Panthers coach Ron Rivera won't allow his team to fall victim to a potential trap game Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
There's too much at stake.
The Panthers (8-3) are the NFL's hottest team, having won seven straight games to position themselves for their first playoff appearance since 2008. Yet they still trail New Orleans by a game in the NFC South. So next week's game against the Saints could help determine not only the division champion but who'll get a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs.
That's why the first thing Rivera mentioned to his players during their team meeting this week was that their focus needs to be solely on the Buccaneers.
"I do mean it when I say the most important game is Tampa Bay," said Rivera, who has gone from hot seat to potential coach of the year contender. "I mean, I know what's after Tampa, but hey, there is no `after that' if we don't take care of business right now."
The Panthers know they can't take the Bucs lightly.
Tampa Bay comes in on a three-game winning streak after starting the season 0-8. The Bucs don't resemble the team the Panthers destroyed 31-13 last month in Tampa.
Although it's too late to make a difference this year, Bucs coach Greg Schiano said he's pleased with how his team has responded after a disappointing first half of the season.
"Our players have stuck together, there's been no finger pointing," Schiano said. "It's hard when you get on that 0-5, 0-6, the pressure mounts to get that win, and I think our guys have done a good job of just sticking together. That's the best part of it."
Bucs rookie quarterback John Glennon is starting to look like the real deal with 10 touchdown passes and only two interceptions in Tampa Bay's last six games.
Still, the rookie will have his hands full this week against the Panthers, who have given up just 13.7 points per game, fewest in the NFL. Tampa Bay is 28th in the league in scoring.
On the other side of the ball, Cam Newton continues to make plays and has led the Panthers to three straight come-from-behind victories.
"There are no trap games," Newton said. "That is a stigma, a stereotype, a myth. In this league you have to always be prepared for the challenges it may bring."
Five things to watch with the Buccaneers-Panthers:
RUNNING GAME WOES: Newton has led the Panthers in rushing the last two weeks and that's surely something offensive coordinator Mike Shula wants to change. Carolina's running backs have been stagnant as opposing defenses have stacked the box and forced Newton to beat them with his arm.
HURRY IT UP: When the Panthers struggled last week and fell behind early to the Miami Dolphins, Shula turned to a no-huddle offense to help speed up the tempo. It worked. Newton looked more comfortable running that style and the Panthers beat the Dolphins on a TD pass to Greg Olsen in the final minute. Rivera said it's something the team will consider using more in the future.
IT'S RAINEY OUT THERE: With four running backs on injured reserve, the Bucs have turned to Bobby Rainey to carry the ball and he's been a pleasant surprise. The second-year back from Western Kentucky has run for 243 yards and scored four TDs in Tampa Bay's three victories.
TURNOVER CENTRAL: Turnovers are important in any game, but both defenses do a nice job of getting the ball back for their offense. Carolina has forced 24 turnovers this season, tied for second in the league. Tampa Bay, which had five takeaways last week against Detroit, has 24 on the season, tied for seventh best.
JOHNSON FACTOR: The Panthers are likely to be without defensive end Charles Johnson, who remains hobbled with a sprained knee. Johnson was leg-whipped in Carolina's Nov. 18 win over New England. Mario Addison played well in his absence last week, but it's difficult to replace a dominant defensive end like Johnson who can not only rush the passer but also play the run. Johnson has 21 sacks in his last 23 games.
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