CHARLOTTE — The Carolina Panthers might think they have a friend in the league office, given the road schedule they were handed this year.
The Panthers will travel to Pittsburgh on Thursday night for a nationally televised game against the Steelers. It’s their fourth road game of the year, all of them short, manageable trips.
“We know this,” coach Ron Rivera said. “The furthest west we go is Louisiana. We feel good about that.”
That trip west, on the final weekend of the season, will be the only time Carolina leaves the Eastern time zone.
With that in mind, it’s difficult to work up too much concern over the team’s upcoming schedule, but the Panthers are embarking on a tough stretch. The team will play four of its next five on the road, traveling to Detroit, Tampa and Cleveland after this week’s trip to Pittsburgh.
“We don’t want to get too far ahead,” Rivera said of the extended travel in the team’s future. “But we know it’s coming. The big thing is to try to get off on a good start.”
That comes Thursday night, in one of the NFL’s infamous short-week games. Even then, the team had a break in scheduling to help make that task easier.
“This being a short trip, we feel positive,” Rivera said. “Plus, we played at home (on Sunday). In years past, we’ve had to play in Los Angeles, then play Thursday night. The benefit of playing at home — it’s definitely easier on coaches. I had the opportunity to watch some of the tape (Sunday) night and finish it up (Monday) morning.”
The Panthers actually played in L.A. the week before their Sunday-Thursday turnaround a few years ago, not four days before the Thursday game, but Rivera’s memory lapse helps demonstrate just how compressed the schedule gets when a Thursday game is involved.
“You have to understand that things are going to happen quick this week,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “Monday’s already over, then Tuesday and we leave Wednesday versus a normal week where Wednesday is the first day you really kind of dive into things with the team. It’s more accelerated.”
With a veteran team, there’s a concern about the wear and tear of playing two games so close together. Safety Eric Reid injured his shoulder in Sunday’s game against Tampa, and it’s uncertain if he’ll be able to go on Thursday. But even the older players who didn’t suffer an outright injury will still be feeling the aches and pains.
“You have to go ask one of those young cats about feeling fresh on a short week,” 35-year-old linebacker Thomas Davis said. “For me, it takes a little bit of time. But I think we did a good job of not having a lot of contact (Sunday) when you look at the passing game and the way Tampa approached it and the way our offense approached it. I think we made it out pretty healthy overall. At the end of the day, I feel like we’re in pretty good shape to be able to play on Thursday.”
Other players are more concerned with the impact on their minds than on their bodies.
“Obviously, you’ve got to make sure you’re feeling well physically,” Kuechly said, “but mentally, it’s such a short week, you’ve got to get that little extra in when you can. … You have to make sure, mentally, we’re all on the same page.”
“Mental more than anything,” quarterback Cam Newton agreed. “I just know, for us, we’ve got so many young guys on this team that are like sponges. For the old guys and vets, we have to be able to roll over. I remember playing last year and that was one of the most challenging games, because your body doesn’t have time to recover. Usually you’re (getting) over the hump on Thursday or Friday to get prepared for Sunday’s game. For us, we know that moving forward we just have to stay on top of those things to make sure we’re putting the best product on the field.”
The temptation is there, with so few hours between games, to follow the football cliché and “worry about ourselves, not our opponent,” but the scouting and film work still needs to be done.
“You’ve got to take a look at the opponent,” Kuechly said. “You still have to have a good understanding of what they do, what they’re good at, what their personnel is like. You just make sure you get as much as you can in, and make sure that when game time rolls around, you’ll be ready to rock.”