Rejuvenated Panthers focus on stretch run

Three veteran players stepping up in final weeks of season

Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart, who had a career-best three touchdowns in Sunday’s win over Minnesota, will be a key part of Carolina’s playoff push. (Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports)

The Carolina Panthers usually get a day off following a game, but not this week.

After beating the top-seeded Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, to move into a tie for first place in the NFC South, coach Ron Rivera decided to scrap the down time.

“Because of the focus,” he explained. “I think there are a lot of important things ahead of us, and I don’t want to let up on the opportunity to keep going forward.”

The Panthers playoff hopes, looking dismal following the loss at New Orleans two weeks ago, now seem to have improved. Instead of making up two games on the Saints in four weeks, the Panthers now need to just pull ahead in the final three weeks to take the division, a task that seems much more manageable, especially considering the team has two home games over that span.

“We have the opportunity to play into January,” Rivera said, “and who knows what happens after that. It starts with staying focused.”

The team seems to be coming together for the stretch run. The loss in New Orleans has been the only blemish as the team has won six of its last seven. The win over then 10-2 Minnesota was particularly impressive. The Panthers built an early lead on the Vikings, then responded when Minnesota managed to tie the score late.

The Panthers have elevated their play, in part because the team is getting several veterans back just in time.

Ryan Kalil: The five-time Pro Bowl center suffered a neck injury early this season, which had kept him out of 10 of the team’s first 12 games. He returned against the Vikings and went the distance. His presence lifted the performance level of the entire offense.

“There was probably some confidence that the guys feel, lining up next to Ryan Kalil,” Rivera said. “The guy’s been a tremendous All-Pro player. Just his presence sometimes is more than enough. It instills confidence in his teammates and in the quarterback, certainly.”

After reviewing the game film, Rivera decided that the team didn’t just benefit from Kalil’s presence. The veteran center can still play a little bit.

“It was huge to have him out there for the big game. You could see his confidence build as things progress,” Rivera said. “He was a little tentative at first, just trying to make sure it was there. Then, all of a sudden, bam! You could see it one series after another that he’s out there — the confidence, snapping the ball, getting his hand placement where it needs to be, driving with his legs, communicating with his teammates. The longer he was on the field, he got better and stronger. Just like our running back — the longer he runs, the better he runs, the stronger he is at the end of the game.”

Which brings us to the next resurrected veteran.

Jonathan Stewart: Unlike Kalil, the veteran running back didn’t suffer an injury. He just struggled with production early in the season. He seemed to struggle sharing carries with rookie Christian McCaffrey early in the season, before the two players found their own niche. Against Philadelphia, he rushed just eight times for negative four yards. Against Atlanta, he lost two fumbles early in the game.

Stewart has found his legs of late, rushing for more than 100 yards twice in the last four games. Against Minnesota, he broke off a 60-yard touchdown run and scored three times in a game for the first time in his career.

“He’s given us his all for the entire year,” Rivera said. “This is just part of us coming together as a team, part of us understanding who we are.”

Just as Stewart seems to get stronger as the game goes on, he’s peaking as the season nears an end.

Greg Olsen: The All-Pro tight end has returned from a broken foot that landed him on injured reserve. There was a scary moment in the Minnesota game, when he rolled the ankle and had to limp off the field, but Olsen returned to the game.

Olsen didn’t have a catch and was only targeted once in the game, but Rivera blamed that on quarterback Cam Newton looking elsewhere.

“He was out there,” Rivera said. “He was getting open. I think it’s just a matter of the quarterback finding him.”

In other words, the Panthers may not be done getting a boost from a returning vet. That fits in perfectly with Rivera’s approach to the stretch run.

“We can’t count on anybody else helping us,” he said. “We have to do it ourselves.”