Back from bye week, Carolina Panthers set sights on playoff spot

By The Sports Xchange  |  Nov. 20, 2017 at 7:35 PM
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers were glad to have a break in the schedule even as they hold a three-game winning streak.

Despite all the good feelings surrounding the team through 10 games, there's still a considerable amount of work to be done.

After all, they remain in second place in the NFC South, with each of their losses to NFC teams.

They'll jump back into action with a pair of road games, going to the New York Jets and then what's shaping up as a sizable showdown in New Orleans.

"We are 7-3 and that's great, but again, we are chasing New Orleans," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "We are chasing the other teams in our conference as well, so we have to stay on our game. (Now after the bye), we have to make sure we have these guys ready to roll and pick up right where we left off."

Rivera had been clear that even during the open week that the focus was on the Panthers finding ways to improve and then on the Jets, who also are coming off a bye week. Concerns about the matchup with the Saints can wait for another week.

The Panthers put together the type of rushing attack they have been coveting when they gained 294 yards on the ground against the Miami Dolphins.

That's something that needs to carry into the final stretch of the season, Rivera said.

"A breakout kind of game," Rivera said. "This is most certainly something we can build on."

The likely addition of tight end Greg Olsen back into the offense should be a positive for Carolina, though Ed Dickson has done an admirable job filling in. Of bigger concern is that the Panthers have to figure out how the loss of speedy wide receiver Curtis Samuel is going to impact the rotation among the wideouts. Samuel's presence was a big factor in the decision to send wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo at the trade deadline.

Of the six remaining games for Carolina, half are at home. The Panthers also have one game remaining against each of the other three NFC South teams along with Minnesota and Green Bay -- both teams that might be vying for playoff spots or postseason positioning.

But the Panthers have reached a point where they seem confident that they're in a good spot.

"We just want to keep it going," quarterback Cam Newton said. "There's nothing saying we haven't hit our pinnacle yet and there's nothing saying we can't get better. That's what we have to be optimistic about."

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Center Ryan Kalil has said he wants to be back in action for Sunday's game against the New York Jets. He has been bothered by a neck ailment since September.

Kalil came back briefly for one game but ended back on the sideline and a timetable for his return has been difficult to decipher.

"It feels the best it has felt the whole season," Kalil said.

But head coach Ron Rivera understandably took a more cautious tone, though he said seeing Kalil in a regular practice situation was a big step Monday.

"It was encouraging to see him out there," Rivera said.

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Tight end Greg Olsen spent his final weekend before being eligible to return from a foot injury as part of the FOX broadcast team for the Los Angeles Rams-Minnesota Vikings game. That came during Carolina's bye weekend.

It also created all sorts fodder for light-hearted comments upon Olsen's return because the Vikings expressed concerns about Olsen's presence.

Carolina plays host to Minnesota on Dec. 10.

"Without a doubt, we got a whole file," head coach Ron Rivera joked about Olsen's weekend venture.

Olsen said controversy stemming from what was meant to provide a different view of the game was disappointing, though not all that surprising in today's climate of paranoia.

"I never imagined that this would become an issue," Olsen said. "We're not getting anything that's giving much insight on how to beat them."

NOTES: TE Greg Olsen is back at practice. He's eligible to be activated this week after suffering a broken foot a couple of months ago. ... C Tyler Larsen, who has played the majority of the season with C Ryan Kalil injured, didn't participate in Monday's workout. He suffered a foot injury in the Miami game. ... WR Damiere Byrd has returned to practice. If he's ready to go in a couple of weeks when he can come off injured reserve, it could ease concerns about the depleted receiving corps.

REPORT CARD AFTER 10 GAMES

--PASSING OFFENSE: B -- This area has been wavering, but mostly because of the changing cast at wide receiver. QB Cam Newton has clearly been on the rise. Newton had an ordinary start to the season as he came off shoulder surgery, but he has picked up the pace even with favorite target TE Greg Olsen out with an injury. The bonus has been the consistency from a receiving standpoint of RB Christian McCaffrey. The offensive line, given some of the injuries there, has held up relatively well with pass protection.

--RUSHING OFFENSE: C-plus -- The last few weeks have been stronger with several notable numbers, but that can't camouflage what took place across the first half of the season when there were some downright dismal numbers. The Panthers have to be encouraged by RB Jonathan Stewart's outing in the most recent game when he gained a season-best 110 yards on the ground. That helped the Panthers to 294 rushing yards against Miami for the second-biggest mark in team history. For the most part, QB Cam Newton is the most reliable ball-carrier. There's still a chance that rookie RB Christian McCaffrey can get loose on the ground on a regular basis, but he seems mostly stalled in this area.

--PASS DEFENSE: B -- The Panthers have been solid here, aided often by a fierce pass rush that can make opposing quarterbacks uneasy. The second-year cornerbacks are still vulnerable at times and the secondary has just two interceptions (with LB Luke Kuechly owning the others). Given the amount of time the Panthers have led games, it seems the defensive backfield has held up against some comeback attempts.

--RUSH DEFENSE: A-minus -- The Panthers are tough along the line of scrimmage and that has enabled them to keep opponents stymied on the ground. It stands to reason that some opponents have needed to put the ball in the air more often because they've trailed Carolina. Plus, teams seem anxious to test the Carolina secondary, so that has helped the Panthers contain some of the rushing attacks.

--SPECIAL TEAMS: A-minus -- The Panthers should be thrilled with how this has worked out. K Graham Gano has missed only one field goal, so the decision to keep him looks good. P Michael Palardy has been a bonus. The Panthers could use something big to happen on returns, and there have been some personnel changes there. On the plus side, there haven't been glaring glitches with coverages on special teams.

--COACHING: B-plus -- The Panthers are 7-3 after missing the playoffs a year ago. If not for the home loss to New Orleans, the Panthers would be in first place in the NFC South and they still could end up there. The offense has been stagnant at times, but recent sparks have given them hope even with changing personnel. The defense rates as No. 1 in the NFL and there's a mix of veterans and younger players that so far has been properly blended.

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