‘Next’ really is the biggest game for Carolina Panthers now

jjones@charlotteobserver.comDecember 18, 2013 

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Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera has for weeks that that Sunday’s game is the team’s most important because it’s next on the schedule. This week, it’s really true. Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints is for control of the NFC South.

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By now, the Carolina Panthers’ mantra for how they prepare to face each opponent – “This game is the most important because it’s the next” – has become more of a broken record.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera and a number of his players repeat it at least once each week.

Whether the players or the fans believed it in previous weeks, it holds true this week. The rematch between the Panthers (10-4) and Saints (10-4) will go a long way toward deciding who wins the NFC South, gets a top-two seed, a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game.

“I really do believe they understand (the magnitude),” Rivera said. “One of the things I told them today, we’ve gone through it every week. In our situation and circumstances, with San Francisco the way they are, with Arizona the way they are, and with the situation with the Saints, every game has been important.

“Every one’s important, and that’s the way you have to approach it. They are important. We could have lost any of the games we’ve played and been in dire straits, and we haven’t. I really do think they understand.”

With a win, the Panthers clinch a playoff berth and are in the driver’s seat for the division title. A loss would mean Carolina would fall back into the wild-card mix with the 49ers and Cardinals before facing Atlanta in the season finale.

Linebacker Thomas Davis said he and his teammates understand the situation, and they aren’t bothering themselves with the various playoff scenarios.

“As it stands right now, we’re not in the playoffs,” he said. “As a team we understand that, and we know that we control our own destiny. That’s the good part about it. We’re not sitting back like some of these other teams waiting on somebody else to lose and waiting on this to happen.

“We know if we go out and take care of business as a team and we get done what we’re supposed to get done then none of that matters.”

Cam for MVP? Cam Newton has become a popular dark-horse candidate for the NFL’s MVP award, but the quarterback dismissed the notion quickly Wednesday.

“That’s the last thing that’s on my mind right now,” Newton said before switching the topic to how loud he hopes the stadium will be for Sunday’s game.

Most of Newton’s numbers are down from his first two seasons, but his accuracy and win-loss record have improved. Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, who votes on the award, has Newton as one of the players in his MVP race.

Newton has 3,049 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, an 89.6 passer rating, 507 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns.

With two weeks left in the season, popular opinion has Denver quarterback Peyton Manning winning the award for a record fifth time. Manning is on track to throw more touchdowns in a single season than any quarterback in history and could break Drew Brees’ single-season mark for most passing yards, needing 665 yards in the final two games.

Rivera didn’t discount that if Newton can have a big game against the Saints, it would go a long way toward his candidacy.

“I think in a game like this, any time you have success on a marquee game, you’re most certainly in the conversation,” Rivera said. “He’s done a lot of things that deserve recognition, that’s for sure. I think that he’s handled it very, very well. He’s doing a great job.”

Munnerlyn misses out: Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn missed out on NFC defensive player of the week honors despite his two sacks and interception return for a touchdown against the Jets last week.

But his efforts didn’t go unnoticed by the award’s recipient. Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman intercepted Eli Manning twice last week and had two pass breakups en route to his third player of the week honor.

In response to an Observer reporter’s tweet about Munnerlyn’s chances to win it, Sherman tweeted back: “I thought he would too he had (an) amazing game.”

“Coming from the type of player he is, he’s a Pro Bowl guy who’s been putting up some big numbers since he’s been in the league,” Munnerlyn said. “For him to say I had a pretty good game, to see that he really looked at it, really admired my stats and saw what I did.

“There’s always a next week. This week I can go out there and try to put up another great performance like I did.”

Davis pounding: A week after being named the Panthers’ Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee for a second straight year, Davis will bang the “Keep Pounding” drum before the start of Sunday’s game.

Davis will become the first active player to have the honor, which he said was given to him by his teammates.

“It’s a huge honor to be the first active player selected to do it, it definitely means a lot to me and my family,” Davis said. “We’re excited about it.”

Davis was nominated for the man of the year award, which is named after Rivera’s former Bears teammate. Davis has put together one of the best seasons of his career with 128 tackles and a career-high four sacks on the NFL’s No. 2 ranked defense.

His work in the community with the Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation was a big part in him being selected as one of the 32 nominees around the league.

“No one takes his position of influence more seriously than Thomas on the field or in the community,” Panthers founder Jerry Richardson said in a statement. “He is a leader who is unselfish with his time and energy to help those around him.”

Injury update: Wide receiver Steve Smith jammed his finger with four reps remaining in practice Wednesday.

Smith had fully participated in practice up to that point. Rivera had not met with head trainer Ryan Vermillion before he addressed the media Wednesday.

Rivera essentially ruled out running back Jonathan Stewart for Sunday’s game and said the team will re-evaluate next week. Stewart missed the Jets game with a partial MCL tear. Rivera reiterated he’s hopeful Stewart can return against Atlanta.

Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton got their usual Wednesday off, and tight end Greg Olsen (foot) did not practice.

Pro Bowl voting: With voting nearing an end, nine Panthers are among the top 10 in their positions.

Mike Tolbert continues to lead all fullbacks and has a nearly 100,000-vote advantage over second place. The other Panthers in the top 10 are: center Ryan Kalil (third), middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (third), free safety Mike Mitchell (fourth), special teamer Jordan Senn (seventh), punt returner Ted Ginn Jr. (eighth), Newton (ninth), defensive end Charles Johnson (ninth) and tight end Olsen (10th).

Fan voting ends Dec. 26. Fans can vote at nfl.com/probowl/ballot.

Staff writer Joseph Person contributed.

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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