Heading into their most important stretch of games in five years, the Carolina Panthers are as healthy as they’ve been all season.
Of the eight players on the Panthers’ injury list, six are listed as probable for Sunday’s game at New Orleans in a matchup for sole possession of first place in the NFC South.
That group includes defensive end Charles Johnson (knee), running backs DeAngelo Williams (quadriceps) and Jonathan Stewart (ankle) and No. 2 tight end Ben Hartsock (knee) – all of whom are expected to play against the Saints.
Outside linebacker Chase Blackburn, who missed the last three games with a foot issue, also will be back in the starting lineup.
“I think that’s a great situation to be in, as we get into this stretch run and get everybody back healthy,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Friday. “Hopefully, we can continue on that way.”
Johnson, who leads the Panthers with 8.5 sacks, and Hartsock, one of the best blocking tight ends in the league, missed multiple games with knee sprains. Rivera indicated both probably could have played last week against Tampa Bay, but the team’s depth at tight end and defensive end allowed the Panthers to hold them out so they would be ready for the Saints.
In addition to Sunday’s game at the Superdome, the Panthers (9-3) and Saints (9-3) play again in Charlotte on Dec. 22.
“We’re excited that we got those guys back,” Rivera said. “I think the thing that it also showed is we have young guys that are in the wings that have played a lot for us, that have made plays for us as well.”
Rivera said Blackburn would reclaim his starting spot from A.J. Klein, a rookie who played well in Blackburn’s place. Rivera said Klein would still have a role on the defense.
“When Chase left because of the injury, Chase was playing really well, too. It’s not like we’re putting a guy in that hasn’t had success,” Rivera said. “Believe me, this was not an easy decision. It was weighed very heavily.”
Charitable Ron: Rivera has finally embraced his new nickname, even if it’s just for charity.
Rivera, who has stated several times he’s not of fan of the nickname “Riverboat Ron,” said Friday he and his wife, Stephanie, are looking at ways to use the name to give money to charity.
The Panthers coach works with three charities: the Ronald McDonald House, the Humane Society of Charlotte and the USO of North Carolina.
“We’re trying to figure it out and it’s out there and people have kind of jumped onto it so I figured what the heck,” Rivera said. “If it’s going to be out there then let’s see if we can do something in the community with it.
“We’ll figure something out. They’re all worthwhile causes and we really want to see if we can help out in the community.
Rivera got the name after he began trying to convert on fourth downs more often, and the name is in reference to a riverboat gambler.
This year Rivera is 9-for-11 on fourth-down conversions. He has said he’s more fond of “Calculated Risk-Taker Ron” or “Analytical Ron” instead of Riverboat Ron.
When asked if he had tried to trademark the name, Rivera said it wasn’t “a bad idea.” According to Charlotte Magazine’s public records request, Rivera’s attorney filed paperwork last month to trademark the name under the trademark owner Coach Rivera LLC.
Rivera on Kubiak: The cruel world of NFL coaching claimed its first victim this season on Friday afternoon when the Houston Texans fired head coach Gary Kubiak following the Texans’ 27-20 loss to Jacksonville on Thursday night.
Kubiak, who was in his eighth season with Houston, is the first coach to be fired during the season since Todd Haley was fired by the Chiefs with three games remaining in the 2011 season.
Rivera played against Kubiak when Kubiak was a backup quarterback for the Broncos and coached against him in 2011 when the Panthers beat the Texans 28-13 in Houston.
“It’s tough. I feel bad for Gary,” Rivera said. “Last year they did some really good things and got themselves into the playoffs and just kind of shows you how quick fortunes change. It’s unfortunate. Gary’s a very good football coach, he had some success there. It took them a while to build it but they got there. Sometimes some things are out of your control.”
Rivera added he had no doubt Kubiak would soon find work in the NFL.
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