KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Bank of America Stadium. TV: FOX, Sam Rosen, Brady Quinn, Jennifer Hale.
SERIES HISTORY: Sixth regular-season meeting. Panthers lead series, 4-1. Carolina has won two straight, both in San Diego. Sunday will be the first meeting in Charlotte since 2004.
KEYS TO THE GAME:
Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly remains in the NFL concussion protocol and will not play in Sunday's game against the San Diego Chargers.
Kuechly missed the last two games after suffering a concussion against the New Orleans Saints on Nov. 17. He was a full participant in Friday's practice for the first time since the injury and met with the medical stuff on Saturday.
Coach Ron Rivera was hopeful Friday that Kuechly would pass the final test in the protocol with an independent neurologist and be able to play.
This will be the second straight season that the Pro Bowl linebacker has missed at least three games due to a concussion. Kuechly missed three games last season after sustaining a Week 1 concussion at Jacksonville.
The Panthers (4-8) need Kuechly's service as they try to keep their playoff hopes alive. Carolina allowed 534 yards in last Sunday's 40-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks and gave up 75 points and 900 yards in the two games he missed.
Fourth-year linebacker A.J. Klein is expected to start in Kuechly's place again.
Starting strong safety Kurt Coleman and cornerback Daryl Worley have cleared the protocol and are available to play against the Chargers, the team announced Saturday.
The Panthers ruled out defensive end Charles Johnson (hamstring), linebacker/special-teams player David Mayo (concussion) and right tackle Daryl Williams.
The Panthers have struggled to run the ball for more than a month, and that may not change against San Diego's third-ranked run defense. So this one could be on the arm of Newton, who needs to take advantage of a Chargers pass defense that ranks 27th. As long as Newton's makeshift offensive line can keep him upright, there will be chunks of yards there for the taking.
For San Diego, usually reliable QB Philip Rivers has been uncharacteristically careless with the football. Every interception has a story but it's been a tale of two halves lately for the Rivers -- his interceptions are piling up in the final 30 minutes of games; he had two more last Sunday.
So, to take the pressure off Rivers, the Chargers need to lean on RB Melvin Gordon more often. Gordon had 10 carries in the second half last week, despite the Chargers having the lead for the majority of it. The Panthers are giving up nearly 108 rushing yards per game. So the game could be impacted by the turnaround in Kuechly's status. After taking part in Friday practice and being listed as questionable, Kuechly was ruled out Saturday...
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Chargers TE Antonio Gates vs. Panthers LB A. J. Klein. Kuechly was expected to return from a concussion, but was ruled out Saturday. Gates, in his 14th season, is still going strong, although maybe not as fast. The Panthers have been gashed by opposing TEs and Gates is a dangerous target for QB Philip Rivers.
--Panthers' offensive line vs. Chargers DE Joey Bosa. Carolina's O-line allowed no sacks against the Seahawks. Bosa has 5.5 sacks and seven QB hits in his first eight games. The Panthers used plenty of max protection to keep QB Cam Newton clean in Seattle and Bosa will be a handful for a banged-up line.
FRIDAY INJURY REPORT:
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
--Out: CB Brandon Flowers (concussion)
--Questionable: LB Jatavis Brown (knee), G Orlando Franklin (knee)
--Out: DE Charles Johnson (hamstring), LB David Mayo (concussion), T Daryl Williams (ankle)
--Questionable: DE Mario Addison (foot), S Kurt Coleman (concussion), LB Luke Kuechly (concussion), CB Daryl Worley (concussion). Kuechly was ruled out Saturday.
Panthers C Tyler Larsen. Undrafted out of Utah State in 2014, Larsen wasn't even on a practice squad the past two seasons. But he's turned what was likely his final chance into a season-ending audition. In his first career start, Larsen was part of a line that held the Seahawks without a sack; and, with the Panthers' top two centers on injured reserve, Larsen is set to play four more games in the middle of the line.
Chargers QB Philip Rivers has thrown two or more touchdown passes in each of the last five games, which is tied for the third-longest active streak in the league and is also tied for the second-longest streak of his career. His longest streak of multi-touchdown games was seven, set in September-October 2014.
Chargers RB Melvin Gordon, who ranks fourth in the NFL in rushing, needs eight yards to reach the 1,000-yard mark. Gordon is averaging 155 scrimmage yards per game since Week 8, the highest mark in the league.
Panthers QB Cam Newton has completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes in each of his last three games, which is a career high, or low. The last quarterback to make at least 25 attempts and complete fewer than half of them in four or more straight games was Andrew Luck in December 2012 (five straight).
Carolina WR Ted Ginn Jr. aims for a fourth consecutive game with a TD catch.
This is a sad state of affairs for two of the more dynamic QBs in the NFL. Rivers is still capable of beating any team if he stops throwing them the ball. With Keuchly out we are changing the pick here.
OUR PICK: Chargers, 32-28.