Neither the Panthers nor Chargers are any good but they’ll play football on Sunday and plenty of North Carolinians will watch with interest. Many will want to see the Panthers try and come back from a gut-wrenching pair of losses on the team’s West Coast road trip, including a humiliating effort against the Seahawks last Sunday night that was highlighted by a single-series suspension for Cam Newton.But folks around the state will also be watching for the return of Philip Rivers. The former NC State standout quarterback is returning to play his first professional game in the state of North Carolina since being drafted by the Giants and traded to the Chargers in 2004. That year San Diego did travel east to play Carolina, but Drew Brees was still holding the keys to the car.It’s not a homecoming technically, because Rivers is from Alabama, but you can bet he’ll have plenty of friends and family attending the game.Unfortunately for both teams, the game doesn’t matter in the long run. Both teams will miss the playoffs the Panthers are a four-win team in the NFC South basement and the Chargers are the ultimate “woulda coulda shoulda” squad, gagging away multiple games by one score.Whoever wins ends up losing when it comes to their draft pick.Keys to the gameResidual reaction to Tie-gate continued through Wednesday, when Newton usually speaks to the media. He did not, thereby avoiding questions about his being benched for the first play against the Seattle Seahawks. Coach Ron Rivera sat the 2015 NFL MVP for not wearing a tie, per pre-game dress code. Backup QB Derek Anderson’s game-opening pass bounced off fullback Mike Tolbert and was intercepted. The Seahawks won, 40-7. Rivera pleaded Wednesday to “move forward and start focusing on the Chargers.”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, the usually reliable 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, but starting linebacker Luke Kuechly is due to return from concussion protocol.Matchups to watchâ¢ Chargers TE Antonio Gates vs. Panthers LB Luke Kuechly. Kuechly is due to return from a concussion after a two-game absence. Gates, in his 14th season, is still going strong, although maybe not as fast. The Panthers have been gashed by opposing TEs with or without Kuechly and Gates is a dangerous target for QB Philip Rivers.â¢ 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.Player spotlightPanthers 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.Fast FactRivers 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. … 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. … 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). Reuters and the Sports XChange contributed to this report.
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