty hand,’" Rivera said of his assistant coaches in the booth. “So that meant one of our guys knocked it loose, and when his hand moved forward, he had nothing in there except hitting the ball with his hand, knocking it forward.”

Harper never had a doubt Carolina would win the challenge.

“I didn’t have to lobby,” he said, reminding the replay on the big screen supported his argument. “I knew what happened and I was just trying to be emphatic about picking the ball up and just make sure we take advantage of the little things, the opportunities we do have.”

The turnover occurred in large part because defensive coordinator Sean McDermott picked up the pressure with timely blitz packages in the second half.

McCown was an efficient 6-of-10 passing for 68 yards and a touchdown in the first half. He had a passer rating of 113.8.

He was 7-of-18 for 96 yards in the second half. He was sacked twice and finished with a passer rating of 60.7.

Arguably the biggest play of the game came on the third play of the second half, when defensive ends Charles Johnson and Mario Addison teamed to sack McCown, who fumbled and gave Carolina possession at the Tampa Bay 4.

Two plays later, Jerricho Cotchery caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from Derek Anderson to make it 16-10.

“We did some nice things on the defensive side,” Rivera said. “Some of the pressures Sean McDermott used in terms of coverage that [secondary coach] Steve Wilks and Sean and those guys talked about were excellent.

“We gave ourselves opportunities by playing the way we did on the defensive side.”

The pressure also led to an interception by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly with 14 seconds left and the outcome still in doubt. It continued a seven-game trend in which the defense played well.

“I finally got one,” Kuechly said of his interception. “I’ve been trying to run around and get one for a while.”

Rivera could say the same thing about challenges.
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Derek Anderson never will be mistaken for Cam Newton, but with just over four minutes left in the first quarter of Sunday's 19-17 victory over Tampa Bay, he made a Newton-like move.

Not the 8-yard scramble for a first down. Newton probably would have turned that into 18 yards -- or more.

It's what happened afterward.

Anderson got up, turned sideways toward the east end zone and pointed with his right arm and forefinger while bending his left elbow toward his helmet to signal first down.

"That was for my guy," Anderson said of Newton's signature move.

His guy is Newton, who on Tuesday was involved in an automobile accident in which the two-time Pro Bowl selection suffered two small fractures in his lower back. The injury put Anderson in the spotlight with the Panthers needing a victory to remain in the hunt for the NFC South title.

Anderson wasn't spectacular, leaving points on the field in the first half, when he was 1-for-7 in the red zone. But overall he was efficient enough -- 25-for-40 for 277 yards and a touchdown -- to get Carolina its second straight win.

That, coupled with Atlanta (5-9) losing to Pittsburgh, left the Panthers (5-8-1) in position of being in first place in the NFC South if New Orleans (5-8) loses on Monday night at Chicago.

"It wasn't perfect by any means," Anderson said.

But if Carolina were to win the division, Anderson will have played a big role. He's 2-0 against Tampa Bay, having led the Panthers to a 20-14 victory in the opener when Newton was recovering from fractured ribs.

While Newton still gives Carolina the best chance to win, the Panthers are more than capable of winning with Anderson if need be in the final two games against Cleveland (7-7) and Atlanta.

"Cam is Cam and it's never ideal to lose your starting quarterback, but to have a so-called backup who is like a starter-caliber quarterback is something a lot of teams don't have the luxury of having," tight end Greg Olsen said.

Olsen was a big reason for Anderson's success in both wins. He had a team-high 10 catches for 110 yards in this game after leading Carolina with eight catches for 83 yards and a touchdown at Tampa.

"A guy like Derek Anderson is going to lean a lot more on his tight end as opposed to his legs," coach Ron Rivera said. "With Cam on some of those, he might have pulled it down and took off running."

Sometimes that's a good thing. Sometimes it's not. For Newton's long-term future, he'll have to lean on Olsen and others.

For the short term, the Panthers are more dangerous with Newton. While read-option plays were called, Anderson never was a threat to run. That never was more evident than the second half, when the Buccaneers stacked the front to stop running back Jonathan Stewart.

After rushing for 53 yards on 10 carries in the first half, Stewart was held to 20 yards on 12 carries in the second.

"I should have kept the one in the red zone," Anderson said as he recalled one read-option.

Anderson knows he could have done more. Rivera expected him to do more.

But he did more than enough even though the Bucs made it interesting with a late touchdown run by Josh McCown. Anderson even got the official to call a roughing-the-passer penalty to negate an interception.

"The dude grabbed my face mask," he said. "I got one out of three, so that's pretty good. I had been telling the official the whole game they were doing that."

Again, Anderson isn't Newton.

Newton doesn't say "dude," and he dresses up for postgame news conferences. Anderson wore basketball shoes, jeans, a sweater and a baseball cap.

Whether Anderson is called on to face his former Cleveland team, the one he led to a 10-6 record en route to the Pro Bowl in 2007, won't be known until later in the week.

Rivera said he won't make a decision on Newton's status until he has seen him on the field throwing for a practice or two.

Meanwhile, the Panthers know they can win with Anderson. Just don't expect a lot of first-down runs and Newton-like gestures out of him.

"I don't think he wants to major in that," said wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who caught a 2-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter to give Carolina a 16-10 lead. "He's been watching Cam way too much."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Carolina Panthers' 19-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
  • Quarterback Cam Newton, who did not play after suffering two small fractures in his lower back during a Tuesday automobile accident near Bank of America Stadium, sat by himself in his locker, checking out messages on his phone while his teammates celebrated. Asked what it was like being a spectator, he said, "You're talking to that guy today." Newton was referring to his replacement, Derek Anderson, who completed 25 of 40 pass attempts for 277 yards and one touchdown for a QB rating of 91.4.
  • Anderson
    Anderson on doing Newton's trademark first-down signal with his arms after running for a first down in the first half: "That was for my guy [Newton]. Somebody told me I wouldn't do it. I said if I get a run for a first down, I'll do it."
  • Cornerback Josh Norman on whether it feels real to be in a tight playoff race with New Orleans (5-8) and Atlanta (5-9) despite having a 5-8-1 record: "I don't know. Pinch me and we'll see. We've got to get these games. They're all lining up for us."
  • Somehow Norman wound up talking about his contact lenses. That led to a conversation about defensive end Greg Hardy (aka The Kraken) and the black contact lenses he wore in games before being placed on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved. "I miss that guy," Norman said. "Me and him out there together ... If we were on the field together, somebody would have to carry us off in a straitjacket."
  • Defensive end Charles Johnson, who had three tackles behind the line of scrimmage, on his strong finish to the season: "Just maxing out, man. Finishing the season strong."
  • Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who caught Carolina's only touchdown pass, said people can make a mockery of the Panthers being in the playoff hunt if they want. "People can make all the jokes they want," he said, "but at the end of the day, we're playing meaningful games."
  • Carolina coach Ron Rivera said he won't decide whether Newton is healthy enough to play next Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns until he sees him on the field Monday and Wednesday.

Rapid Reaction: Carolina Panthers

December, 14, 2014
Dec 14
4:13
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 19-17 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium:

What it means: It wasn’t pretty thanks to familiar struggles in the red zone. But after a tumultuous week in which starting quarterback Cam Newton was in a Tuesday car crash that sidelined him for at least one game, the Panthers took care of business to remain in position to win the NFC South title. That the Atlanta Falcons lost to Pittsburgh left the Panthers (5-8-1) percentage points ahead of the Falcons (5-9). A New Orleans Saints loss at Chicago on Monday night would put Carolina alone in the division lead. The Panthers still likely need to win their final two games against Cleveland and Atlanta, and New Orleans has to lose at least one of its final three for any of this to make a difference. But with the defense playing well and the potential return of Newton next week, Carolina amazingly still has hope.

Stock watch: The Panthers can win without Newton -- as long as it's against Tampa Bay. Derek Anderson beat the Buccaneers for the second time this season. As in the opener when Newton was recovering from fractured ribs, Anderson was efficient, completing 25 of 40 pass attempts for 277 yards and one touchdown. He was lucky not to be intercepted twice in the second half. One was negated by a roughing-the-passer penalty. The other was dropped. As good as Anderson at times looked with precision passing, he struggled in the red zone. If Newton is healthy enough to return, he's still Carolina's best option.

Stock watch II: Tight end Greg Olsen continued his push to make the Pro Bowl. He caught 10 passes for 110 yards, seven for 76 in the first half. He was like Anderson’s security blanket, although a few times Anderson forced it to Olsen when he shouldn't have.

Wild card: The red zone once again was the dead zone for Carolina, which was held to two first-half field goals inside the 20. On the first attempt the Panthers had two false starts and a fumble that Anderson recovered. On the second, Anderson had three straight incompletions. Anderson was 1-for-7 passing in the red zone in the first half. He was 13-for-17 in the half outside the 20. On Carolina's first red zone trip in the second half, Jonathan Stewart lost a fumble on second-and-1 at the 3.

Game ball: The easy pick might be Anderson or Olsen, who racked up big numbers. But I'm going with defensive end Charles Johnson. He had three tackles for loss and was part of a third-quarter sack that turned into a fumble and set up the go-ahead touchdown early in the third quarter.

What’s next: The Panthers face the Cleveland Browns (7-7) at Bank of America Stadium next Sunday.

W2W4: Buccaneers at Panthers

December, 14, 2014
Dec 14
8:00
AM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Just when you thought the season couldn’t get crazier for the Carolina Panthers, quarterback Cam Newton was involved in an automobile accident that will keep him out of today’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In case you missed it, Newton’s 1998 Dodge truck rolled on Tuesday when struck by another vehicle at an intersection not far from Bank of America Stadium.

Newton escaped with two small fractures in his lower back similar to what Dallas quarterback Tony Romo had this season. Romo missed one start. Newton is out for at least one game.

That puts backup quarterback Derek Anderson back in the spotlight for the second time this season against the Bucs. He led the Panthers to a 20-14 victory at Tampa Bay in Week 1 when Newton was recovering from fractured ribs.

It’s a critical game for the Panthers (4-8-1), who basically need to win their final three games and hope New Orleans loses once to repeat as NFC South champions. They are half a game behind Atlanta (5-8) and New Orleans (5-8).

Here are three keys for the Panthers against Tampa Bay (2-11) in the 1 p.m. game at Bank of America Stadium:
  • Anderson
    Derek Anderson: For the first time in weeks, Newton isn’t in this spot. The good news for Carolina is Anderson played well in the opener against Tampa Bay, completing 24 of 34 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns. He actually ran for a first down. He will need to be just as efficient if not more today, although the Bucs have struggled to score in recent weeks. They have averaged 14.3 points in their past three games and have scored more than 17 only once in their past eight. If Anderson can manage the game and not make any mistakes, he might not have to produce a ton of points to put Carolina in position to get consecutive wins for only the second time this season.
  • Norman
    Josh Norman: The third-year cornerback didn’t take a defensive snap when the Panthers played Tampa in the opener, because the coaching staff wasn’t convinced he had exorcised all the demons that got him in trouble the past year and a half. Boy, has he proven them wrong. Norman has become Carolina’s best pass defender and a big reason the defense has turned its season around. He helped shut down Philadelphia’s Jeremy Maclin and Atlanta’s Julio Jones in consecutive weeks last month. He will probably be asked to shadow Atlanta rookie receiver Mike Evans in a similar way today. Evans has 57 catches for a team-best 935 yards and 10 touchdowns. Nobody else with the Bucs has more than two touchdown catches. Shut him down and you have basically cut off one of Tampa Bay’s legs.
  • Continuity: As much attention as Anderson will get because of the strange circumstances in which Newton was injured, this could come down to the offensive line. That the same five -- left tackle Byron Bell, left guard Andrew Norwell, center Ryan Kalil, right guard Trai Turner and right tackle Mike Remmers -- will be starting for the third consecutive game is key. They have paved the way for Carolina to rush for 449 yards the past two games. They didn’t allow a sack for the first time in six weeks and for only the second time all season last week at New Orleans. If they can keep running back Jonathan Stewart on his torrid pace (240 yards on 32 carries, 7.5 yards a carry) of the past two games and give Anderson time to throw, the Panthers might not even miss Newton.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The NFL’s decision to uphold the suspension of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson with no chance to be reinstated before April 15 sent another message that Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy won’t be reinstated anytime soon.

Peterson, who pleaded no contest in a child abuse case, had been on the commissioner's exempt list -- as Hardy is now as he awaits trial in a domestic violence case -- before being suspended. Hardy’s trial date still has not been set; it will be held sometime early in 2015.

Hardy
Hardy
Hardy is nearing the end of a one-year, $13.1 million contract, upon which the Pro Bowl defensive end will become a free agent.

Here are some options the Panthers have moving forward:

Release Hardy: This would show that the Panthers -- who have three regular-season games to play and remain in contention in the NFC South -- have truly moved on.

On the field, the Carolina defense finally has acclimated to Hardy’s absence and is starting to play well enough to win games. The Panthers are starting to stop the run, essential in their overall effectiveness of their scheme. Their last six opponents are averaging around 82 yards rushing a game, about what the average was last season when Carolina ranked second in the NFL in defense.

Young players such as ends Wes Horton, Mario Addison and Kony Ealy are starting to adjust to their expanded roles. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is starting to adjust to calling plays that don't depend on Hardy's huge presence as a pass-rusher or run-stopper.

Publicly acknowledge they won’t pursue Hardy in free agency: Asked recently whether the team would be interested in bringing Hardy back after his case is resolved, head coach Ron Rivera recently replied, "We'll see."

It’s difficult to believe, however, that Carolina would invest significant future resources on re-signing a player who would face suspension by the NFL -- and possibly jail time -- if convicted. Hardy’s trial also could potentially be pushed back again and again.

Ask the NFL to take Hardy off the exempt list and suspend him without pay, as Peterson was: That likely would lead to an appeal, but Friday’s ruling would give Carolina hope the suspension would be upheld. If Hardy were suspended before Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay, Carolina possibly could at least recoup three games of $770,000 a game – or $2,310,000.

Do nothing: The Panthers already are paying Hardy, and his contract expires when the season ends, so they could just let this play out.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera understands the “next man up’’ mantra that he’ll have once again on Sunday when Derek Anderson replaces injured quarterback Cam Newton because in 1986 he was that man.

The Chicago Bears were preparing to face the Detroit Lions. Rivera was the backup to future Hall of Fame middle linebacker Mike Singletary, who had been hurt all week.

Payton
Rivera
“Then Sunday prior to the game Mike went out and warmed up, so I didn’t think I was starting,’’ Rivera recalled on Friday. “So I was gearing up to play special teams.

“All of a sudden Coach [Mike] Ditka walked into the locker room and came up to me and said, ‘Hey, you’re starting. Don’t f--- it up.’ ’’

Rivera didn’t. He led the team in tackles with 10. He also had an assist in a 13-7 victory and wound up on the receiving end of a game ball from none other than Ditka.

The fourth-year Carolina coach expects Anderson to respond the same way in the 1 p.m. game against Tampa Bay with Newton sidelined with two small fractures in his lower back suffered in a Tuesday automobile accident.

Rivera admits he has seen more than his share of “next man up’’ situations this season. Some have turned out well. Some haven’t. Let’s take a look at a few of the significant ones:
  • Anderson replaced Newton, recovering from fractured ribs, in the opener at Tampa Bay. He completed 24 of 34 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns in the 20-14 victory.
  • With starting running back DeAngelo Williams out with an ankle injury and backup Jonathan Stewart a knee injury, Darrin Reaves started a Week 5 game against Chicago after spending the first two games on the practice squad. He had 35 yards on 11 carries.
  • Left tackle Byron Bell was inactive for a Thursday night game against New Orleans. Undrafted rookie David Foucault started. According to Pro Football Focus, Foucault allowed two sacks, a hit and five quarterback hurries. He has been inactive every game since.
  • Mike Remmers wasn’t on the roster for the first eight games. He became the starting right tackle when Nate Chandler was placed on injured reserve two games ago against Minnesota and on Sunday will make his third consecutive start. According to PFF, Remmers had a perfect grade in pass protection against the Vikings.
  • Andrew Norwell, an undrafted rookie, was inactive the first six games. He has started six straight games, the last three at left guard with Amini Silatolu out. He has played well enough that it will be hard for Silatolu to reclaim his spot when healthy.
  • Stewart replaced Williams this past Sunday at New Orleans. He rushed 20 times for 155 yards, including a 69-yard touchdown.

There are plenty of other examples as all but tight end Greg Olsen, center Ryan Kalil and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin have missed a game among the 11 offensive starters.

The defense also has undergone its share of next-man-up scenarios with end Greg Hardy going on the commissioner’s exempt list before the third game and only strong safety Roman Harper among the four starters in the secondary from Week 1.

Rivera understands. He has lived it.

“Everybody has it,’’ Rivera said. “Every locker room that I’ve been in, whether as a player or a coach, I’ve always heard that. I’ve heard, ‘Hey, he’s down. All right, next man up. Let’s go.’ ’’

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