NFC South: Carolina Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There's no question Cam Newton will start in the Carolina Panthers' Sept. 7 opener at Tampa Bay, but uncertainty lingers over who will protect him.

Most of Carolina's 22 starters are set, but Thursday night's exhibition finale will have a big impact on who protects the ailing quarterback (fractured ribs) on the right side of the line.

Rookie right guard Trai Turner (groin) is out for the second straight game, and Chris Scott has played well enough to be considered the Week 1 starter.

Scott started eight games last season, all but one at right guard, before a knee injury forced him to miss time. His biggest issue since returning for offseason workouts has been conditioning. He's got that under control and has impressed the coaches.

"Chris has worked himself into position and we'll see how it goes," coach Ron Rivera said.

Nate Chandler began training camp in a heated battle with Byron Bell for the left tackle job. When Bell secured that spot after the Aug. 17 preseason win over Kansas City, Chandler settled in at right tackle.

However, Chandler's lingering knee injury and inconsistency as a pass blocker have opened the door for veteran Garry Williams. Chandler will start against Pittsburgh, but as Rivera reminded this is a big game for him to prove he's earned the job.

Other positions up for grab are strong side linebacker and nickel back. Veteran Chase Blackburn is the returning starter on the strong side, and he missed last week's game with a back injury. He's been pushed by A.J. Klein.

Charles Godfrey entered training camp as the leading candidate to be the nickel back, but rookie Bene' Benwikere has played well enough that both will play there at times until one earns it outright.

"There are three to six positions up for grabs," said Rivera, without being specific.

Rivera said the starters will play through the first quarter against Pittsburgh. Defensive end Charles Johnson (hamstring) will not make the trip, but end Greg Hardy (shoulder) will suit up and be evaluated before game time.

Both are expected to be ready for the opener.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Let's make one thing clear, third-string quarterback Joe Webb didn't completely back into or luck into a spot on the Carolina Panthers roster.

He earned it.

[+] EnlargeAlan Branch
AP Photo/Mike McCarn"I wish Cam all the best and to get well soon," Joe Webb said. "In the meantime, I'm going to do my best to fill the void."
Sure, the fractured rib of starting quarterback Cam Newton makes keeping three quarterbacks a necessity instead of a luxury. Newton won't begin seriously throwing again until Saturday, and by then the Panthers must have their 53-man roster set.

Even though coach Ron Rivera repeatedly has said he's confident Newton will be ready for the Sept. 7 opener at Tampa Bay, he can't risk cutting Webb and then finding out his franchise quarterback can't play.

That would leave Carolina with backup Derek Anderson and searching the trash pile for a backup. They can't depend on Webb being available as well as he's played during the preseason, completing 21 of 35 pass attempts for 271 yards and two touchdowns.

He's also rushed four times for 30 yard.

That's why this post began with Webb didn't back into a roster spot. The Panthers began talking about keeping the former University of Alabama at Birmingham star after the second preseason game.

Rivera reiterated that after Tuesday's practice when the conversation turned to how Newton's injury opened up a spot for Webb.

"It's a tough position to be in, because obviously we are going to have to let a good player go to keep the extra quarterback," Rivera said. "Because of our situation, we need to. This is a necessity move.

"But at the same time, Joe's earned that. He earned his right to be on this football team right now."

Carolina coaches talked to several of Webb's former coaches before signing him to imitate what Newton does with the read option after Newton underwent ankle surgery in March.

"They thought what we do would be a good fit for what his skill set was," Rivera said. "A lot of people thought doing some of the stuff we do with Cam would fit with him.

"They're right. Those things do fit Joe very nicely. I like who Joe is. He's a hard-working, very conscientious young man who wants to do well."

Webb spent his first three seasons with the Minnesota Vikings after being selected in the sixth round of the 2010 draft. He played quarterback for the first two, starting a playoff game in 2012.

He was moved to wide receiver in 2013, catching five passes for 2013 yards. There was a time when he thought he'd never play quarterback again. Now he's getting a chance to do that at Carolina, and possibly setting the stage for a future there with another team.

"I know I'm not only performing for the Carolina Panthers, but for 31 other teams out there," Webb said. "Pretty much your game film is your résumé and you want to put your best performance on it.

"I would never want to wish for somebody to get hurt for my benefit. It was an unfortunate situation. It's just a blessing for me to come in and show my talents to the coaching staff. I wish Cam all the best and to get well soon. In the meantime, I'm going to do my best to fill the void."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Charles Godfrey's value went up when Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton fractured his ribs.

Even though Newton is expected to start in the Sept. 7 opener at Tampa Bay, the Panthers appear set on keeping three quarterbacks on their final 53-man roster.

That means somebody at another position has to go. In this case, that means a defensive back, which is why Godfrey was back working at strong safety on Tuesday after spending all of the preseason at cornerback.

Because Godfrey can play cornerback, nickel and both safety positions, Carolina can juggle the defensive back numbers to keep one less player -- most likely a safety.

"When you've got a guy that can play all three positions, you might as well keep him up on everything," Godfrey said. "You never know what will happen."

Godfrey was a starting safety for his first six years with the Panthers before suffering a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 2 against Buffalo last September.

Because of his high salary-cap figure and the uncertainty of his return to full strength, the Panthers moved him to cornerback and renegotiated his contract to save more than $4 million in cap space.

But with the Panthers planning to keep Newton, Derek Anderson and Joe Webb at quarterback and the injuries at strong safety -- starter Roman Harper just returned from turf toe, backup Robert Lester is out with an ankle injury and rookie Tre Boston has been slowed by a sports hernia -- it was time to reintroduce Godfrey to safety.

He will take reps there in Thursday night's exhibition finale at Pittsburgh as well.

"That adds value to who Charles is," coach Ron Rivera said. "He can play corner, he can play nickel. Because of the slow progression of Tre, knowing that [Godfrey] is one of our guys that makes the 53, what are we going to do if we get that situation? That's why we did what we did.

"That's out of necessity. If we were to keep five safeties and those guys aren't up, that only gives us three. Knowing that Charles has that ability, we wanted to get a couple reps with him this week just to make sure on that."

Godfrey will continue to work at corner, primarily as a nickel with the top three every down corners spots belonging to Antoine Cason, Melvin White and Josh Norman.

Rivera made it clear the move to safety was not permanent.

"We've put a lot on his plate, but he seems to be handling it very nicely," he said.

Godfrey said the return to safety wasn't difficult and he likes the challenge of playing different positions.

"Like I said before we went to camp, I can play pretty much any position right there," he said. "Just keeps me polished up on things. I did a great job at corner. I'm still corner, still nickel. Just keeping me polished up on safety."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera is confident quarterback Cam Newton will start in the Sept. 7 opener at Tampa Bay.

Newton suffered a hairline fracture in his rib during Friday night's 30-7 preseason loss at New England. He will not play in Thursday night's exhibition finale at Pittsburgh.

But judging by the way Newton moved around on Tuesday, Rivera was encouraged.

"I saw him throw a couple of balls, I saw him catch a couple of balls, I saw him bend over and pick up [a couple of balls], so I imagine it is lessening," Rivera said of Newton's pain.

"This is exactly what the doctor told us. It's just a matter of time. Get the stiffness out, the soreness out, and he'll be all right."

Among the quarterbacks who have played with fractured ribs are Dallas' Tony Romo, New England's Tom Brady and Michael Vick of the New York Jets.

While Newton has been held out of practice this week, he has been on the field going through the mental reps with players and coaches.

Asked if he had no doubt Newton would be ready for the Buccaneers, Rivera said, "I'm pretty confident. The true evaluation will come in about a week, so we'll probably be looking at this Saturday for where he is and how he is."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Baby watch is almost over.

Barring an unexpected delay, the Carolina Panthers will have two quarterbacks available for Thursday night's preseason finale at Pittsburgh.

Backup Derek Anderson said before Tuesday's practice that his wife, if she doesn't give birth naturally before, is scheduled to be induced later in the day. If all goes well, Anderson will be in Pittsburgh in time to start for the injured Cam Newton, who is out with a hairline fracture to a rib.

"Tonight's the magic night," Anderson said.

With fourth-stringer Matt Blanchard placed on injured reserve after suffering a concussion in Friday night's loss at New England, the Panthers were down to two healthy quarterbacks in Anderson and Joe Webb.

Until Anderson knew for sure his wife would be induced, the Panthers were prepping a couple of non-quarterbacks for an emergency situation in case Anderson didn't make the trip and Webb was injured.

Meanwhile, Newton continues to work with trainer Ryan Vermillion as part of his rehab from the rib injury that occurred in the second quarter against New England.

While he still looks stiff at times, Newton is beginning to make more moves with his upper body without signs of pain. At one point while observing a quarterback drill, he reached up slightly behind his body to effortlessly snag a throw with his right hand.

There is no indication Newton won't start in the Sept. 7 opener at Tampa Bay. While he isn't practicing, he was a part of preparing for the Bucs on Sunday and Monday.

"He's with the coordinator, he's with the quarterback coach and they're talking about what we're looking at and why we're looking at it," coach Ron Rivera said on Monday. "So Cam's getting a feel for Tampa Bay right now."
Most significant move: Carolina thought so much of wide receiver Tiquan Underwood in free agency that it gave him a two-year deal that included a $300,000 signing bonus. The hope was he would replace Ted Ginn Jr. as the speed receiver and possibly double as a return specialist. It never happened. Underwood continued to show the inconsistencies as a receiver that have plagued him throughout his career. For every good catch he made in practice, he had at least one drop, and he was cut for the ninth time in his career.

Wild card: Wide receiver Marvin McNutt was mentioned as a young player the Panthers wanted to get a good look at when they released Steve Smith in March. He never was a factor in being among the top six. Kealoha Pilares was listed as the No. 1 kickoff returner halfway through training camp in Spartanburg, but he never did anything as a receiver to justify wasting a spot on the roster.

What's next: You'd think the Panthers would scour the waiver wires looking for a return specialist who also can play wide receiver. Not so quick. Coach Ron Rivera says he likes undrafted rookie Philly Brown as a returner and sees potential in the former Ohio State star as a receiver. Brown has the speed the Panthers were looking for in Underwood, and he'll cost a lot less. That being said, I still wouldn't be surprised to see the Panthers take a shot at somebody when final cuts are made.

Panthers moves: Released -- WR Tiquan Underwood, WR Toney Clemons, P Jordan Gay, DT Linden Gaydosh, DE Alex Hall, T Oscar Johnson, WR Marvin McNutt, LB Anthony Morales, WR Kealoha Pilares, DE Craig Roh. PUP -- WR De'Andre Presley. IR -- QB Matt Blanchard, TE D.C. Jefferson, C Kevin Matthews.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers finally will get a look at their restructured secondary that was a big question mark entering the preseason in Thursday night's preseason finale at Pittsburgh.

Strong safety Roman Harper returned to practice this week for the first time since suffering turf toe after stepping on the foot of tight end Greg Olsen during an Aug. 1 practice in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

The two-time Pro Bowler with New Orleans was signed to a two-year, $4.5 million deal to bring stability to a secondary that lost three of four starters -- two in free agency.

[+] EnlargeRoman Harper
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsStrong safety Roman Harper is eager to suit up for the Panthers following his preseason absence dealing with a turf toe injury.
"I definitely think I can help with a sense of attitude, with a sense of leadership," Harper said. "At times we can be better at open-field tackling, doing some different concepts and just kind of understanding our fit."

Coach Ron Rivera has been emphatic that Harper's absence in practice and the first three preseason games wasn't an issue even though the defense has given up some big pass plays. He's reminded that Quintin Mikell started last season's opener at strong safety after signing a week earlier.

He also could have reminded that free safety Mike Mitchell, who went to Pittsburgh in free agency, didn't become a starter until after the secondary was decimated by injuries in Week 2.

But Rivera is glad Harper is back.

"Roman does have a veteran quality to himself," he said. "We're excited to have him around. What is missing is that veteran leadership presence."

Harper is glad he's returning before playing his first regular-season game -- Sept. 7 at Tampa Bay -- as a Panther.

"Not even so much [for getting ready for] Tampa Bay, but more so for myself," he said. "I've got to get back out here and get into shape. I've tried to get in shape as best as I can, but there's nothing like football shape."

Harper won't discuss whether the toe is completely healed, reminding he doesn't discuss injuries. But he admitted being a spectator for more than three weeks with a new team hasn't been easy.

"You come in with a sense of wanting to fit in and do the different things and show your work," Harper said. "When you get injured, that kind of sets you back. Training camp is a time where guys work on things and physically come together as a team.

"For me being gone, I was here but not really out there playing with the guys and going through the wars. It was kind of difficult."

With Harper, Carolina's secondary is set. Thomas DeCoud, a free agent from Atlanta, will start at free safety. Antoine Cason, a free agent from Arizona, will start at one cornerback and returning starter Melvin White will be on the other side.

Harper's return means either Anderson Russell or Robert Lester likely will become expendable when the team shrinks its roster to 53 players. Russell has started the past two preseason games over Lester, who missed the past two practices with an ankle injury.

The big question now is will the new secondary be as solid as the one last season that helped Carolina rank second in the NFL in total defense?

"Communication has been fine," Harper said. "Guys are getting lined up. We've got to get to the huddle calls a little bit faster. But overall, if you look at it on tape, the defense has not played bad."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Suppose for the sake of argument that quarterback Cam Newton can't start in the Carolina Panthers' Sept. 7 opener at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Suppose for the sake of argument his rib injury is worse than expected even though there's no indication it is.

Can the team win with backup Derek Anderson?

Anderson says yes, which you would expect because that's what he's paid to do.

Coach Ron Rivera says yes, noting Anderson is as good now as he was during his 2007 Pro Bowl season when he threw for 3,787 yards and 29 touchdowns in 15 starts for the Cleveland Browns.

"He really is,'' Rivera said on Monday. "He is as sharp now.''

Rivera wasn't supposing. He believes the hairline rib fracture Newton suffered in Friday night's 30-7 loss at the New England Patriots won't keep the two-time Pro Bowler out of the opener. He's game planning as though Newton will play.

But Anderson looked sharp through much of the preseason and even the offseason. He's completed 14 of 22 pass attempts for 234 yards and two touchdowns with one interception in three preseason games for a healthy quarterback rating of 110.8.

The 10th-year pro has spent more time throwing to Newton's new group of wide receivers than Newton, taking almost all of the first-team reps during offseason workouts while the first pick of the 2011 draft recovered from ankle surgery.

He started the preseason opener against Buffalo when Newton wasn't cleared to start.

Heck, if Anderson was in Cleveland now he might get the start over Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel.

Rivera has so much confidence in the 31-year-old Anderson that he insists there's not a separate game plan for him and Newton, although Anderson doesn't run the read-option.

There is a different game plan for the two this week, though. Newton will not play in Thursday night's exhibition finale against Pittsburgh and Anderson is on baby watch.

Anderson's first child was due on Saturday, and there's a chance he could miss the game to be there for the birth. If that happens, third-stringer Joe Webb would be the only quarterback available.

Fourth-stringer Matt Blanchard is out with a concussion.

But Anderson wants to play and be there for the birth of his child. Just because he's been Newton's backup the past three seasons, playing in only six games and throwing only four passes, doesn't mean he's lost his competitive edge.

He also believes he still can win despite going 8-17 as a starter from 2008 to 2010 with Cleveland and Arizona.

"That's why I'm here, when I'm called upon to come in and play well and win a football game when I'm needed,'' Anderson said.

Rivera said Anderson has taken the baby watch like he has everything else, "and that's in stride.''

You have to take things in stride to be a good backup.

That doesn't mean there aren't nerves -- at least about the baby watch. Anderson keeps his cell phone with him in team meetings -- special permission -- and his wife has trainer Ryan Vermillion's number in case something happens during practice.

You could tell Anderson was anxious to get home Monday and find out what the doctor said during his wife's afternoon appointment while he was on the field.

But as far as preparing as if he were going to be the starter in the opener, nothing's changed.

And Anderson doesn't suppose.

"The same preparation I've gone through every year for 10 years, Week 1,'' Anderson said. "Get ready to play, study my opponent, know their tendencies. If I've got to go, I've got to go and win a football game.''

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers are planning for their Sept. 7 opener at Tampa Bay as if quarterback Cam Newton will start.

Newton suffered a hairline fracture in a rib during the second quarter of Friday night's exhibition loss at New England. He will not play in Thursday night's preseason finale at Pittsburgh, but he is attending every meeting and watching every snap at practice.

While Newton is not physically involved, he has been mentally since the team began putting the Tampa Bay game plan in on Sunday.

"Very, very," coach Ron Rivera said on Monday. "He's with the coordinator, he's with the quarterback coach and they're talking about what we're looking at and why we're looking at it.

"So Cam's getting a feel for Tampa Bay right now."

Rivera said he hasn't gotten an update on how much Newton's condition has improved in the last 24 hours, but the first pick of the 2011 draft did seem less stiff when walking.

As Newton left the practice field, rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin playfully nudged him in the shoulder a couple of times. Newton responded by raising his arms and playfully shoving Benjamin back.

Rivera said treatment hasn't gotten in the way of Newton being a part of all planning involving the Bucs.

"We're working around him," said Rivera, who closed practices to the media when preparing for the Bucs began. "We're focusing him on Tampa in terms of our preparation."

Rivera said there aren't two different game plans in case Newton can't play against Tampa Bay and backup Derek Anderson has to start.

"We're putting a regular game plan together," he said. "The big thing is everything we put in our game plan Derek is able to do. We don't have two separate sheets. We have one plan."

But Rivera is having to make adjustments for what little game plan there will be for Pittsburgh. With Anderson's wife expecting their first child at any time and fourth-string quarterback Matt Blanchard out with a concussion, there's a chance third-stringer Joe Webb is the only quarterback.

As a precaution, Rivera said a couple of non-quarterbacks are being prepped to play quarterback if Anderson is with his wife and Webb gets hurt. He would not identify them.

Otherwise, Rivera said the plan is to play the healthy starters for about a quarter.

Starters not expected to play against Pittsburgh include Newton, right guard Trai Turner (groin), defensive ends Greg Hardy (shoulder) and Charles Johnson (hamstring).

A decision has not been made on tight end Greg Olsen, whose son successfully underwent open heart surgery on Monday.

All are expected to be ready for Tampa Bay.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen is taking some time off from practice to deal with a personal matter.

Olsen's son, T.J., was scheduled to undergo open heart surgery on Monday for the third time after being born in 2012 with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Olsen was scheduled to be away from the team "until things kind of settle down'' to be with his family.

Here's what he wrote on Twitter:

The team showed its support of Olsen, huddling to pray for his son and family after Sunday's practice. "Any time you're dealing with open heart surgery on a child, it's pretty delicate and scary in itself," Olsen told reporters. "We're unfortunately getting used to this. It's the hand he was dealt, it's the hand we were dealt, and we'll take it on like we have the last two and just hope for as fast a recovery as he can.''

As for the Carolina offense, Olsen believes it will recover from Friday night's 30-7 exhibition loss in which quarterback Cam Newton suffered a hairline fracture to a rib in the second quarter. Newton will miss Thursday night's exhibition finale against Pittsburgh and his status for the Sept. 7 opener at Tampa Bay remains unclear.

Olsen isn't worried his time away will be an issue. He said many of the problems that limited Carolina to 94 yards and no points in the first half when the starters -- minus a few injured players -- played the entire way were addressed on Sunday.

"The world's not coming to an end,'' said Olsen, who led Carolina in receptions last season with 73. "That's the biggest thing, we need to understand that game doesn't matter. It's going to have zero impact on the Tampa game. That's where all of our efforts are towards.''
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera is correct to be optimistic about having Cam Newton available for Week 1, but that doesn't mean the quarterback won't be affected by his rib injury.

Newton suffered a hairline rib fracture in the second quarter of Friday night's 30-7 preseason loss at New England when linebacker Jamie Collins stepped on his back at the end of a 7-yard scramble.

Newton will not play in Thursday's preseason finale at Pittsburgh, but Rivera is hopeful the first pick of the 2011 draft will be ready for the Sept. 7 opener at Tampa Bay.

ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell had this to say: "Rib injuries make it painful to move in any direction, twist, turn, reach, even take a deep breath. Even if pain gets manageable by Week 1, it could still hurt to throw hard [twisting rib cage, tug of abdominal muscles], run hard [the impact as well as breathing].

"If running and throwing aren't painful, it's still possible contact could aggravate. Much will be determined based on how he responds over next handful of days."

If you need an example of a quarterback who has played through the pain, look no further than Dallas' Tony Romo. He suffered a fractured rib and punctured lung against San Francisco in Week 2 of the 2011 season.

He played the following week against Washington and led the Cowboys to an 18-16 Monday night victory, completing 22 of 36 pass attempts for 255 yards.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's time for Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton to learn how to slide.

If that means hiring a base-running coach from Charlotte's Triple-A baseball team or holding daily practice sessions on a slip-n-side at Bank of America Stadium, the first pick of the 2011 draft needs to put his ego aside and be smart.

Newton didn't slide in Friday night's exhibition loss at New England and he's now questionable for the Sept. 7 opener at Tampa Bay with a hairline fracture to a rib.

Had he gone to the ground feet first instead of diving at the end of a 7-yard scramble in the second quarter of a meaningless game, Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins wouldn't have stepped on his back and coach Ron Rivera wouldn't be making alternative plans for Thursday's exhibition finale.

And maybe longer.

"Very frustrating," Rivera said on Sunday when breaking the news of his quarterback's injury. "The unfortunate part is he had a chance to make a play on it. He chose to tuck it and run. One thing he's going to have to learn is either dump it or learn how to slide."

This isn't the first time Rivera has said this.

It likely won't be the last.

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports"One thing he's going to have to learn is either dump it or learn how to slide," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of Cam Newton.
Newton revels in the bravado of getting everything out of a play he can. At 6-foot-5 and 245-pounds, he is physically more imposing than most of the players he takes on.

He was at least equal in stature to Collins, who is 6-3, 250.

"I'm not a sliding type of guy," Newton said last Thursday when asked if he needs to slide more, at the time addressing whether to protect his surgically repaired left ankle. "I get down the best way I know how. I really wasn't good at baseball."

He won't be good at football if he doesn't do a better job of protecting himself. The best way to do that is slide, because the defender has to lay off.

Dive, and defensive players' eyes get big and they start to drool.

It's open season on quarterbacks.

"A lot of concerns," Rivera said. "Every time he runs there are concerns. ... He's competitive by nature. Competitive people, who are truly competitive, always try to do the hard thing. Cam will never try to do the easy thing, and that's to side that way."

This wasn't Rivera on Sunday. This was Rivera after a Thursday night game against Tampa Bay last season when Newton dove awkwardly forward several times for extra yards.

"We've tried everything with him," Rivera said after that game. "He knows that if he slides the ball reverts to where he first touches the ground, but if he goes forward it's [progress] until he stops. Again, it's his competitive nature."

But Newton can't compete when he's not on the field. The hairline fracture will keep him out of Thursday night's exhibition finale against Pittsburgh in which Rivera had hoped his quarterback could fine tune the timing with his new receivers.

Because he didn't slide, Newton loses that and another week of practice with Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant. Because he didn't slide, his throwing motion could be impacted in the opener if he plays.

Because he didn't slide, he may not be able to play.

It has left Rivera feeling the same frustration that Washington coach Jay Gruden had on Monday night after quarterback Robert Griffin III kept taking big hits against Cleveland.

This time for Newton it's a fractured rib. The next time it could be a concussion.

There's no doubt the Panthers are better offensively when Newton runs. He has more rushing yards (2,032) and rushing touchdowns (28) than any quarterback in the NFL the past three seasons.

There's also no doubt the Panthers are better when Newton is on the field.

He will be a lot less if he doesn't learn to slide.
Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy was asked to find a positive after Friday night's 30-7 exhibition loss at the New England Patriots.

"That it is a preseason game," he said.

The 2013 Pro Bowl selection then was asked about the team's performance.

"It should have been better," he said. "I can’t answer [why it wasn’t], but I know we have work to do. It was embarrassing and that is not what we are about.”

Hardy was right on both counts. It was a preseason game, so it's not time to push the panic button. It also was an embarrassment for a team that obviously still has many questions remaining two weeks before the start of the regular season.

Coach Ron Rivers used the word consistent -- or a form of it -- 10 times in answering his first three questions. He used the word disappointment another three times.

"We were not consistent and we expect to be a playoff team and we need to be consistent," Rivera said.

The Panthers didn't look like a playoff team. They didn't protect their franchise quarterback, Cam Newton, who was sacked three times in the first half and at one point left the game with what has been called a back contusion.

The defense that led the league in sacks (60) last season didn't lay a hand on Tom Brady or any of the other New England quarterbacks. Brady completed 17 of 21 pass attempts for 204 yards and a rating of 138.9. The best you can do is 158.3.

X-rays on Newton's back proved negative, but the last thing the quarterback recovering from offseason ankle surgery needed was another ailment. Newton apparently was so disappointed that he dressed quickly (he never does that) and got on the bus without doing interviews (he seldom does that, either).

The performance was so bad that Rivera, who traditionally sits most of his starters in the last exhibition, already has said Newton and others will play on Thursday night at Pittsburgh.

"You know, to me it is very evident that we’ve got to get them out there," he said.

As bad as it looked, there were a few positives. Let's take a look:
  • The first team defense with NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly on the field looked solid. In its first three series, New England had only 41 yard on 15 plays. Kuechly sat the rest of the game, proving just how valuable he is.
  • Left tackle Byron Bell actually had a teammate take the blame for one of the two sacks he surrendered to defensive end Chandler Jones. On the first one, Bell was doing a nice job until running back DeAngelo Williams threw a chip block that freed Jones to get inside for the sack. As the game went on, Bell got into a rhythm and did a nice job. "I felt like I learned a lesson today," Bell said. "I can’t come out slow, I’ve got to come out fast, come out on fire. We’ve got to come out fast and come out swinging early. I feel like if we do that we’ll be fine." Bell said Williams apologized on the sideline afterwards.
  • Rookie cornerback Bene' Benwikere looked solid as he got the start at nickel back over Charles Godfrey. The Panthers are giving Godfrey every chance to win the job, mainly because they like his leadership. It will be interesting how this plays out.
  • Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin showed why he's a legit No. 1 receiver, catching five passes for 47 yards. New England's Jones paid him a nice compliment when asked about having to cover the 6-foot-5, 240-pound receiver.
  • "Kelvin Benjamin, he’s a legit player," Jones said. "I’ve watched him in college and I saw a few glimpses of him tonight. He’s a tremendous player."
  • Running back Jonathan Stewart continued to show he'll be a big part of the offense if he stays healthy, which he hasn't been the past three years. He again showed the burst and strength that once was his trademark, gaining 20 yards on a short pass from Newton.
  • Otherwise, as Hardy said, the Panthers have work to do.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The New England Patriots are on a run of 13 consecutive winning seasons and 11 straight in which they've won at least 10 games. They have finished first in the AFC East the past five seasons and in 10 of the last 11.

They have won three Super Bowls and been to six between 2001 and the present.

The Carolina Panthers haven't had consecutive winning seasons since they began playing in 1995.

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports"We're on the cusp, and this year will tell a lot for the direction we are headed," coach Ron Rivera.
And yet fourth-year coach Ron Rivera believes they are on the doorstep of becoming what the Patriots are.

"We could be a year away," Rivera said as the Panthers prepared for Friday's preseason game at New England. "If we can come back, have a good year, do some things that haven't been done before, we can set ourselves up as we continue to move forward with a group of young men.

"We're on the cusp, and this year will tell a lot for the direction we are headed."

He's right in that this season will say a lot in regards to where the Panthers are heading. Quarterback Cam Newton isn't Tom Brady, but he is a player a team can build around as New England has with the nine-time Pro Bowl selection.

Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, gives Carolina a strong nucleus on the other side of the ball.

There is a foundation.

But the Panthers are far from being in New England's stratosphere. So is every other team in the NFL, for that matter.

That's why the Patriots are the measuring stick for most of the league. They certainly are for Rivera.

"You think about coach [Bill] Belichick and Tom Brady and their consistency," Rivera said. "I've always used them as a measuring stick and I've always compared to what we want to do to defensively to what they do offensively.

"Now as a team, you want to compare the whole team."

The Patriots were a big measuring stick for the Panthers last season. A 24-20 victory over New England on "Monday Night Football" following a win at San Francisco showed Carolina was a playoff contender.

It showed that Newton was a bona fide rising star after he successfully directed the game-winning touchdown drive in the final minutes against a Super Bowl-caliber team.

"It sent a great message to the rest of the team, we are most certainly relevant because we beat one of the elite teams,'' Rivera said.

New England also was a measuring stick for Carolina in the 2003 season when they met in the Super Bowl. The Patriots won 32-29 on a last-second field goal, giving the Carolina organization hope it was close to championship form.

It didn't happen. The Panthers went 7-9 the following season while New England went on to a second straight Super Bowl victory.

Tonight's third exhibition game won't have the ramifications of a Super Bowl, but it again will be a measuring stick. The Patriots are among the favorites to win another title. The Panthers are predicted to take a hard fall from last season's 12-4 record.

So while it is starters versus starters for the first half, despite little game-planning by either side, it will give Rivera a hint of where the Panthers are in terms of sustaining success.

It will be another opportunity for Newton to prove he can win with a new group of wide receivers just as Brady has. It will be another opportunity for the defense, ranked second in the league a year ago, to prove it remains championship caliber.

It may just be an exhibition game, but because it's New England it will hold a little more significance than others.

"What I mean by a year away, this year will tell,'' Rivera said as he continued to explain why he believes the Panthers are close to becoming a New England-type team. "If we go out and do the things we're capable of, play to our abilities and do some things that haven't been done before in this division and for this team, then I think we're where we want to be.''
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There's not enough time in the week for Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton to fulfill all the requests he gets to visit people in the hospital.

But in the case of Jaylend Ratliffe, he made an exception.

Ratliffe, a senior quarterback at Laurinburg (N.C.) Scotland High School, recently had brain surgery after suffering a fractured skull in a July 30 ATV accident.

Newton visited the player, who has committed to Georgia Tech, on Tuesday.

"I didn't know what to expect walking into the room,'' Newton said following Thursday's practice. "And whether he knows it or not, his day brightened my day with me seeing him and seeing his attitude.''

Ratliffe's football future is uncertain, although Georgia Tech announced it plans to honor the scholarship commitment. He was put into a medically induced coma to reduce swelling in the brain and was on a ventilator for a week.

"For him to have gone through everything he has gone through, my talk to him was if you can make it through this, the sky's the limit,'' Newton said. "He's motivated me to not complain, not to bicker, not to take anything for granted. But accept each and every day and make the most of it.''

Newton spent about an hour with Ratliffe. Scotland coach Richard Bailey told the Atlanta Journal Constitution the visit "really seemed to bolster his spirits.''

Newton did this while preparing for Friday night's exhibition game at New England and continuing twice-a-day treatment on his left ankle that was surgically repaired in March.

"It's not the first time,'' Carolina coach Ron Rivera said of Newton taking time out of his hectic schedule for such a visit. "It's funny, because a lot of people reach out to him for things like that. When he has the time, when he's available, he'll do it. It's true for a lot of our guys and it's true for a lot of guys in the league.''